Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Beacon on the Headlands

By Chuck Graham


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From the coastal town of Mendocino, California, I could barely see the faint light of the Fresnel lens flashing from the Point Cabrillo Light Station four miles to the north, a dewy blanket of overcast shrouded the coastline and restored lighthouse. After winding along Highway 1, marveling at towering stands of redwood trees, I soon found myself in the car park northeast of the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park.

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Nature’s Way

I could hear the surf crashing along the Mendocino Headlands approximately one mile away. After I walked out from under the canopy of cypress trees, the skies opened up and the Point Cabrillo Light Station stood out on the headland overlooking a cathedral of wave-battered rock outcroppings and spindly pinnacles.

I hiked the North Trail an easy, narrow route down to the headlands. A northwesterly wind was already picking up steam even before the morning sun had cleared the redwoods. The dense grasslands and stocks of wild iris swayed in the chilly breeze, while clusters of California poppies kept their bright orange petals shut.

A 296.5 acre nature reserve surrounded the Point Cabrillo Light Station. I watched a small herd of mule deer browsing the grasslands, harbor seals hauled out in the craggy coves on either side of the light station and a northern harrier hovered above the headlands. Seabirds like pigeon guillemots roosted and tended to their active nests while black oystercatchers foraged the rugged shoreline.

High Demand

While visiting the light station I stood on the edge of the headlands, waves exploding over knobby sea stacks and swirling boils revealed colossal submerged rocks. It must’ve been a real challenge for passing ships to navigate prior to the construction of the light station. I was standing at the edge of Frolic Cove, named after the most important Gold Rush-era shipwreck in California in 1850. The remains of the Frolic rest in the bottom of the cove just a short walk north of the light station. A year after the shipwreck, a San Francisco lumber dealer, Henry Meiggs sent Jerome Ford to retrieve any salvageable cargo. By the time he arrived there was nothing to save because the local Pomo Indians beat him to it. They removed all the Chinese ginger jars, bolts of silk, camphor, lacquered trunks and housewares. Ford even saw Pomo women adorned in silk shawls.

What Ford did find were the massive groves of redwoods and Douglas fir in the region. Another year passed when Meiggs had sawmill equipment shipped around Cape Horn, where a saw-mill was built at Big River. This led to the founding of Mendocino, and the birth of the timber industry in Northern California.

Following the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the light station was needed to guide small “Doghole” schooners that plied the coastal waters, carrying lumber to rebuild the ravaged city. The earthquake severely damaged the Point Arena Lighthouse, leaving no lighthouses between Cape Mendocino and Bodega Bay. Local sawmills supplied wood to help rebuild San Francisco and to construct the Point Cabrillo Light Station.

In 1908, construction of the light station began and was completed a year later in 1909. Comprising 30.5 acres of land, there were originally15 structures including the blacksmith and carpenter shops, oil house and three light keeper’s houses. There are 12 structures standing today and those renovated houses can be rented for vacations and family gatherings, a unique opportunity to enjoy the light station and surrounding nature reserve.

Getting There: The Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park is located at 13800 Point Cabrillo Drive, Mendocino, CA 95460, off Pacific Coast Highway 1. Call (707) 937 – 5804, or go to www.parks.ca.gov or www.PointCabrillo.org. Brochures and map are available at the light station.

Learn More: To learn more about Point Cabrillo Lighthouse refer to the following stories in back issues of Lighthouse Digest. Those stories are: Restoring the Point Cabrillo Light Station in the December 1998 edition; Point Cabrillo Lens Shines Again in the August 1999 edition; Point Cabrillo Light Station Book Review in the December 2008 edition and Whale of a Prize in the June 2009 edition. If you don’t have these back issues those stories can be found on-line at www.LighthouseDigest.com and type in Cabrillo in the Search Box and you will be led to the stories.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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