Maritime History at Point Reyes
The sea is the soul of Point Reyes. It not only affects the climate and the species found here, but it is the key influence on the human history of the area. The Coast Miwok have depended on this coastline for food and materials for thousands of years; Spanish explorers and merchants, returning with spice and silk from the Asia, navigated by these cliffs and shores; and gold miners, dairy farmers, and lumbermen counted on the ships that sailed these waters for transporting their goods to and from market. Point Reyes’ maritime history is a microcosm of California’s history.
Today, Point Reyes National Seashore helps preserve the maritime history of California. Among the dozens of shipwrecks that were lost in the waters off Point Reyes, lie the remains of the San Agustin. Wrecked in Drakes Bay in 1595, it is the first shipwreck in California history. The San Agustin was only the first of a long line of tragedies. While Point Reyes provided a landmark, it also posed a hazard to generations of sailors who navigated these waters.
In an attempt to reduce the number of wrecks and to provide aid in navigation along these rocky shores, the U.S. Lighthouse Service built the Point Reyes Light Station in 1870. For 105 years, it provided mariners with guidance and aid. Despite the efforts of the men and women who worked at the lighthouse, ships continued to wreck on the rocks and beaches. In 1889, the Life Saving Service opened the first of two Life Saving Stations built at Point Reyes. The second station, the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Drakes Beach, and the last intact marine railway on the West Coast, closed in 1968. The men stationed there attempted the rescue of victims of storm and wreck. The incredible danger of their job can be sensed in their unofficial motto, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back in.”
As technology improved, other means of protecting navigation and communication with ships at sea appeared. Beginning in 1913, Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of wireless radio, built radio stations in the area. Ultimately, transmitting and receiving stations in Bolinas, on Tomales Bay, and near the Great Beach reached out across the Pacific to provide communications to ships at sea. Station KPH, the maritime radio station owned by Marconi and later, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), signed off in 1997 and brought to a close an important chapter in Point Reyes’ history.
Whether in climbing down the stairs to the Lighthouse or walking out to the Lifeboat Station, today’s visitor can gain a better appreciation for the impact the sea has played on the history of California and in particular, on Point Reyes.