Other than a modern steel tower with a light on it, the lighthouses of Point Arguello, by Lompoc, California, have been destroyed and now only appear as ghostly images in the pages of time.
The first lighthouse to be built there in 1901 was a tower protruding from a one-story fog signal building that could resemble a country church or schoolhouse of yesteryear. The keepers lived in other housing.
Because of the constant vibration from the fog signal and machinery to the lens and the lantern, in 1911 a new tower was built next to the fog signal building and the lantern and lens were removed from atop the fog signal building, which was allowed to stand and still house the fog signal equipment.
In 1934, the second lighthouse structure was discontinued in favor of a revolving beacon atop of an erector set style tower. Reports indicated that the light on the “new” metal tower boasted one million candlepower. In describing the metal tower, Rudy M. Mauch, who was stationed here in the 1950s and 60s recalled his arrival here in 1959. “My first major disappointment was that the light tower was a non-traditional 48-foot skeleton frame type tower with two offset 36 inch exposed aero beacons. Hardly the stereo typical lighthouse.”
Mauch recalled the fog at the station as he continued, “The first thing issued after living quarters was the foul weather gear. More often than not, the gear had to be worn to have any degree of comfort. Rarely did the temperature get above 60 degrees, even in the summer, and with the constant heavy winds, the chill was pretty cold, at least for California. Even with the copious amounts of fog that we had, it didn’t seem to deter the wind. Winds usually seem to subside in the fog, but this was not the case at Point Arguello. The wind blew so hard; it continually lifted the salt spray from the surf crashing on the rocks below to the TV antenna atop the dwellings. This caused the terminals on the antennas to short out, eliminating the reception of our one and only TV channel from Santa Barbara. Commercial radio was totally unavailable as the mountains between the point and the radio stations blocked out reception. Every few days we had to get out the ladder and climb on the roof to scrape off the salt. All of this of course in the ever present wind.”
Bert Gardes, whose father Wilfred R. Gardes was stationed there as a keeper in the early 1940s, said he and his twin sister had fond memories of life there. He recalled that there was a one room school house in the tiny community named Arlight, which was named after the lighthouse, and the teacher took board and room in their keeper’s home at the lighthouse.
Fog was a constant problem at the site, and it was not uncommon for the fog signal to blow hours on end. It was this very fog that caused the largest peacetime disaster in U. S. Naval history. On September 9, 1923 three miles north of Point Arguello Lighthouse a flotilla of 14 Navy destroyers on route from San Francisco to San Diego made a tragic mistake that cost the lives of over 20 sailors and the wreck of seven destroyers in what became known as the Honda Disaster. The keepers of the Point Arguello Lighthouse and local residents helped in the rescue of 550 sailors from the sinking ships.
During World War II the government installed a then-secret LORAN (Long Range Navigation) tower to guide warships by coded pulses. The few remaining civilians living in Arlight were evicted as Japanese subs stalked the waters off shore. War dogs patrolled the area, but, reportedly, the only combat action the dogs got was eating the lighthouse keeper’s chickens.
Jon C. Picciuolo wrote in the March, 1994 issue of Central Coast Magazine, “When automation arrived in the 1950s it was the beginning of the end. Years before the Arlight post office had locked its doors for good. The Navy fenced off most of that stretch of coast in 1958 for a missile testing range. Most of the vacant buildings, including the lighthouse keeper’s stately home, were demolished. In 1980 the LORAN statin was switched to an unmanned mode and the last Coastguardsman packed up his sea bag and left.”
Bob Olson, who was the Officer-In-Charge of Point Arguello Light Station in 1970-1971 said in 1980 when the Coast Guard left, “When the last person leaves, that’s when it will seem like it’s really gone.”
The old lighthouse station property is now part of the Vandenberg Air Force Base and is off limits to the public. There is very little left of what was once a major light station on the west coast of the United States where lighthouse keepers maintained a constant vigil, and lighthouse families once lived for the benefit of others.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2016 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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