Anchored on hostile landfalls and lonely islands, the lighthouses of the West Coast have withstood the fury of storms and the hardships of isolation. But recent years have exposed them to new dangers--destruction as they slip into obsolescence, or drastic alteration as automated equipment attempts to modernize them.
Several lovely and historic lighthouses were destroyed before the loss could be felt. "It hurts deep to know they're gone,' comments Wayne Piland, 84, a West Coast lightkeeper for 27 years.
But there's good news, too. Many of these shoreline landmarks have been or are being restored, thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard and the efforts of concerned citizens. Some have been given new purposes and opened to the public--as museums, hostels, even a bed-and-breakfast inn. A few are part of state or national parks and offer interpretive programs.
Our list on pages 82 and 83 covers 27 lighthouses you can visit in California, Oregon, and Washington. We also note volunteer groups that played key roles in saving these structures and how you can become involved if you'd like.
February days on the coast can vary dramatically, from brisk and bright to bitter and storm-lashed. Dress warmly and prepare for rain. But you needn't plan far ahead for a quick lighthouse jaunt--just head out when the skies clear.
Many of the beacons are on coastal promontories of stunning scenic beauty; others are in or near parks or wildlife refuges. So your visit may also include beachcombing and driftwood collecting (check area regulations), tidepooling, camping, and wildlife-watching (especially migrating gray whales).
The Fresnel lens: shining eye of the lighthouse
America's first lighthouses used a system of silvered reflectors to intensify the main light source, a whale-oil lamp. But by the 1850s, when the West Coast lights were designed, the government authorized use of technology brand-new in the U.S.: the glorious, multiprism lens invented by Frenchman Augustin Fresnel (pronounce it Fray-nell) in 1822.
It was a marvel--a complex array of dazzling glass prisms and bull's-eyes mounted in a brass framework. Each lens cost up to $12,000 at the time, then had to be shipped from France.
The Fresnel lens was five times more powerful than the reflector system then in use. But for maximum visibility, the light had to be placed high enough to compensate for the curvature of the earth; set at 100-foot height, a light could be seen 18 miles out at sea.
Lenses were ranked in six orders. The weakest, ranked sixth, was used to light lakes, estuaries, and harbors; the largest, first-order lenses were used on fogbound coasts. A first-order lens held up to more than a thousand glass prisms, stood up to 10 to 12 feet tall, and measured 6 feet in girth; it could weigh 3 tons. Many lighthouses (including 17 on our list) still have their original Fresnel lenses, though some are inactive, with modern electric lights casting the beam.
Light source for the early lens was a lamp using up to five concentric wicks and fueled, initially, by sperm oil or lard, then kerosene, and later electricity. The Fresnel prisms could focus the rays of such a lamp into a beam of 80,000 candlepower. By the 1930s, most of the lenses used electric bulbs as a light source, which brought beam intensity up as high as 4.5 million candlepower.
Some beacons employ a fixed or stationary lens projecting a steady beam of light. Others have a set flash-and-eclipse pattern, called the light characteristic; the interval of its repetition is called its period. When you visit a lighthouse, you can read its pattern by timing the flash and eclipse, regularly repeated at 5- to 15-second intervals. Each light has a unique characteristic, like a signature, and mariners distinguish one beacon from another by checking its pattern on a chart called a light list.
To create a flash, the entire Fresnel lens was placed on wheels or ball bearings in a track or--at some stations--floated in a bed of mercury. This way, even a 6,000-pound lens could be turned with the push of a finger. A clockwork drive, powered by a weight wound by hand, rotated the lens. In one-man stations, the clockwork was often set so that the keeper had to rewind it every 4 hours--requiring a trip to the light several times a night.
In dense fog, a light even stronger than the most powerful made would scarcely be seen a half-mile away. So in locations susceptible to heavy fog, audible signals were vital. Cannons and huge bells were the most popular in the early days. But steam whistles soon gained prominence; later, compressed-air horns driven by diesel or electric motors were used. Their bass voices and mournful tones each have characteristic patterns of sound and pitch, also identified on the light list. On San Francisco Bay alone, 89 different horns, whistles, sirens, and bells sound out in foggy weather.
