Story by Jen Lewis
Despite technological advances, lighthouses remain stately reminders of a noble and courageous seafaring history. This year, the Mendocino Coast’s spectacular light station celebrates 113 years, preserved by the work of passionate volunteers.
Tales of lighthouses told in the media today always have one common element: they’re based at least a century in the past. While you’ll stumble upon the occasional essay or short film with a lighthouse based in the present day, it takes some digging to find it. In a world surrounded by satellites, with navigational aids in the palms of our hands, the lighthouse has become a thing of the past. Many of these towering structures have fallen in the sands of time, abandoned by the people they were built to serve.
But some lighthouses have fought the passing of time with the support of passionate communities, and don’t we all need a beacon to light the way sometimes?
I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.George Bernard Shaw
As you road trip along California’s Highway 1 and Highway 101, you’ll find a number of historic structures. Missions, train stations, theaters, and government buildings built in the years before we were born have a power to captivate us. They allow our imaginations to run free with ideas of an era different from our own. What must it have been like to design, to build, to inhabit, to walk among these architectural gems in their original glory? California’s history is documented in everything from the structures of California’s indigenous peoples to the missions of the eighteenth century, to the Gold Rush cabins of the nineteenth century, and beyond.
If your travels take you along California’s coastline, you can’t go too far without encountering a different kind of building—the lighthouse: edifices built to serve, the lights that saved a million ships, the place where lonely men would go mad caring for wicks enshrouded in glass, suffering tinnitus from the roar of the foghorn.
California’s coast is dotted with almost fifty of them, from the Old Point Loma Lighthouse twelve miles from Mexico to the Battery Point Lighthouse eighteen miles from the Oregon border. The first California lighthouse was completed on the island of Alcatraz in June of 1854, but the US government didn’t stop building them until 1932, after the completion of the Anacapa Island Lighthouse. For well over a century, these beacons guided ships along the coast, warning them of menacing reefs, and giving sailors a point of navigation in the midst of stormy seas, high winds, and perilous conditions.
As time progressed, so did technology, and the era of the lighthouse began to dim. Lighthouses’ wicks and kerosene were replaced with Edison’s light bulb in the 1930s. Then motors were installed to turn Fresnel lenses in the 1940s [lens surface divided into concentric rings, adopted to lighthouses by Augustin-Jean Fresnel], replacing the laborious hand-cranked clockwork mechanisms. But with the next decade came the launch of Sputnik into the night sky, and by 1968, there were thirty-six functioning satellites laying the groundwork for today’s ubiquitous Global Positioning System (GPS) through satellite navigation. The founding president of The Aerospace Corporation called these satellites “lighthouses of the sky,” and suddenly, lighthouses on the ground just didn’t seem as useful anymore.
Through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, every lighthouse in the United States was automated. Priceless lenses were taken out of towers and put into storage, while light stations became housing for members of the US Coast Guard. Here on the Mendocino Coast, the Point Cabrillo lens was decommissioned in 1973 and outfitted with an automatic beacon that required no tending. Thus, the lighthouse was left to stand alone, amidst the salt air and the heavy winds of the Pacific Ocean.
For the next two decades, the Fresnel lens (the name of the brilliant, faceted lenses used in lighthouses) at Point Cabrillo stayed dormant, waiting for the right team of people to bring it back to life. Through the dedication and perseverance of the Mendocino Coast community and an incredible team of volunteers, Point Cabrillo was rebirthed. In 1999, the Fresnel lens was taken apart, cleaned, and lit once again, designated by the United States Coast Guard as an active Aid to Navigation. By 2002, California State Parks purchased the land, working hand-in-hand with the new nonprofit Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association to open the grounds to the public.
The Point Cabrillo Light Station that we know and love today has seen a lot since it was first lit in June of 1909. The past century has overflowed with invention, discovery, and dramatic change. As Point Cabrillo nears its hundred and thirteenth anniversary, the question must be asked: what place does a lighthouse have in 2022?
Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.Virginia Woolf
Looking into the more recent past, we can’t not talk about the movie that brought lighthouses back into the forefront of fiction. In 2019, Robert Eggers released a thriller titled The Lighthouse. The story follows two men stationed at an island light in the 1890s. Without spoiling the plot, you can expect no shortage of madness.
