Digest>Archives> April 2000

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

Coast Guard Decision Draws Controversy

By Kathe Tanner


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This aerial view of the Piedras Blancas ...
Photo by: Kathe Tanner

"Lighthouses are nostalgic reminders of a romantic past when great ships traversed the oceans of the world, carrying trade goods to far-flung ports. They often sit on dramatic cliffs overlooking wave tossed oceans and great lakes, saving lives and fortunes by their steadfast presence. - Susan Cole Kelley"

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Roger and Virginia Thorndyke. Roger is believed ...

The lamp at the top of a lighthouse is a flashing or blinking beacon that warns mariners of dangers ahead and tells others that there's an ocean sentinel nearby. What the lights usually are not is controversial.

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The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, CA. as it appears ...
Photo by: Richard Tanner

At the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse in Central California, however, the lamp on top has been a topic of varying discussions and debates off and on for some fifty years. The interlaced, evolving tales have elements of swashbuckling derring-do and pure Central California stubbornness.

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Former keepers Jim Lilly and Bob Miller ...
Photo by: Kathe Tanner

Elements in the ongoing sagas have ranged from purported storm-damage effects, rescues from a possible watery grave, and management decisions. At issue is a trio of lamps, from the original First Order Fresnel lens to a replacement some consider nothing more than an overgrown candlestick. And it's not over yet. The latest debates go directly to the heart of what lighthouses mean to landlubbers.

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Fuel storage building and USCG offices at Piedras ...
Photo by: Galen Rathbun

There's a different lamp atop the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse these days, and some nearby residents are calling it a dim bulb. At press deadline, the U.S. Coast Guard planned to throw a little more light on the subject, but it still may not be enough for the neighbors. You see, the Guard plans to put in a brighter bulb, but not a bigger lamp.

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This vintage photo (circa 1940's) shows Coast ...

A previous light system died in May 1999, and it was September before the USCG put up the new light. The replacement is a smaller, less intense flashing lantern that, with its stand, is shaped more like an electrified candle than a lighthouse topper, and which only blinks its message out 10 nautical miles.

The lamp change has broken a tie that bound the lighthouse to neighboring communities for nearly 125 years, say those dedicated to turning up the wattage on the beam. Some residents of Cambria, an upscale community 13 miles south on the coast, have volunteered donations of more than $5,000 to upgrade the lamp again. But the Coast Guard maintains it has no mechanism through which to channel such donations, and having others buy the lamp directly means "ownership issues would get really squishy," said a Guard spokeswoman.

For more than a century (with a little time off for a weakened tower top), a bright light (either the original first order Fresnel lens or a rotating aero beacon) had beamed circling rays 25 miles out to sea. It warned mariners away from the craggy rocks and rugged coastline near the lighthouse and reminded neighbors that the light was on duty.

Coast Guard staffers say they based their downgrading decision on changing technology and price comparisons between the two lamps. A replacement rotating beacon is "in the $10,000 range," while the flashing light costs much, much less, Lt. Jill Ross of the Aids to Navigation section estimated. The change was not a surprise maneuver - the Coast Guard had advertised the potential downgrade of the lantern for more than a month in an official notice to mariners. But lots of Cambria residents aren't mariners, just lighthouse-lamp lovers. Even as the new 37-pound, 30-inch-tall lantern began blinking away in October, outraged North Coast residents began their campaign for change. And while the Coast Guard welcomes comments, there's a caveat, complaints about the fainter light can't be based on emotional ties to the old rotating beacon or simple esthetics, Ross said from her Alameda office. "There have to be real safety issues involved." But the emotional tie to the rotating beacon is alive and well on the North Coast.

Even the area's county supervisor Shirley Bianchi, who doesn't live near the coastline, said she misses seeing the legendary beam, especially when the country is operating on Standard Time. The day after Halloween, on her commute home from the county seat 35 miles away, "I missed the light," she said. "There was just this little blur on the horizon. I didn't think I ever noticed it before, but then it wasn't there. It was like missing the dog that wasn't barking any more."

Others miss the light more acutely.

"That light is one reason I enjoy living where I do," annoyed Lodge Hill resident Bob McDonnell said of the now unseeable-from-his-house lighthouse beacon. "And I can't see it any more." Even people who work at the lighthouse site felt the change immediately, they say. "What's up there now just flashes every few seconds. It doesn't rotate. From the ground, it's not very impressive. It's really sad," said Susan Wright of the Biological Resources Division of U.S. Geological Service.

One of the potential donors, Michael Donahue of Cambria, said, "I'll contribute to buy a decent light you can see for 20 miles. Hey, you can see a headlight for 20 miles. The government has no romance at all. They're just a bunch of stick-in-the-muds. They've done a lot of nuttier things with their money than upgrade the light. If they've got someone willing to buy the light, all they have to pay for is the electricity. Give me a break."

Not everybody agrees that the light change was a bad one. Former Coast Guarder Jerry McKinnon of Cambria is a town authority on the original Fresnel lens. "The Coast Guard will do what is necessary for the nighttime navigator. Apparently, they believe the smaller light is sufficient. I trust in their judgment," McKinnon said. "I think we're fortunate in having any kind of a light, since so many lighthouses have been abandoned. To keep that one operating is a plus. It's not necessary to see a light for 25 miles any more, with radar and other equipment like the GPS (global positioning systems). They'll even cut them down to size so they'll fit into a kayak. Even the poorest fishermen have those on their boats."


The lighthouse's original lamp, a First Order Fresnel lens, is on display in a special housing near the Veterans Memorial Building in Cambria. There's lots of local legend attached to that lamp, with tales of rescue raids, wheeling and dealing between government agencies and determined area residents.