LAMP and the end of an era
The manned lighthouse is an endangered species. Tight budgets, modern shipboard electronics, and the necessity of using cost-effective automation technology inevitably threaten its demise. In 1968, the Coast Guard introduced its Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Project (LAMP), which stepped up the pace of conversion.
Of 450 lighthouses operating in the U.S., only 34 are still manned. Of those 34, not one is in the West (our last two--Alki Point and West Point, in Washington-- were automated last year). Of some 58 West Coast lighthouses that were manned and open to public visitation in the early '60s, only the 27 we list are open today.
Automation has meant redeployment of Coast Guard personnel--leaving some structures vulnerable to vandals as well as to the ravages of wind and weather. Many stations deemed no longer necessary have been released to be altered and sold or, for safety reasons, demolished--among them, some architectural treasures.
The more drastically changed former lighthouses include several of the most-storied sentinels in America. While not demolished, castle-shaped St. George's Reef, off Crescent City, has been abandoned and left to the elements; Oregon's famous Tillamook Rock light, site of tragic shipwrecks and dramatic rescues, has been gutted and converted to a columbarium, holder of ashes of the dead. And at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the spirelike Mile Rock light (shown above), decapitated, now supports a helicopter pad for maintenance crews.
The Pacific light chain: built against all odds
The ease with which some lighthouses have been demolished contrasts sharply with the difficulty with which they were created. Demanded by a shipping industry booming with gold rush trade, the Western light chain began to go up in 1852, with eight Cape Cod-style structures set along the coast from San Diego to the Columbia River. First to be lighted, in 1854, was Alcatraz Island, where a lighthouse of more recent vintage stands today (off limits to visitors).
Almost every lighthouse is white, painted to stand out against its background and serve as a daytime landmark. But differences in topography and climate along the West Coast required a variety of construction methods and materials.
The first light stations were low masonry structures, sturdy but built very simply because of the difficulty getting work crews and materials to sites with no roads or nearby building supplies. Later lights were both more graceful--slender woodframe structures--and more ambitious-- conical brick towers framed in iron. Wave-swept rocks such as St. George Reef required sterner stuff: 2 1/2-ton granite blocks.
An 1874 Lighthouse Service report summed up the differences in building West Coast beacons: "On the Atlantic Coast, it is difficult to raise the towers high enough so as to let the lights be seen at great distance. On our Pacific Coast, the difficulty is to get them low enough (to prevent high fog from obscuring them) . . . our Pacific coast is far more foggy than the Atlantic side.'
Since many of the 19th-century decisionmakers were relatively unfamiliar with West Coast weather and topography, many lighthouses were improperly placed and had to be relocated or abandoned.
In Southern California, the first Point Loma light was too high and was obscured by fog much of the year; a second station was built lower on the point. In Oregon, builders of Cape Meares hacked a road through dense forest, slogged heavy materials over the muddy track, and erected the tower on the wrong point; but the lighthouse stayed, even after the mistake was discovered.
St. George Reef Lighthouse, constructed on a rock near Crescent City, became a test of endurance, engineering, and financing. It took 11 years, 1,339 granite blocks for the foundation caisson, uncounted blocks in the house itself, and $704,000; by the time of its completion in 1891, it was the most expensive lighthouse construction job in the world.
A day in the life of a "wickie'
Before the Coast Guard took over lighthouse administration in 1939, lighthouses were run by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Most stations had a keeper and one to five assistants; stations with a fog signal had more assistants. In the 1870s, a keeper could earn $1,000 a year and was expected to keep a garden and small livestock, and to collect his own drinking water from a cistern.
The men (and later, women) who kept those lights were a rare breed. As you climb the spiral stairs of a lighthouse on a visit, think of the countless trips up the tower they made each day: cleaning the lens and lantern-room windows; winding the clockworks; refueling lamps and trimming the wicks (hence the nickname, "wickie'); and performing maintenance and repair tasks. Just listing the keeper's duties took 152 pages in an 1800s manual.
"It was great work, a one-man station, just the wife and kids and me, and no noisy foghorn,' says the last keeper at Battery Point in Crescent City. After one of the biggest storms of 1950, he wrote: "The harbor was devastated, breakers 85 feet high smashed windows in the lantern room, but the lighthouse held.'
