Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2012

Headless Lighthouse Was Once Famous for Weddings and Advertising

By Timothy Harrison


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Vintage post cards like this one of Mile Rocks ...

Labeled by its builder as a construction nightmare, the once proud Mile Rocks Lighthouse in California’s San Francisco Bay was not only home to a steadfast group of lighthouse keepers, but it was also a place where some started a new life together and others used the structure to haughtily promote their businesses.

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Vintage advertisement for The Biturine Co. of ...

However, today, those who built the lighthouse, the men who once served there as keepers, those who started their lives together at the lighthouse, and the company executives who decided to use the magnificent structure to promote their business would all be distraught to see a lighthouse in ruins. Although the Coast Guard is still using what is left of the structure as an aid to navigation, and they painted it with orange and white bands as a day mark, today its orange painted is faded and the structure appears to be crumbling. In fact, some call it the ugliest looking lighthouse in the United States.

Once dubbed “The Wedding Cake Lighthouse” because of its architectural design that resembled a wedding cake, the lighthouse, in spite of its dangerous location, was actually the site of at least two known weddings. As a teenager, Gaynel Dresser had rowed out to the lighthouse for a visit. There is some thought that she may have been related to one of the lighthouse keepers. Whatever the case, she was so impressed with the lighthouse that she returned five years later and on May 18, 1915 she married Cyril J. MacKeekin at the top of the lighthouse. Thirteen years later, a wedding that took place at the lighthouse in June of 1924 was immortalized in a photograph that appeared in the newspapers of the time when vaudeville entertainers Ole Olsen and Grace Weber were married on the gang-plank of the lighthouse in a ceremony presided over by Judge Frank Dunn.

When a contract was awarded in 1904 to James A McMahon to build the lighthouse, his entire construction crew, upon arriving at the site and seeing where they would have to work, all quit within minutes of their arrival. McMahon had to return to the mainland where he was eventually able to secure a new crew who were willing to take the risk of working at the site.

When completed, the 78-foot tower was equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens. The second level of the lighthouse was where the lighthouse office was located along with the kitchen and eating area, and above that were two bedrooms and a bathroom for the four-man stag station crew of keepers. Above that was the storage area, topped by the lantern room.

Because of the isolation and frequent fog, which required the constant sounding of the fog horns, some keepers referred to the lighthouse as “Devils Island,” as if they were in prison or being punished for some unknown crime, rather than fulfilling an important job.

Because of the rough water in the area, it was not uncommon for keepers to be knocked off the Jacob’s ladder as they attempted to jump from a boat to the ladder. One keeper, Theodore J. Sauer, nearly lost his life while trying to repair a metal plate on the tower. A gust of wind blew the plate off and hit the staging which he was standing on, causing him to fall 25 feet. Landing on his head, he slid into the water and under the surface. Only the quick action of two other keepers saved his life.

Shortly after the lighthouse was built, The Biturine Co. of America used a photograph of the lighthouse promoting the fact that it was enameled by their company’s product. No doubt, the advertisement helped their sales.

It wasn’t long before the post card manufacturers also started to produce various cards depicting the lighthouse and soon its image was seen by people all over the world.

But it wasn’t until many years later, in 1959, when Qantas Airlines, ahead of every other airline outside of the United States in taking delivery of seven Boeing 707 jet aircraft, decided to use the Mile Rocks Lighthouse to promote their use of the 707s. Their ads very aptly stated, “Since tides first turned, the lands beyond this lighthouse have lain a world away. For this is the Pacific…mightiest ocean on earth. But from now on, you can board a mighty Qantas 707 Jet and cross the endless ocean before the tides turn inward twice again.”

In the 1960s the Coast Guard announced plans to destroy most of the lighthouse so they could install a helicopter landing pad atop the structure. Public outcry was loud, but with no group able to care for the structure so far off shore in such a perilous area, the Coast Guard’s plan for demolition was approved. Demolition proceeded and in 1966 the once beautiful lighthouse was left with nothing more than its base where a helipad was installed.

Again, another one of America’s architecturally and historically significant lighthouses was destroyed, to be remembered now only through vintage post cards and the pages of some books, which sadly will never be viewed or seen by most Americans who will know nothing of the shipwrecks that occurred here, why the lighthouse was built, or of the life of the keepers who once served here ever so faithfully in the interest of saving lives. Although it may still be an aid to navigation, it is no longer a lighthouse in any sense of the word, having been lost to the dusty pages of time.

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This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2012 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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