Historic Point Reyes Lighthouse Restoration Completed

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Date: July 3, 2003
Contact: John Dell'Osso, 415-464-5135

Point Reyes National Seashore has completed a $1.4 million rehabilitation project to preserve the historic Point Reyes Light Station. The Point Reyes Light Station was constructed in 1870 but was retired from service in 1975 at which point the U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership to the National Park Service. The site is a national treasure and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the years the extremely harsh environment at the Point has taken its toll on the facilities and repairs are vitally important to ensure that this important resource is preserved for future generations. National Park Service Director, Fran P. Mainella, stated that, “the Point Reyes Lighthouse is an icon of the national seashore and one of the features in the park no one wants to miss.” Superintendent Don Neubacher added, “The Lighthouse has spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and is visited by over 300,000 people annually. This restoration project allows us to preserve this national treasure for future generations. ” He also added that “the national seashore receives 2.5 million visitors annually and is one of the top thirty most visited national park sites in the country.”

The project included major and minor repairs of the Light Station. The 308 stairs down to the lighthouse were repaired for safety and the railings upgraded. New lighting has been installed for safe evening access. The site now has a new water supply system that increases the capacity of fire suppression systems at the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse and auxiliary buildings have been freshly painted and minor repairs of the buildings have been finished. Site features such as the picket fence around the housing complex have been returned to their historic look. New paving has been completed on walkways and in front of the visitor center to ensure public safety. In addition, an electrical upgrade was completed to ensure that an accidental electrical fire does not damage the buildings.

The contractors, Miller-Thompson and Lunny Construction, undertook the restoration work selected through a competitive bidding process. The Park’s recently formed Historic Preservation Crew provided restoration of the site’s buildings.

The rehabilitation work, which is funded through Congressional appropriation, was primarily the repair or improvements of site features and utility systems. The NPS has improved the condition of hundreds of park assets using the increased funding provided by this Administration. The NPS began approximately 900 repair/rehabilitation projects in fiscal years 2001-2002, including 60 fire suppression and safety projects; 186 water, wastewater and sewer projects; and over 140 general building rehabilitation projects. Another 500 projects will take place in FY 2003, and a similar investment will occur in 2004.

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. The parts from France and the cast iron tower, which was built in San Francisco, were then hauled on ox-drawn carts from the landing on Drakes Bay to the cliff 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 lens in the Point Reyes Lighthouse is a “first order” Fresnel (fray-nel) lens, the largest type of Fresnel lens. It is the only first order Fresnel lens remaining in its original condition in the United States. Augustine Jean Fresnel of France revolutionized optic 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 1,032 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. A counterweight and gears similar to those in a grandfather clock rotate the 6,000-pound lens at a constant speed, one revolution every two minutes. This rotation makes the beams sweep over the ocean surface like the spokes of a wagon wheel, and creates the Point Reyes signature pattern of one flash every five seconds.

The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse served mariners for 105 years before it was replaced. It endured many hardships, including the 1906 earthquake, during which the Point Reyes Peninsula and the lighthouse moved north 18 feet! The only damage to the lighthouse was that the lens slipped off its tracks. Thirteen minutes after the earthquake, the lighthouse was once again in working order.

The National Park Service is now responsible for the general day-to-day 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.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956


(415) 464-5100
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