It could also be a lonely life; one log book noted, "When you're stationed on a lighthouse, every letter received is a gift in itself.'
Working to save the lighthouses
Private groups and public agencies are working with the U.S. Coast Guard, which administers the light stations, to encourage restoration. Recent changes in Coast Guard policy have made it somewhat easier for outside groups to lease and restore the lighthouses. But proposals must meet EPA standards, and groups must prove they can continue to fund maintenance of the structures.
Westerners have come up with some innovative ways to preserve lighthouses and give them new life. When local citizens saw San Francisco Bay's East Brother light station sink into decay after automation in 1969, they formed East Brother Light Station, Inc., raised money, and rebuilt the rundown station. It's now a successful bed-and-breakfast inn.
In Oregon, townspeople and the Newport Historical Society worked with the state park system to declare the Yaquina Bay light a landmark, halt proposed demolition, and open it as a museum.
A corporate sponsor, Crocker Bank, helped fund work at three lighthouses: Pigeon Point, Point Montara, and East Brother. The American Youth Hostels group leased the lighthouse buildings at Pigeon Point and Point Montara and opened them as overnight lodgings.
Requests to fix up surplus lighthouses have soared. "With streamlined approval measures, we should see more restoration projects on line, more lighthouses opened to the public,' states Coast Guard spokesman Lieut. Robert Hayden.
To learn more about lighthouses that still await restoration, you might want to join the U.S. Lighthouse Society, started in California in 1984 and the only group of its kind. Annual membership costs $15 and includes a quarterly magazine, the Keeper's Log; write to the group at 130 St. Elmo Way, San Francisco 94127, or call (415) 585-1303.
Photo: Lavender dusk cloaks the Golden Gate, just east of Point Bonita Lighthouse, is tour gathers at fog-signal building. Access is by steel suspension bridge
Photo: Ginger bread-delicate Point Fermin Lighthouse once guided ships into harbor in San Pedro. Now it's part of a city park
Photo: White brick tower of 1898 North Head light, in Washington's Fort Canby park, supports modern aeromarine beacon; summer tours take you into lantern room
Photo: First-order Fresnel lens at Heceta Head is most powerful beacon on Oregon's coast, visible for 21 miles
Photo: Inside lighthouse lens at Cape Meares, Oregon, you can see how prisms bend light--note eyes of crouched visitor. Center bull's-eye lenses were removed for display in museum. Red panel added color-flash characteristic
Photo: How a Fresnel lens works
To bend and magnify rays to form a single plane of intense light, catadioptric prisms refract and reflect; dioptric prisms and center bull's-eye lens refract. With just a 1,000-watt bulb, a first-order Fresnel lens can generate 680,000 candlepower--visible 21 miles out at sea if set high enough
Photo: Up in the tower at Battery Point light in Crescent City, visitors get close look at 1953 Drumm lens and distant views out over Battery Point and back towards harbor
Photo: Hold your ears! At East Brother, staff occasionally sounds twin diaphone foghorns (now deactivated) mounted on rooftop
Photo: Then and now: In 1957, Mile Rock light, southwest of Golden Gate, had twin foghorns and boom with rope ladder for loading crew and supplies. In 1966, the tower was removed. Today, it's just a helicopter pad with automated beacon
Photo: From San Diego to Puget Sound, 27 of the West Coast lights are still open to the public. Another 22 are in use but off limits
Photo: Typical anatomy of an 1870s lighthouse saw little change, apart from updated fog signals, over next half-century. Most were electrified by 1930s, automated by 1970s
Photo: Iron base of lens sits on turntable under lantern room. Box below it held clockwork to rotate lens
Photo: Elegant but faded, Montara Lighthouse keeper's quarters are getting gradual facelift. Inside, barracks is now a hostel--you sleep on bunks, handle your own KP
Photo: Weekly spruce-up at East Brother is done by Monday Morning Gang, a group of volunteers
Photo: Success story: Lighthouse in Yaquina Bay, Oregon, was crumbling when work crews started major restoration in 1975 (above). Sparkling white clapboards and red iron tower now make it a proud local landmark. You can picnic or beachcomb here
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|Title Annotation:||West coast's lighthouses|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1986|
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