Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2012

Lighting the Big Sur Coast

By Chuck Graham


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California’s Point Sur Light Station in Point Sur ...
Photo by: Chuck Graham

I’d driven by the locked gate too many times to count, my fascination with the lonely, weathered light station mounting with each road trip along the craggy Big Sur coastline in Central California.

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1933 image of the Point Sur Lighthouse when the ...

The massive headland jutted a half mile west of the farm gate on Pacific Coast Highway 1, overlooking the unruly Pacific Ocean. The broad headland appeared as if it had been made specifically for a light station towering above the rugged coastline.

I finally stopped at the gate while driving down from San Francisco on an early fall morning. The rusty sign said every Saturday and Sunday morning at 9 am, docent-led tours. It just so happened that it was Saturday morning at 7 am, so I waited. Sure enough, two docents arrived 90 minutes later, along with several other curious visitors.

We were instructed to follow the winding road past the grove of Cyprus trees, grazing cows, vernal ponds and windblown sand dunes to a small car park at the base of the headland. From there we followed the docents on foot up the steep, single lane road, a 360-foot rise in elevation, wrapping around the southern end of the headland.

As it turned out, access to Point Sur is limited in order to preserve its sense of isolation and drama along such a daunting coastline. The deserted beaches on either side of the massive headland were covered in a flotsam of bleached driftwood and tangled bull kelp, swept over in wind-driven sand. As we walked up the road, a peregrine falcon took flight, soaring over the perpetual whitecaps before disappearing to the other side of the light station.

One of the factors influencing the funding for the construction of the Point Sur Light station was the wreck of the Ventura in 1875. According to reports, the captain was drunk and the ship slammed into a cluster of rocks just north of the rugged headland. Everyone aboard eventually reached the shore safely, leaving the ship to break apart on the rocks and slowly sink to the bottom. Fifteen years later, on August 1, 1889, the light station keys were turned over to the first keeper.

The Point Sur Light station originally contained a first order Fresnel lens, the largest. The lens was in working order until the 1970s, when it was replaced by a modern aero beacon mounted on the roof of the fog signal room. The lens remained in the lighthouse tower until 1978, when it was disassembled and transported to the Allen Knight Maritime Museum of Monterey for display. The aero beacon was later moved into the lighthouse tower.

Until the 1970s, Point Sur Light station also had a fog signal. The original signal was made by twin steam whistles. Steam was produced by a boiler using wood for fuel. Over the years, the steam whistles were replaced by air horns. The fog signal was used whenever fog reduced visibility to the degree that ships were in danger of hitting off shore rock outcroppings. Technological advances in navigational equipment and weather reporting eventually made the fog signal no longer necessary. Since the Ventura wrecked in 1875, there’s been nine other shipwrecks off Point Sur.

The Point Sur Light station stands as a silent sentinel to a by-gone era. It’s one of only a few complete turn-of-the-Twentieth Century light stations open to the public.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 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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