Monday, October 3, 2011

Point Arena Light Station

Mendocino County, July 29, 2010

It looks somewhat like a smokestack as you approach on the little road leading to the lighthouse grounds, and for good reason. After the new structure was built and dedicated in 1908 after the original was damaged in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the lighthouse service contracted with a company that made smokestacks and the reinforced concrete they used is what got this landmark’s state status, since it was the first of its type.

The lighthouse sits on a narrow peninsula that is several hundred feet wide, jetting out on a bluff rising 50 feet above sea level, and its purpose is to warn passing vessels of Arena Rock, a mile long hunk of granite lurking just six feet below the surface. Normally, the light would be enough to warn mariners but the distance of Arena Rock and the extreme fog here made it necessary to add a steam powered fog horn with the lighthouse when it went on line in 1870. So, rather than the quaint traditional light keeper’s dwellings that are the usual fare, Point Arena had a 2 ½ story brick residence that housed the four man crew necessary to run the boilers and their families. Quarters were tight and not very private and the thick walls only partially cut the volume of the fog horn. Huge underground cisterns held the water for the boilers and they went through 100’s of tons of wood to fire them.

1870 Photo

The first order French made Fresnel lens weighs something like six tons and today is on display at the lighthouse. It rotated atop five gallons of mercury which produced a unique flash every six seconds while a suspended weight synced to a clockwork rotated the lens every 18 seconds.

Light keeper Bill Owens served at Point Arena for 15 years from 1937 to 1952, and once while on watch during World War II, he thought he saw a submarine off the point but was told there were no enemy subs in the area. Shortly thereafter the Ameilia was torpedoed just north of Fort Bragg, proving Bill had it right all along. We’ve covered the Ameilia state landmark in the dispatches from Del Norte County some months back.

The light station was dedicated as a state landmark around 2005 and though there is most likely a plaque somewhere, it isn’t displayed on the property, nor could the staff and docents recall seeing it anywhere. This has happened a few times before (especially with recently dedicated landmarks) and plaques have been tracked down to leaning against walls in conference rooms, and storage, but there was no such luck in this case.  

In 1960 the keeper’s bungalows were torn down and replaced by the small and simple ranch houses that remain today and you can rent one for an overnight stay on the bluff… bluffing. And while standing on the bluff and basking in the mist, you come to the knowledge that at 2045 nautical miles, you’re at the closest point (not counting Alaska) to Honolulu. For yours truly and the rental VW bug, it was time to close out this run through Mendocino County and head back down to Monte Rio.

Plaque inscription: NO. 1035 Point Arena Light Station -In 1989 the Point Arena Light Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its statewide significance in the area of maritime history.  Coastal traffic increased substantially during the 1860s, and heavy storms and fogs often made trips along the coast treacherous.  The first buildings at the station were constructed in 1870 and were destroyed in 1906 during the San Francisco Earthquake.  At that time the U. S. Lighthouse Service decided to use reinforced concrete in the light house replacement.  Prior to this, reinforced concrete had not been employed in the construction of a California lighthouse.  Thus, when the Point Arena Lighthouse began operation in 1908, it became the first lighthouse of reinforced concreted in the State.  Strikingly situated between the Pacific Ocean to the west and rolling farmland on the east, the Point Arena Light Station retains the character and appearance of one hundred years ago. 
Location:  Lighthouse Road, Point Arena  45500 Lighthouse Road Point Arena, CA 95468   707 882-2777
GPS 38.954537,-123.74043

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