Monday, November 14, 2016

California's Pigeon Point And Point Montara Lighthouses--Picturesque Places With Plenty To See And Do

From St. George Reef to Point Loma, California's 840 mile coast has been lighted by 33 lighthouses. I have visited four thus far, all near the multifaceted and diverse city of San Francisco. Often located on perilous points shrouded in fog, the only access to some of these historical wonders was either walking through a dark tunnel cut into a tall cliff, traversing a suspended bridge high above crashing surf or descending steep, narrow stairs hewed out of a jagged rock face. This was true for the lighthouses located at Point Reyes and Point Bonita. For Pigeon Point and Point Montara, it was just a matter of pulling off coastal Highway 1 and walking to the lighthouses.

It was January 28, 1853. The 175-foot clipper ship, with a gilded pigeon as its figurehead, just left the port of Boston. On its maiden voyage, the Carrier Pigeon's crew and cargo were bound for San Francisco. On the morning of June 6th, the vessel was spotted off Santa Cruz. As the day progressed, the ship became shrouded in a thick blanket of fog near the Point of the Whales. The captain, thinking he was a safe distance from land, steered his vessel shoreward, but before land was spotted, it struck rocks and began to sink. After the captain and crew made it safely to shore, efforts to salvage a good portion of its 1,300 tons of cargo was carried out, but the ship valued at $54,000, still stranded on the rocks, was a total loss. Since the time of the wreck, Point of the Whales was renamed Pigeon Point.

Three more ships were lost near Pigeon Point in the 1860's. Now considered the most fatal location on the Pacific coast to navigators, the editor of the San Mateo County Gazette wrote the following in 1868, "It behooves those most interested in maritime affairs on the coast as well as in the East to bring their influence to bear immediately upon the government officials, and never relax their efforts until a light-house is erected at Pigeon Point."

With a 35-foot cliff, Pigeon Point was an ideal spot to build a lighthouse. The fog signal and Victorian fourplex were completed first, and the twelve-inch steam whistle, with four-second blasts separated alternately by seven and forty-five seconds, was fired up for the first time on September 10, 1871. The 115-foot tower with a flash pattern of light every 10 seconds was exhibited for the first time on November 15, 1872.

Today, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the second tallest on the West Coast and has a first-order Fresnel lens light visible for more than 20 miles. It is closed to the public and currently being renovated. The Coast Guard Family Quarters on sight, built in the 1960's, is used for a hostel.

Nearly 90 vessels had collided into the jagged rocks off Point Montara by the mid-1800s, but two of Point Montara's most notable shipwrecks occurred on November 9, 1868 and October 17, 1872 with the grounding of the Colorado, a large Pacific Mail steamship carrying hundreds of passengers and the U.S. mail, and the British sailing ship, Aculeo, colliding into its hidden rocks after being lost for more than three days in blinding fog. With these two incidents, Congress was forced into action.

Point Montara was originally established in 1875 as a fog signal station, which was updated in 1902 with a new fog signal building. The first light was established in 1900 and consisted of a red lens-lantern hung on a post. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1912 on a skeleton tower. The light was electrified in 1919. Finally, in 1928, the current 30-foot cast-iron tower was installed to house the Fresnel lens.

While the two shipwrecks are striking events related to the Point Montara Lighthouse, its claim to fame was uncovered in 2008. It was discovered that the current Point Montara lighthouse had another life. It was built in 1881 and erected on Wellfleet Harbor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where it stood until the light station was decommissioned in 1922. From Cape Cod, the lighthouse made a 3,000-mile journey to Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, where it waited in a depot until finally being installed at Point Montara in 1928. It is currently the only known lighthouse to have stood watch on two oceans.

Today, Point Montara Lighthouse is also a hostel. The views of the coastline and ocean are stunning. Ice plants bearing yellow blooms cover the cliffs. An old bridge with a waterfall below it empties onto a beautiful secluded beach.

Not far from Point Montara Lighthouse is the quaint little city of Half Moon Bay. Known as the World Pumpkin Capital, producing 3,000 tons of the orange gourd, every fall people from all over California and places beyond descend on this old city for its Pumpkin Festival. Its Main Street is a pleasant walk featuring old shops and old hotels. Painted on the side of one of its old buildings is a depiction of another famous event that takes place nearby at Pillar Point, the Mavericks Invitational Surf Contest. The world's best surfers come here in the winter to pit their skills against waves that can rise over 50 feet high known as the Mavericks. It is said, when the waves break, the resulting sound is thunderous.

Other points of interest are Half Moon Bay State Beach, Montara Mountain, Pillar Point Harbor, Devil's Slide, and the Ritz-Carlton, the oceanside hotel where American Wedding was filmed. For a complete list, go to Half Moon Bay.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

California's Point Bonita And Point Reyes Lighthouses--Both Stir The Imagination And Their Unmatched Scenery Stoke Your Inspiration

The vast Pacific Ocean is Earth's largest body of water. Its unrelenting waves are raw, powerful, and explosive. From north to south, they roll onto the shores of the longest stretch of state coastline in the United States. Framed by sheer cliffs, jagged rocks, and wind swept beaches, the intimidating California coast is both awe-inspiring and often deadly.

On recent visits to the Golden State, I have traveled its winding 656 mile Highway 1 from the Big Sur to Point Reyes hiking trails draped by ice plants to cliff-bound sandy beaches where I scaled water-soaked jagged rocks to engulf myself in the coast's natural mystique and document it with the most descriptive photographs, all the time weary of the possibility of being swept away by the Pacific's illusive sneaker wave. A vantage point that was also perfect for viewing the man-made structures built upon these picturesque sea cliffs for the distinct purpose of warning mariners of the hidden dangers characteristic to the California coast, the State's legendary lighthouses.

From St. George Reef to Point Loma, California's 840 mile coast has been lighted by 33 lighthouses. I have visited four thus far, all near the multifaceted and diverse city of San Francisco. Often located on perilous points shrouded in fog, the only access to some of these historical wonders was either walking through a dark tunnel cut into a tall cliff, traversing a suspended bridge high above crashing surf or descending steep, narrow stairs cemented into a jagged rock face. This was true for the lighthouses located at Point Reyes and Point Bonita. For Pigeon Point and Point Montara, it was just a matter of pulling off Highway 1 and walking to the lighthouses.

Both north of San Francisco Bay, Point Bonita and Point Reyes lighthouses are very similar in both design and placement, but each have features and a history unique to itself. Both lighthouses stir your imagination and their unmatched scenery stoke your inspiration.

The Golden Gate's rebellious currents, dangerous shoals, and persistent clinging fog had impeded the journey of many a vessel. 300 boats ran aground near the Golden Gate during the gold rush years. In the 1850's, mariners cried for a light to mark the entrance to the Golden Gate and the 300-foot Point Bonita was selected for a lighthouse site. A fifty-six-foot, conical brick tower with a second-order Fresnel lens went into operation on May 2, 1855. A one-and-a-half-story brick and stone cottage was built near the tower for the keeper of the light. When the light was cloaked in fog, an eight-foot long cannon was fired as a fog signal. In 1874, the first steam siren was installed.

Locating the lighthouse on top of the 300-foot Point Bonita proved to be a mistake. California fog is characteristically high, leaving lower areas clear. A site on the tip of Point Bonita 180-feet lower was selected for the new lighthouse. To reach the site, tunneling through a rock-cliff was required. The 118-foot hand-hewed tunnel and trail proved to be challenging due to the unstable rock. A new 3-room brick structure was built to support the upper half of the original lighthouse that was moved to the new site in 1877, including the Fresnel lens. The new lighthouse went into operation on February 1, 1877.

In time, part of the trail eroded and collapsed into the surf 124-feet below. A wooden causeway was built. Later, it was replaced by a suspension bridge, which appropriately mirrored the style of the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, in 2010, the lighthouse was closed to the public due to the rusting and unsafe condition of the bridge. It too was replaced and the lighthouse reopened in 2011.

Point Bonita is part of the Marin Headlands. From the parking area, it is a 0.5 mile walk on a trail with a stirring coastal view surrounded by grey rock cliffs. It is open for tours Saturday to Monday from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.

Looking down from the top of Lookout Point northward, the panoramic view on a fog-free day is breathtaking. Stretching for 11 miles are the brown sands and green-capped cliffs of South Beach and North Beach. Looking seaward, the vast ocean waters are a soulful deep blue and its waves thunderous.

The Point Reyes Headlands jut 10 miles out to sea making it a threat to each ship entering or leaving San Francisco Bay. Before the construction of the Point Reyes Lighthouse in 1870, over three-quarters of a million dollars in ships and cargoes were lost on the rocks. To date, the Point has taken more than fifty ships and the lives of numerous sailors and passengers. Rising 600-feet above the tumultuous surf of the Pacific Ocean, Point Reyes' jagged cliffs were the ideal location for a lighthouse, despite being the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Like Point Bonita, due to the characteristically high fog, an area 300-feet below the top of the cliff was blasted with dynamite to clear a level spot for its construction.

The lens and mechanism for the lighthouse were constructed in France in 1867. The clockwork mechanism, glass prisms and housing for the lighthouse were shipped on a steamer around Cape Horn of South America to San Francisco. The parts from France and the parts for the cast iron tower were transferred to a second ship, which then sailed to a landing on Drakes Bay. The parts were loaded onto ox-drawn carts and hauled three miles over the headlands to near the 600-foot high tip of Point Reyes where they were lowered to the leveled area. It took six months for the lighthouse and fog signal building to be completed. The Point Reyes Light first shone on December 1, 1870.

On April 18, 1906 the famous earthquake of San Francisco occurred, during which the Point Reyes Peninsula and the lighthouse moved 18 feet in less than one minute to the north. The lighthouse did not suffer any significant damage and was off-line only thirteen minutes. A testimony to the dedication and commitment of its hearty lighthouse keepers.

Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast. The highest wind speed recorded at Point Reyes was 133 mph, and 60 mph winds are common. At the end of each shift, the keeper trudged back up the long wooden staircase 300-feet to the keeper's quarters. Sometimes the winds were so strong that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to keep from being knocked down. The hard work, wind, fog, and isolation at Point Reyes made this an undesirable post. The lighthouse keeper at Point Reyes once wrote: "Better to dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place."

The lighthouse was retired from service in 1975. It is now owned by the National Park Service and part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. It is open to the public on Friday through Monday. Tuesday to Thursday it can only be viewed from an observation deck. To reach the lighthouse, you will need to drive to the lighthouse parking lot, walk a scenic short 0.4 mile trail to the Visitor Center and then descend 308 stairs--map of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Visiting and photographing lighthouses has been a passion of mine. They conjure up a now extinct era when man dared to peer into the unknown with the hope of making peace with the natural order of the sea equipped with nothing more than his wits and raw fortitude. Sometimes he succeeded and sometimes he did not. The lighthouse remains a symbol of that era. Visiting the lighthouses close to San Francisco was fascinating and enriching. I will follow up this article with the lighthouses at Pigeon Point and Point Montara.