The Lighthouse Board originally designated Point Lobos, on the south side of the entrance to the Golden Gate, as the location for a lighthouse, but local mariners fought the idea, arguing that Point Bonita on the north side could be approached within 150 yards and would provide a safer entrance in rough weather.
Congress allocated $25,000 for Point Bonita Lighthouse on March 3, 1853, and the Lighthouse Board again showed its ignorance of the Golden Gate when it selected the highest hill at Point Bonita as the lighthouse site. California fog is characteristically a high fog, leaving lower elevations clear. Hofras and Cowing built the original lighthouse, a fifty-six-foot, conical brick tower, situated 260 feet above the sea. A one-and-a-half-story brick and stone cottage was built near the tower, and Edward Colston, the first head keeper, lit the lamp inside the lighthouse’s second-order Fresnel lens for the first time on May 2, 1855. Even though it was included in the West Coast’s second batch of eight lighthouses, Point Bonita Lighthouse was just the fourth lighthouse to be activated, following those at Alcatraz, Point Pinos, and Fort Point.
Quite often, the lighthouse was shrouded in fog, rendering it useless to seamen. To provide some sort of navigational aid in these conditions, an eight-foot-long cannon was acquired, and Edward Maloney, a retired army sergeant, was hired to fire it once every half-hour in times of fog starting on August 8, 1855. Just a few months later, Maloney sent the following complaint to the secretary of the Lighthouse Board. “I cannot go to town. I cannot find any person here to relieve me not 5 minutes. I have been up 3 days and nights had only 2 hours rest. I asked Mr. Colston to relieve me for a little time, told me he could not. I was nearly used up. All the rest I would require in the 24 hours is 2 if I only could get it.”
An assistant was soon hired to provide some relief for Sergeant Maloney, but all the effort to fire the cannon was in vain, as mariners reported it was inaudible from the water. Fed up, Maloney soon resigned, and by August 1856, the cannon, the west coast’s first fog signal, was replaced by a mechanically struck bell installed near the lighthouse.
By the 1870s, it was clear that the fog signal and lighthouse should be relocated to the southwestern tip of Point Bonita, where they would be at a lower elevation and better able to serve mariners. A narrow path was carved into the rocky point and a landing platform, with a boom for unloading supplies, was built in Bonita Cove. A railway with a forty-five-degree incline connected the platform to the path, and a steam-powered winch was employed to pull small cars filled with supplies and construction materials up the track. One section of the rocky face proved impenetrable, and a wooden walkway had to be constructed to skirt this portion of the cliff.
A steam fog siren commenced operation at the new site in May 1872, but two years later, it was undermined by a landslide, and the point was cut down twenty-five feet to provide a more secure site for the fog signal. The siren was deactivated on October 1, 1874, and it resumed operation in its new home on January 1, 1875. To help with the extra workload brought on by the steam fog signal, a second and third assistant keeper were added to the station in the early 1870s.
The new lighthouse went into operation on February 1, 1877. Everything from the lower balcony up is from the original 1855 tower, including the Fresnel lens and eagle-shaped rainspouts. At 124 feet above sea level, the new tower was 180 feet lower than its predecessor.
John Briercliff Brown was serving as head keeper when the new lighthouse was built and placed in operation. Brown was appointed second assistant keeper at Point Bonita in 1872, was promoted to head keeper in 1874, and retired from the station in 1901, nearly thirty years later. During his time at the lighthouse, Brown and his assistants were credited with saving over forty lives. Nine men were saved by Brown and his fellow keepers in October 1874, when the 139-ton tugboat Rescue ran onto the rocks, and several more were rescued in 1895 from the wrecked schooner Samson. To show their appreciation for his service, a number of ship owners and merchants gathered in the office of the Collectors of Customs in San Francisco in 1896 and presented Brown a gold-headed cane.
There have been four light signatures at Point Bonita. The first light shone steady, but later a mechanical eclipser was installed to produce an occulting light with a signature of twenty-five seconds on, five seconds off. Currently, the light’s signature is three seconds on, one second off.
