Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast. Since February 1, 1855, its beacon has flashed nightly as a guide and warning to ships off the rocky California coast. Alcatraz Island Lighthouse preceded Point Pinos by 8 months, but it was replaced in 1909 by the expanding military prison.
The lens is a fixed third order Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris, France in 1853. Some of the prisms were replaced after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. A larger, second-order lens has been planned, but delay in shipment caused the present lens, originally destined for the Fort Point Lighthouse in San Francisco, to be installed instead. The first light source was a large whale oil lantern set inside the lens, whose tank the keeper had to climb the tower to fill several times a night. Whale oil was very expensive and was soon replaced by liquefied lard oil which gave way to kerosene in 1880. At the turn of the century, an incandescent vapor lamp was used, followed by electric lights in 1919. From 1912 to 1940, a falling weight mechanism rotated a metal shield around the beam to be cut off to seaward for 10 out of every 30 seconds. Thereafter a timed flasher provided the “on/off” characteristic.
The present light source, located 89 feet above sea level, is a 1000 watt bulb, which is amplified by the lens to produce a 50,000 candlepower beam visible up to 17 miles under favorable conditions. Formerly, the light had a rigid schedule of being lit one hour prior to sunset, and extinguished one hour after sunrise. With automation completed in 1975, a small battery-operated back-up strobe light was installed outside the tower, and the main light was turned on permanently. The present signal has a simple 3-second on/1-second off signature. As a further navigational aide, a Class D radio beacon operated continuously which had a range of up to 20 miles. A foghorn was also located below the lighthouse closer to shore which could be turned on manually by Coast Guard personnel when lack of visibility warranted its use. With the advent of global positioning satellite navigation in 1993, the radio beacon and foghorn were deactivated.
Point Pinos was named by the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602 during an exploration of the California coastline for the Count of Monterrey, the acting Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico). The name Punta de Los Pinos translated to “Point of the Pines”, an appropriate designation for the thickly wooded northern tip of the Monterey Peninsula where the pines grew almost to the water’s edge. The Franciscan missionaries explored the point from their camp near the Carmel River in 1769. The diaries of Father Crespí mention a freshwater pond located on the point which is now considered to be Crespí Pond, situated on the edge of the golf course just past the lighthouse. The point was originally part of a large parcel of 2,667 acres granted to José María Armenta in 1833 by the Mexican government, and regranted to José Abrego in 1844. In 1850, after the Mexican War and the American acquisition of Alta California, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of lighthouses on the West Coast. In 1852, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered the building of seven beacons along the California coast, one of which was to be located at Point Pinos, the dangerous southern entrance to the Monterey Bay. The government purchased 25 acres of the Rancho Punta de los Pinos for this purpose, with an additional 67 acres being purchased later on. Construction began in 1853, but difficulties with the delivery of the Fresnel lens from France delayed the opening of the lighthouse until 1855.
The first lightkeeper was Charles Layton, appointed to the post at $1,000 per year. He was killed in 1856 while serving as a member of the sheriff’s posse chasing the notorious outlaw, Anastacio Garcia. He was succeeded by his widow, Charlotte, who remained head lightkeeper until 1860, when she married her assistant lightkeeper, George Harris. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of visiting lightkeeper Allen Luce in 1879 after a long walk through the woods from Monterey, praising Luce’s hospitality, piano plying, ship models and oil paintings. The most famous lightkeeper was Mrs. Emily Fish, who served from 1893 to 1914. She was called the “Socialite Keeper” due to her love of entertaining guests at the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is open to the public Thursday through Monday from 1-4pm.