For those of you that did sit down to watch The Lighthouse, you may have noticed something familiar about the Fresnel lens. The set design team modeled it after the lens from Point Cabrillo, after a visit to our light station with his cinematographer. Speaking of Point Cabrillo’s Fresnel lens, Eggers said, “We could have just stared at this thing all night. It is hypnotic.” [Vulture: vulture.com/2019/09/robert-eggers-the-lighthouse.html] V
Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse covered a different lighthouse perspective on a more tranquil and family-friendly side. Her stream of consciousness writing takes you deep into the story, while simultaneously seeing the connections to your own human experience.
Whether you’re reading a novel or taking in a movie about lighthouses, there is one element that you simply cannot get away from, which Ms. Woolf summed up in just one sentence: “Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.” Though her characters Winslow and Wake are left on an island to keep the lighthouse alone, their individual pasts rise to haunt them, and despite the proximity of the Ramsay family, the painful autonomy and loneliness of each character is revealed.
This dichotomy of connection and isolation is metaphorically inherent in every lighthouse. Men left their families to serve at remote lightkeeper outposts in order to make sure that other families could be safely reunited at the next port. Lonesome sailors on watch in the early hours of the morning had no other companion than the consistent blink from the nearest lighthouse, while the man tending that beacon may well have saved hundreds of lives he would never know about.
As we step into the present, another dichotomy exists at lighthouses today: that awkward connection between past and present. While we can study and analyze the past, we exist in a world that is wholly separate from it. Regardless of that separation, this present world was built by those who came before us. The juggle of every history lover is maintaining a balance between then and now, examining the clues from the past to see what has made us the way we are.
One of the most common questions that visitors at Point Cabrillo ask is, “Do people still use lighthouses?” It’s a perfectly valid question, and not one with an easy answer. Yes, as an active Aid to Navigation, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is designated as an important part of maritime traffic. At the same time, you would be hard-pressed to find a sailor in 2022 who navigates entirely by paper maps and the flashes from coastal beacons.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse signifies what came before. Before satellites, before GPS, before Google. Taking a step back into history is an important part of both living in the present and preparing for the future. Knowing what came before is how we persevere. Digging into our past and taking the lessons from our successes and failures is vital if we want to move forward.
As Point Cabrillo’s hundred and thirteenth birthday approaches on June 10, we are celebrating by looking back. We’ll be sharing the stories of the people who built Point Cabrillo, the lightkeepers that tended our wicks, and the families that spent their days at the light station. But we’ll also be looking forward. We’re planning for the future by dreaming of new exhibits, new opportunities to volunteer, and even the reconstruction of historic buildings that had been lost to us.
The Mendocino Coast community is the reason Point Cabrillo Lighthouse still stands today, and it is the reason the light station remains in ship-shape condition. The mission of the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association is to manage, protect, restore, interpret, and provide public access to Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, and that is only done with the support of a community that believes in sharing its history and protecting its historic spaces.
Thank you to all of you who have volunteered at Point Cabrillo, donated to our appeals, entered our raffles, and visited our light station. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse continues to shine because of you!
ABOUT POINT CABRILLO
Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park is located between Fort Bragg and Mendocino in Northern California, about three hours north of San Francisco. This operational lighthouse is managed by the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association (PCLK), a 501(c)3, and is open to the public 365 days a year. The museums at Point Cabrillo are open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and the park is open from sunrise to sunset. The PCLK is planning a number of events to celebrate the June anniversary of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and invites the public to join them. The annual Spring Raffle to support education at Point Cabrillo is underway through May 31, with the opportunity to win a four-night stay for eight people at the Point Cabrillo vacation rentals. Learn more about upcoming events and how to enter the raffle online at PointCabrillo.org.
To learn more about Point Cabrillo Light Station, this magazine ran a story in the January, 2015 issue that details more of its history: www.realestatemendocino.com—navigate to issue 669.
ABOUT JEN LEWIS
Jen Lewis has lived on the Mendocino Coast since October of 2016 and began volunteering at Point Cabrillo within a week of moving to Caspar. She began working as the Outreach and Fundraising Manager for PCLK in 2018, and manages everything from the gift shop to the weddings to their social media. She would love to encourage all of you to follow @PointCabrillo on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok!