Digest>Archives> August 2010

Point Montara Lighthouse Celebrates Maritime Day


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Coast Guardsmen inspect Point Montara’s tower ...

Point Montara Lighthouse recently celebrated National Maritime Day with an event as unique as its lighthouse tower. Standing only thirty feet tall, Point Montara is the only sentinel in the United States to have witnessed shipwrecks on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coast; a fact that was uncovered and first reported about in the June 2008 issue of Lighthouse Digest.

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Keeper David R. Splaine helped rescue the crew of ...

Established in 1875 as a fog signal station after several ships ran ashore in the late 1860s, Point Montara’s current tower was resurrected in 1928 from the previous Mayo’s Beach Lighthouse in Massachusetts. It still serves as an active aid to navigation maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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The grave of fog signal keeper James Burke who ...

In 1980, Point Montara’s keepers’ quarters and other buildings were converted into a hostel now run by Christopher Bauman and Janice Pratt of Hostelling International in partnership with California State Parks.

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Historian Shannon Nottestad, “visiting lighthouse ...

The day’s events included historic displays, live music, special guests, shipwreck renderings by coastal artist Galen Wolf, and a book signing of Hard Luck Coast: The Perilous Reefs of Point Montara by maritime author JoAnn Semones.

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Dan Mahoney, Rob Johnson, Shannon Nottestad, ...

“National Maritime Day is an opportunity to reflect on our seafaring heritage,” Semones said, “and to honor the people, the lighthouses, and the ships that hold a special place in our history and in our hearts.”

The San Mateo Coast Natural History Association participated in the celebration. Founded twenty years ago, the organization furthers the education and interpretation initiatives of California State Parks on the coast of San Mateo County. In keeping with the theme of the day, Rob Johnson represented the group dressed in a period lighthouse keeper’s uniform.

Joining the event were descendants of former lighthouse keepers and builders of ships that wrecked at Point Montara. They included Dan Mahoney, the great-great-grandson of James Burke, a fog signal keeper. Keeper Burke began his service at Point Montara in 1890. His work and the weather were often challenging. Fog could linger for days and ships at sea depended on the fog signal’s distinctive whistle to guide them up the shrouded coast. Burke died of influenza on February 7, 1897 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Mateo, California.

No doubt he assisted principal keeper David R. Splaine in rescuing the crew of the wrecked lumber schooner Argonaut in November, 1890. Although the ship was lost, the experience wasn’t entirely unpleasant for her hardy crew. As it happened, a local election was in progress and a festive mood blanketed the town. The crew plunged eagerly into the celebratory whirl as though nothing had happened. Capt. George C. Lovdal remarked, “I’ve been shipwrecked six times, but never before have I been cast up among so many kind people, such pretty women, and such good grub!”

Christopher Lindstrom, the great-nephew of renowned shipbuilder John Lindstrom, also participated. Lindstrom built the Gray’s Harbor, another lumber schooner that wrecked at Point Montara in 1922. He was well known as the person who “built more steam schooners than any other man on the Pacific Coast.” Lindstrom was also the first shipbuilder on the West Coast to launch vessels “bow on,” or by the forward part of the ship. Prior to this, ships were launched “end on,” or by the stern.

Over the years, Point Montara’s fog signal and light towers have kept many ships safe on the open sea. Yet, fickle weather and human error led to many tragedies. California writer John Steinbeck referred to the strip of shore between Montara and Half Moon Bay as the “hard luck coast.” Along this foggy, final approach to San Francisco, vessels were forced to hug the shoreline, putting them in danger of its rocky outcroppings and unruly seas.

Semones’ book charts the history of Point Montara lighthouse and twenty-five of the area’s shipwrecks, including the Argonaut and the Gray’s Harbor.

“The little tower at Point Montara is one of a kind,” Semones concluded. “Today’s celebration sends a signal that its maritime history will live on.”

This story appeared in the August 2010 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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