Point Reyes: A Treacherous Obstacle to Mariners
Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Weeks of fog, especially during the summer months, frequently reduce visibility to hundreds of feet. The Point Reyes Headlands, which jut 10 miles out to sea, pose a threat to each ship entering or leaving San Francisco Bay. The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse warned mariners of danger for more than a hundred years.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, was retired from service in 1975 when the U.S. Coast Guard installed an automated light. They then transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service, which has taken on the job of preserving this fine specimen of our heritage.
All lighthouses in the United States are now automated because it is cheaper to let electronics do the work. Many decommissioned lighthouses were transformed into restaurants, inns, or museums. The lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore is now a museum piece, where the era of the lightkeepers' lives, the craftsmanship and the beauty of the lighthouse are actively preserved.
The Point Reyes Light First Shone in 1870.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse lens and mechanism were constructed in France in 1867. The clockwork mechanism, glass prisms and housing for the lighthouse were shipped on a steamer around the tip of South America to San Francisco. The parts from France and the parts for the cast iron tower were transferred to a second ship, which then sailed to a landing on Drakes Bay. The parts were loaded onto ox-drawn carts and hauled three miles over the headlands to near the tip of Point Reyes, 600 feet above sea level.
Meanwhile, 300 feet below the top of the cliff, an area had been blasted with dynamite to clear a level spot for the lighthouse. To be effective, the lighthouse had to be situated below the characteristic high fog. It took six weeks to lower the materials from the top of the cliff to the lighthouse platform and construct the lighthouse. Finally, after many years of tedious political pressure, transport of materials and difficult construction, the Point Reyes Light first shone on December 1, 1870.
The Lighthouse, Fog Signal and Lifesaving Station Saved Lives
Lighthouses provide mariners some safety by warning them of rocky shores and reefs. They also help mariners navigate by indicating their location as ships travel along the coast. Mariners recognize lighthouses by their unique flash pattern. On days when it is too foggy to see the lighthouse, a fog signal is essential. Fog signals sound an identifying pattern to signal the location to the passing ships. Unfortunately, the combination of lighthouses and fog signals does not eliminate the tragedy of shipwrecks.
Because of this ongoing problem, a lifesaving station was established on the Great Beach north of the lighthouse in 1890. Men walked the beaches in four-hour shifts, watching for shipwrecks and the people who would need rescue from frigid waters and powerful currents. A new lifesaving station was opened in 1927 on Drakes Bay near Chimney Rock and was active until 1968. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark and can be viewed from the Chimney Rock Trail.
The lens in the Point Reyes Lighthouse is a "first order" Fresnel (fray-nel) lens, the largest size of Fresnel lens. Augustin Jean Fresnel of France revolutionized optics theories with his new lens design in 1823.
Before Fresnel developed this lens, lighthouses used mirrors to reflect light out to sea. The most effective lighthouses could only be seen eight to twelve miles away. After his invention, the brightest lighthouses could be seen all the way to the horizon, about twenty-four miles.
The Fresnel lens intensifies the light by bending (or refracting) and magnifying the source light through crystal prisms into concentrated beams. The Point Reyes lens is divided into twenty-four vertical panels, which direct the light into twenty-four individual beams, radiating out over the ocean surface like the spokes of a giant wagon wheel. A weight and gears similar to those in a grandfather clock rotate the 6000-pound lens at a constant speed of one revolution every two minutes. This rotation made the beams sweep around the horizon and created the Point Reyes Lighthouse's signature pattern of one flash every five seconds.
The Lonely Life of a Lighthouse Keeper
Keeping the lighthouse in working condition was a twenty-four hour job. The light was lit only between sunset and sunrise, but there was work to do all day long. The head keeper and three assistants shared the load in four six-hour shifts.
Every evening, a half-hour before sunset, a keeper walked down the wooden stairs to light the oil lamp, the lighthouse's source of illumination. Once the lamp was lit, the keeper wound the clockwork mechanism, lifting a 170 pound weight, which was attached to the clockwork mechanism by a hemp rope, nine feet off the floor. The earth's gravity would then pull the weight, through a small trap door, to the ground level 17 feet below. The clockwork mechanism was built to provide resistance so that it would take two hours and twenty minutes for the weight to descend the 17 feet. And as the weight descended and the clockwork mechanism's gears spun, the Fresnel lens would turn so that the light appeared to flash every five seconds. In addition to winding the clockwork mechanism every two-hours and twenty minutes throughout the night, the keeper had to keep the lamp wicks trimmed so that the light would burn steadily and efficiently, thus the nickname "wickie."
Daytime duties for the keepers included cleaning the lens, polishing the brass, stoking the steam-powered fog signal and making necessary repairs. At the end of each shift, the keeper trudged back up the wooden staircase. Sometimes the winds were so strong that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to keep from being knocked down. The highest wind speed recorded at Point Reyes was 133 mph, and 60 mph winds are common.
The hard work, wind, fog and isolation at Point Reyes made this an undesirable post. Even so, one keeper stayed for about twenty-four years, a testament to his devotion and love of Point Reyes!
The Lighthouse is an Enduring Historical Legacy
The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse served mariners for 105 years before it was replaced. It endured many hardships, including the April 18, 1906, earthquake, during which the Point Reyes Peninsula and the lighthouse moved north 18 feet in less than one minute! The only damage to the lighthouse was that the lens slipped off its tracks. The lighthouse keepers quickly effected repairs and by the evening of the eighteenth, the lighthouse was once again in working order. The earthquake occurred at 5:12 am and the lighthouse was scheduled to be shut down for regular daytime maintenance at 5:25 am. Although the earthquake caused much devastation and disruption elsewhere, the Point Reyes Lighthouse was essentially only off-line for thirteen minutes!
The National Park Service is now responsible for the maintenance of the lighthouse. Park rangers now clean, polish and grease it, just as lighthouse keepers did in days gone by. With this care, the light can be preserved for future generations—to teach visitors of maritime history and of the people who worked the light, day in and day out, rain or shine, for so many years.
Download The Historic Point Reyes Lighthouse brochure. (696 KB PDF)
Download the NPS Historic Structures Report published in 1990 entitled The History and Architecture of the Point Reyes Light Station.
Last updated: October 16, 2022