Lonely lighthouses save many lives

photo caption:

REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY SUSAN GARDNER

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was relocated to Shelter Cove and restored with a lot of hard work. Hopefully, a visitor center can be built in the future to welcome guests and share the history of the lighthouse. The only other thing missing is the original lens, which is currently located at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lecture series continued at the Healy Senior Center on Tuesday evening. BLM Archaeologist Dave Johnson gave a power point presentation on the history of lighthouses, focusing on North Coast lighthouses.

The Egyptians were first to build lighthouses. The oldest surviving lighthouse dates to 20 B.C. and is located in Spain. A Roman lighthouse in Britain is a close second, having been built in 40 A.D. The first American lighthouse was built in 1716 in Boston and a second was built at Sandy Hook, New Jersey in 1674. The tallest American lighthouse was built at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1872. About 1,500 lighthouses were built in the U.S. but there have never been more than 50 operating at any one time. In places where lighthouses were not practical, light ships were anchored off shore.

The purpose of lighthouses is to aid ships in navigating dangerous waters. The lights were fueled with whale oil, which was later replaced with lard, which in turn gave way to kerosene. The source of the light is called the lamp. The lamp is magnified with prisms.

Eight lighthouses were built along the North Coast from Mendocino to Del Norte and they were needed because the area was plagued with shipwrecks. There were 218 shipwrecks recorded along the Mendocino Coast, 132 along the Humboldt Coast, and a bit fewer than 100 along the Del Norte Coast. Thirty-two people died in a shipwreck off Centerville Beach.

The first lighthouse funded by Congress on the North Coast was the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse, built in 1851. It stood west of the Coast Guard Station on the Samoa peninsula. It was subject to flooding from high tides and was eventually replaced by a lighthouse on Table Bluff. The Table Bluff lighthouse was a Coast Guard station during World War II. The tower from the Table Bluff station is on Woodley Island and the lens from its lamp is going to the Smithsonian.

The Trinidad Head Lighthouse was built in 1871 and is still a working Coast Guard station. The current lighthouse is a replica of the original. Lighthouses require a lot of maintenance and when they don't get it, they deteriorate.

The Cape Mendocino lighthouse is located in Shelter Cove, but it is replicated at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale and the replica contains the original Frenel lens. Lenses must be protected from sun damage and the Ferndale replica does provide the proper protection. The Friends of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse want the lens moved to Shelter Cove.

The Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City was built in 1856 and operated until 1982. It is unique in being privately owned.

The lighthouse at Point Arena was built in 1870, a wooden structure that stood 115 feet high. The lighthouse at Point Cabrillo near Fort Bragg was built in 1909. It was octagonal in shape and stood 47 feet high. Not much remains of the old lighthouse at Punta Gorda. It operated from 1912 to 1959.

The most expensive lighthouse on the North Coast is at St. George's Reef off the Del Norte coast. It was expensive and difficult to build because it is located about eight miles from the coast on a rock. Everything had to be brought by boat and the weather made it difficult for boats and ships to get to the lighthouse. Johnson called it the "Alcatraz" of lighthouses because the keepers were so isolated.

Generally, lighthouse keepers were a hardy lot who grew their own vegetables. The lighthouse keepers from Table Bluff used to do so well at gardening that they sometimes sold extra produce in Loleta. The lighthouse keepers at St. George's Reef, however, were surrounded by concrete and rock and couldn't grow a thing. Keepers earned a modest wage and widows sometimes took over the keeping of a lighthouse after their husbands died.

Ships sailed along the coast long before Humboldt Bay was discovered and the area settled. There are rumors still floating around of sunken Spanish Galleons and buried doubloons somewhere on the Lost Coast. So far, no one has reported finding buried treasure along the coast, but people continue to look.

The next lecture in this interesting series will be held tonight, Feb. 15, at the BLM office on Shelter Cove Road. Tasha McKee will discuss climate change effects and possible solutions in a lecture entitled "Beavers, Coho and Salmon." More information on the lecture series is available by calling (707) 986-5415.

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