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.

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