On the day after Christmas in 1896, Keeper George D. Cobb was on duty amid rain squalls and a gale wind, when he saw a sailboat capsize off the point, sending its three occupants into turbulent water. Cobb reacted immediately and soon had successfully launched the station’s rowboat. Upon reaching the sailboat, he found two unconscious men in the water and managed to pull them aboard his vessel. The third victim, cut and bleeding profusely, was soon found amongst some nearby rocks, and Cobb succeeded in pulling him aboard as well. All three of the sailors survived the incident, and Keeper Cobb was awarded the Life-Saving Service’s silver medal for his heroic rescue. This accident further punctuated the need for a life-saving station on the northern side of the Golden Gate, and such a station was established on Point Bonita in 1899.
In 1903, yet another fog signal building was built on Point Bonita just below and to the west of the lighthouse, where the sirens would be more effective in covering the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Two assistant keepers were sharing the station’s original 1856 dwelling when the powerful earthquake that struck San Francisco in April 1906 rendered the structure uninhabitable. The following description of the quake was entered in the station’s logbook: “Terrible earthquake occurred at 5:13 a.m. doing considerable damage to the assts. quarters, shaking the gable ends out, and cracking it so badly that it was with difficulty that the families were taken out without injury to their person. The chimneys were shaken to pieces. The keepers quarters was given a terrible shaking…The doors were all jammed so the keeper had to take his family out the kitchen window.” Peter S. Admiral, the third assistant keeper, and the family of First Assistant Keeper Hermann Engel escaped the crumbling building without injury, but some of the station occupants had to live in the old fog signal building until a new double dwelling was finished in 1908.
On December 11, 1931, the fog signal, which along with the light had been electrified five years earlier, was placed in operation for two-and-a-half hours. This wouldn’t have been noteworthy if it had been on account of fog, but it was due to a heavy fall of snow! The Lighthouse Service Bulletin noted that this was believed to be the first time that snowfall in the bay area had required the sounding of fog signals. As a further aid to mariners in limited visibility, a radiobeacon was placed on Point Bonita in 1938.
Point Bonita Lighthouse could be accessed by foot until 1940, when erosion cut a gap in the trail near the lighthouse. A breeches buoy was temporarily set up to permit access to the lighthouse until a wooden causeway was built. In 1954, a suspension bridge, which appropriately mirrored the style of the Golden Gate Bridge, was built over the chasm. After a Federal Highway Administration report concluded that the rusting bridge posed a danger to the visiting public, it was closed in 2010. Work on a new suspension bridge of a similar design began in September 2011, and the new bridge allowed public access to the lighthouse to resume in April 2012. The price tag for the work, which was built by Flatiron West of Benicia, was around $1 million.
The original lighthouse, minus its lantern room, had been left standing atop Point Bonita as a daymark. It managed to survive the earthquake, but in 1907 the War Department demanded its removal, claiming it interfered with their purposes on the point.
On December 31, 1979, Point Bonita witnessed an unusual shipwreck. The tugboat Sentinel was pulling two barges through the Golden Gate: the Kona, carrying lumber, beer, and paper, and the Agattu, carrying deadly chlorine gas and a potentially explosive fertilizer component.
The tugboat hit unbelievable swells of nearly forty feet, and the towlines snapped setting both barges adrift near perilous rocks. If the Agattu lost its cargo, the ensuing vapor cloud would force the evacuation of the 700,000 residents of San Francisco. The Kona hit the rocks sending logs and beer into the water, but miraculously, the Agattu landed further north in softer water. The chlorine canisters were safely airlifted from the Agattu, but Kona’s beer was completely unsalvageable.
Point Bonita was the last manned lighthouse on the California coast. Mark Van Buskirk, the last head keeper who by that time was living in Coast Guard housing constructed at the former life-saving station, left in April 1981. “People see the lighthouse, and the waves breaking around the rocks and the sunset, and they think, ‘I wish I was stationed out there.’ Then they get stationed out there, and it’s a different story,” Van Buskirk said. “There’s not a whole lot to do,” added Guy Sheets, a fellow coastguardsman. “We maintain the grounds, make sure the grass is mowed. And watch the fog. This is a station where you have to find work to do.”
Point Bonita Lighthouse is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is run by the National Park Service. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the light and fog signal.