The light was rotated by a clock mechanism - made by Henry Lapute of France in 1872. According to former Piedras Blancas Coast Guardsman Jim Lilly, who served at the point in 1945-1946, and who worked with the lens daily, "The mechanism was operated by a cable wound around a drum in the clockworks that was attached to a weight in a "well" at the base of the tower in the center of the rotunda," much like an old grandfather's clock, but king-sized.

"I know that the weight did not go to the top of the tower, for there are steel loops attached to each stair landing on the side away from the tower wall - loops that held the cable and kept the weight from possibly swaying," Lilly continued.

"The weight was confined to the 'well,' which had a cover over it and never came above the top of the well. It had a block-and-tackle arrangement that made it possible for a 30-foot drop to unreel 70 feet of cable. Also it made it much easier to crank up the weights. I was told they weighed 300 pounds," the former Guardsman added.

To make the concept work, the lighthouse keeper had to climb 92 of the tower's stairs to clean the night's collection of oily residue from the prisms. It was a chore Lilly performed over and over, he said.

Historian Geneva Hamilton said that each evening, the mechanism was put in motion and readjusted in order to regulate the timing of the rotation. Three men were required to maintain the station, working on four-hour shifts during the night and day.

The lighthouse worked that way for nearly 75 years, although some records show that, after electricity came to the point, workers replaced the kerosene lamp with electrical lighting in the 1930s.

The stately Fresnel-with its more than 300 individual lens prisms and eight bulls-eye circular prisms-reigned supreme atop the lighthouse from 1875 until 1949, when the Coast Guard likely removed it due to cracks in and other damage to the 18-foot-high bronze, crystal, brass and cast-iron Fresnel lens.

"About 25 feet down from the top, the lighthouse developed a crack in the tower," Cambria resident Byron 'Bing' Boisen recalled recently. Perhaps "it was all that weight in one spot for so long. The soil might not have carried it. Or maybe it was just the ocean banging up against the cliff day after day."

While Coast Guard management debated on the future of the lens, it lay on the ground in pieces for a time, drawing attention and dismay from Boisen and some of his fellow members of the Cambria Lions Club. Soon, four Lions (leaders Guy Bond and Roland Houtz, and fellow members Boisen and Eddie Shaug) took action, like a cavalry regiment riding to rescue, and snagged the lens, taking it to Cambria "for safekeeping."

"It was so heavy. And it looked like a pile of junk when we got there. Those big heavy lenses. We really didn't have any idea what we were getting into. There was some damage, I suppose, and we had no idea what wrenches and apparatus we had to have to put it back together," the 96-year-old Boisen said.

Later the club negotiated a long-term lens loan from the Guard. "We asked if we could have it, and they said no, they couldn't give it away. We asked if we could buy it, and they said no, they couldn't sell it, because the paperwork for that would have taken an act of Congress," he explained.

After further research, the Coast Guard found an officially sanctioned solution-they could "loan" it to the Lions Club. In a grand ceremony on Sept. 1, 1951, the lens was installed on a stand near the town's Veterans Memorial Building and the Lions Club's "Pinedorado" grounds, an area where an annual carnival and other events are held.

But time and Mother Nature took a toll, and various elements of the lamp began to deteriorate. Once again, members of the Lions Club and other light enthusiasts came to the rescue yet again, restoring the lamp and installing it in a protected structure that would display the Fresnel in all its glory.

During the past decade, the still-stubborn Central Coast residents -along with volunteers from the Coast Guard - put in years of dogged work to make the lamp as good as old. Members of the Friends of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Lens and others worked on the light, and designed, got approvals for, built and (always the hardest part) raised the money for the new glass tower that would enclose the lens. The building was complete, and the lens installed, in 1996.


The debate over the light is not the only attention lavished recently on the lighthouse. With the agreement of the facility's tenant, the USGS field station, a private nonprofit group recently held a rare and popular public visit to the facility.

Cambria Historical Society's upscale "bus tour" through Cambria, San Simeon and to the lighthouse, illuminated further the attraction of the lighthouse, its history and its incredibly beautiful site on a knoll, high above the Pacific. At $20 per person, the tour sold out to 180 lighthouse lovers in about three weeks.

That day, the site was showcased by an unusually wind-free, crystalline warm day and highlighted by three peregrine falcons, then still classed as endangered. The new fledgling and its parents had flown that morning from the guano-encrusted rocks alongside the point to the tower. "Baby" stayed put all day, as Mom and Dad flew circles around their child and the tower, trying to entice the youngster off the railing. Visitors were reverential and enchanted, according to organizers.

As part of the event, the historical group had as honored guests a couple of men who had served in the Coast Guard at the site, one in 1941-1942, the other in the early 1960s. Jim Lilly and Bob Miller regaled the tour-takers with their memories of the facility, and reminisced about which pieces of equipment had been where and what duty each had performed. Members of the Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and other agencies also chimed in during the tour.

The Guard is in the process of "excessing," or transferring ownership of the lighthouse and the land on which it sits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun researching the 18.73 acres and the historic buildings on it in hopes of turning the acreage into a "gem of a national wildlife refuge," according to Marc Weitzel, FWS project leader.

But any ownership switch may be years down the road, those involved stress. In the meantime, some in Cambria are hoping the recent attention lavished on the new mini-lamp will reflect back down to the lighthouse's first light, increasing the wattage and decreasing the controversy.

For information on the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, contact: Cambria Historical Society, P.O. Box 906, Cambria CA 93428. Or the Friends of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, Lt. Jill Ross, Coast Guard Island, District 11, Building 50-6, Alameda CA 94501. (805) 927-0459

This story appeared in the April 2000 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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