There were at least three lighthouse families living at California’s 1870 Point Arena Lighthouse on that momentous spring morning of April, 1906 when the earth shook, rattled, and rolled. With the exception of one light keeper who was on duty at the time, the other keepers and their families were probably still in bed sleeping and others were up and about getting breakfast ready. Then, without warning, the earth moved, creating a memory that would remain steadfastly imbedded in their minds and souls for the rest of their lives.
As the earth shook around them, the large subdivided keeper’s house started to snap apart in pieces, and the keepers and their families, in sheer panic, scrambled out, fleeing for their lives. As some of them looked up, they saw the 100-foot tall brick lighthouse swaying back and forth as a loud crash came from its lantern. Fearing that the tower was going to collapse on them, some screamed at others, shouting at them to get further away from the tower, and others just stood there in shock and disbelief as if they were glued to their spot.
It had been 5:12 am on the morning of April 18, 1906 and an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude had just struck the Pacific Coast of California. The keepers and their families did not know it at the time, but the massive quake affected an area of 375,000 square miles, half of which was in the Pacific Ocean and ruptured the ground surface along the San Andreas Fault for about 290 miles.
Because of the mass destruction in San Francisco that left 225,000 people homeless, and destroyed 28,000 buildings, the event became known as the San Francisco Earthquake. By today’s standards, $8 billion in damage was caused and it was the world’s first natural disaster to be recorded by photography.
But grabbing a camera to photograph the event at Point Arena Lighthouse was the furthest thing on the minds of the keepers and their families - they were worried for their own lives. Children were crying, wives were distraught, and the keepers soon had another problem to contend with: a black bear, apparently frightened by the earthquake, came charging toward them. With quick thought, one or more of the keepers ventured back into the damaged house to grab their rifles. As the highly agitated bear became increasingly more threatening, it was shot and killed, an action that probably saved the lives of one or more members of the lighthouse families.
The lighthouse keepers on duty at the time of quake were head keeper Richard H. Williams, 1st assistant Oscar Newlin, 2nd assistant Malcom Cady, and the third assistants. In describing the event, one of them wrote in the station’s log book, “A heavy blow came quick and heavy, accompanied by a heavy report. The tower quivered for a few seconds, went far over to the north, came back, and then swung north again, repeating this several times. Immediately after came rapid and violent vibrations, rendering the tower apart, the sections grinding and grating upon each other; while the lenses, reflectors, etc., in the lantern were shaken from their settings and fell in a shower upon the iron floor.”
When the keepers decided that the aftershocks were over, they decided to make the brave venture of climbing to the top of the lighthouse. Upon reaching the lantern, they found that, miraculously, the lamps were still lit. But they also discovered that the tower had severe cracks in numerous places, and there were gaping holes where bricks had fallen out. They quickly decided that they needed to get out as soon as possible should the structure suddenly decide to crumble into a heap of bricks, taking them with it.
The keeper’s house had been damaged beyond repair, and the families had to make-do with whatever temporary makeshift shelter that they could come up with. Although the tower would be dark at night, the fog signal building did not suffer any real damage and the fog signal machinery was all in working order.
A New Tower Rises
The government acted as quickly as they could to provide housing for the keepers and their families, and to get an operational beacon into place. Before long, work crews arrived to build temporary housing and erect a short wooden tower that would serve as the transitory lighthouse. The lantern from the 1870 tower was not damaged in the quake, so it was removed and placed atop the short wooden tower and lighted on January 5, 1907.
The government wanted the new tower to be as earthquake proof as possible, so they hired the Concrete Chimney Company to design and build a new tower. But first the old 1870 damaged light tower had to be demolished so that the new tower could be built on the exact same location. Before the old tower was demolished, work crews removed the circular staircase so that it could be reused in the new tower. The workmen also saved some of the better quality bricks to repurpose them, but once demolition of the earthquake damaged tower was completed, most of the bricks and rubble was bulldozed over the bluff. If any of those bricks could be found today, lighthouse aficionados would surely treasure them as a highly desirable collectible.
To build the new tower, workmen used iron bars surrounded by wooden frames and then poured in the concrete, which was mixed on the site. As the tower grew in height, getting the cement up to the higher levels became a real problem. This was solved by building an elevator that was lifted by use of ropes and pulleys pulled by a mule. Finally the new 1st order lens arrived and was installed in the tower, and on September 15, 1908 the newly completed Point Arena Lighthouse beamed its light for the first time over the Pacific.
The large subdivided keeper’s house was not rebuilt; instead the government opted to build four separate bungalow-style homes for the head keeper and his assistants. An almost entirely new Point Arena Lighthouse Station, which took two years to fully complete, was finally in full operation.
Footnote: In 1960, the Coast Guard demolished the four cute bungalows and replaced them with ranch style houses. The light station was automated in 1977, and in 2000 ownership of the light station was transferred to the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers who rent out the four homes for overnight stays. They also operate a museum in the former fog signal building. The tower is open for climbing on a daily basis. For more information, go to www.PointArenaLighthouse.com.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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