Editor’s Note: This story contains an extraordinary number of photographs which we have published to help interpret and preserve the history of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station for future generations.
On January 29, 1962, a Coast Guard disposal crew arrived at California’s Cape Mendocino Light Station to carry out orders to burn to the ground the light keepers’ homes and other out-buildings at the once picturesque and historic light station that had been established back in 1868. The only building that would be spared stood next to the lighthouse itself, because they were afraid that the fire might spread to the tower.
The beginning of the end of the Cape Mendocino Light Station actually started in 1948 when the 1st order Fresnel lens and its mechanism were removed from the lantern and installed in a wooden replica of the lighthouse at California’s Humboldt County Fairgrounds. The 1st order lens was replaced by duel aero-beacons that were installed in the lantern. In 1951, the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station was automated and its keepers were removed from the site and the buildings were abandoned. Later, the dual aero-beacons were removed from the lantern to be replaced by a beacon that rested atop a steel pole, which has since also been removed from the site.
On July 22, 1960, the Coast Guard offered the Cape Mendocino Light Station buildings for sale with the stipulation that they must be removed from the site and that the grounds would be left in immaculate condition. No buyers or potential buyers came forward. At that time, most of the 151-acres of light station reservation were being leased to a private individual for grazing purposes.
By 1962, when the Coast Guard issued the orders to burn the buildings, they had been vandalized and were in a state of rapid deterioration. The debris that was left over after the buildings were burned was then simply pushed over the cliff.
For the next 36 years, the lonely abandoned tower sat rusting away. However, earthquakes and landslides threatened the 91,000-pound tower, and it was feared that the structure would topple down the 400-foot cliff. Concerned citizens then stepped forward to save the lighthouse.
In the fall of 1995, the community of Shelter Cove was awarded ownership of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse tower after bidding against the communities of Ferndale and Eureka. It then took some time for plans to be worked out to actually figure out how to move the structure. The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society awarded a contract to Ken Christen, owner of Christen’s NC Construction of Eureka, California, to remove the lantern from the tower, which he did at cost. On a wet May morning in 1998, his crew gently separated the sections; and then, using a heavy-duty crane, they lifted the lantern off its base of the tower and placed it on firm ground next to the base where it could be later airlifted from the site.
Finally, on November 5, 1998, using a Chinook helicopter, the U.S. Army National Guard lifted the lantern from the site and flew it 60 miles to the community of Shelter Cove. The base of the tower was then disassembled, each section carefully numbered, and trucked to a site donated by Whitehorn Construction for restoration. In the summer and fall of 1999, the restored sections of the lighthouse were brought to Shelter Cove and the tower was reassembled at its new home.
Although the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station is no more, the life of the station is being preserved through its original tower now in Shelter Cove, California. Its history is also being preserved through its Fresnel lens, which is sadly now boxed away in storage, having been previously on display for 62 years in the wooden replica of the lighthouse at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds. Additionally, the history of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse has also been saved through the many historic images now published here, only in the pages of Lighthouse Digest.
The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society is planning a 20-year anniversary celebration for this September which commemorates the date in September of 2000 when the completely reassembled and restored tower was dedicated at its new home in Shelter Cove, California.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2020 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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