The Point itself is a narrow peninsula forming a plateau from two hundred to three hundred feet in width, for a length of eight hundred feet in an easterly direction, when it suddenly widens. The ground is nearly horizontal, and bounded on the water side by a nearly vertical bluff of fifty feet in height from the water surface. It is composed of an argillaceous stone, the exposed bluff surface of which, acted upon by the weather, is much cracked, exhibiting a dip considerably to the horizon. The stone is not suitable for building purposes. The exact site selected for the tower is three hundred and seventy feet from the extremity of the point, and that for the dwelling is fifty feet in rear of the tower. On July 30th, …the workmen with all the necessary tools, together with a quantity of cement and lime, reached the Point. The excavations for the foundations of the tower, oil-house, and dwelling were commenced the next day and finished during the month of August; derricks were erected to hoist stones from the beach, sand was hauled, stones for concrete broken, and the concrete foundations laid, and a flume to conduct water to the site constructed.
Three kilns were burned near the point to fire roughly 500,000 bricks needed for the work, while an additional 114,000 bricks of superior quality were shipped from San Francisco to build the outside courses of the tower. On September 18, 1869, the lighthouse and other buildings were seven feet above the ground, and the project was completed the following April. The lighthouse stood 100 feet tall and a fixed, first-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room to produce a light at a height of 150 feet above the ocean. Near the base of the tower, a large two-and-a-half-story, brick dwelling was built to house four keepers and their families.
On May 1, 1870, Point Arena Lighthouse became the first of three tall coastal towers in California to commence service during the 1870s. The other two towers, built in a similar style, were constructed at Pigeon Point and Piedras Blancas.
Congress appropriated funds for a first-class steam fog signal at Point Arena on March 3, 1871, and a twelve-inch steam whistle housed in a building close to the tip of the point commenced operation on November 25, 1871. Water for the fog signal and the inhabitants of the station was pumped from a spring by a windmill and then stored in a tank and delivered through a galvanized iron pipe.
As noted in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1883, the station was “located on a projecting point, the outer face of which is on an almost perpendicular bluff, made peculiarly dangerous by the liability of sudden caving near the edge of the earth overlying the sand-rock.” During the previous year, one of the laborers working on an addition to the fog signal building fell over the bluff and was drowned, prompting the Lighthouse Board to have a 1,400-foot-long picket-fence built around the station’s buildings to prevent another accident.
In 1895, the present fog signal building was constructed to replace the original one, which, thanks to erosion, was now connected to the rest of the station by a narrow tongue of land and was in danger of being destroyed. The fog-signal apparatus was relocated 125 feet to the new structure and the former characteristic of a five-second blast of the whistle uttered at intervals of twenty-five seconds was retained.
Keeper Jefferson M. Brown was serving as head keeper on November 22, 1896 when the collier San Benito went ashore four miles north of Point Arena Lighthouse at 1 a.m. The steamer’s iron hull was soon broken in two, and at daybreak locals noticed that most of the crew were desperately clinging to the rigging in the fore-section. Five crewmembers had drowned while trying to reach shore in lifeboats, while four survivors were pulled from the surf by people on shore.
On October 17, 1899, Keeper Brown was awarded a gold lifesaving medal for his rescue attempt. In presenting the award, Major T.J. Blakeney, Superintendent of the Lifesaving Service, said: “A soldier or sailor in battle may be actuated to perform deeds of valor from the selfish motives of renown and promotion. Your efforts to save human life, however, were inspired solely by the most generous and exalted impulse. The sworn testimony of credible eyewitnesses of your repeated and gallant efforts to reach the wrecked people demonstrated that you have well won the badge of honorable distinction which the national Government has awarded to you.”
During the lighthouse’s tenth year of operation, the first occurrence of an earthquake was recorded in the keeper’s log on June 7, 1880. With the San Andreas Fault lying just east of the point, the lighthouse was subjected to several more quakes including one in 1887 and another in 1898. A keeper noted that the 1887 earthquake “sounded like a train of cars going over a bridge,” and that his bed and room “shivered like a person shaking something very fast.”
Although the earthquake of 1906 is known mostly for the destruction it caused in San Francisco, the area north of the city also experienced significant damage. A keeper at Point Arena recorded the following account of the terrifying April 18, 1906 quake.
A heavy blow struck the tower from the south. The 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, rending 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.The light from the heavily damaged lens was not extinguished until daylight, at which time it was discovered that the brick tower had cracks running from top to bottom.
The earthquake also frightened a black bear, which ran into the station and had to be shot. Both the tower and the dwelling were damaged beyond repair and had to be razed. All the brick and other material that could not be used in reconstructing the light station were simply pushed over the cliff into the ocean.
After just a couple of months, makeshift buildings had been constructed to house the keepers and the workforce during the reconstruction, for which Congress had provided $72,500 on June 30, 1906. A short, wooden light tower was built first, and the lantern room from the original lighthouse was placed on top of it. Outfitted with a second-order lens, the tower began operation on January 5, 1907, replacing a temporary lens lantern.
Now cognizant of the affect an earthquake could have on brick structures, the Lighthouse Board decided to use reinforced concrete for the new tower. The Concrete Chimney Corporation of San Francisco, whose specialty, as implied by their name, was building industrial chimneys, was tapped to erect the tower.
The beams from a new first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, were cast out to sea from the completed 115-foot tower on September 15, 1908 at 1800 hours. The new lens rotated atop over five gallons of mercury to produce a unique pattern of a double flash every six seconds. A 160-pound weight suspended in the tower and attached to a clockwork mechanism caused the three-sided lens to revolve once every eighteen seconds. The weight would descend about fifty-four feet in the tower and had to be wound up every two hours.
After the tower was finished, work began on housing for the keepers. Rather than a single, subdivided dwelling, four separate bungalows for the keepers were built in a row south of the lighthouse. The keepers and their families must have enjoyed the privacy and extra space the new houses afforded.
As one can imagine, life was not always harmonious with four keepers and their families living in close proximity on the point. In 1939, Assistant Keeper Lovel J. Hamilton, who had been at Point Arena for nearly a decade, was dismissed for “neglect of duty, insubordination, insolence, fomenting quarrels and threatening other employees with bodily harm.”
Keeper Bill Owens served at Point Arena from 1937 to 1952, during which time control of lighthouses passed from the Bureau of Lighthouses to the Coast Guard in 1939. The daymark of the tower was slightly changed as part of this transition. As can be seen in the historic black and white photograph on this page, the gallery around the lantern room was formerly painted black, but the Coast Guard decided to paint the entire cement portion of the tower white when they took control.
Bill and Cora Owens had five daughters when they moved to Point Arena, and a sixth one was born in their dwelling there in 1939. To reduce their food bill, the family bought a Jersey cow and a small flock of chickens, and planted a garden. Cora had to battle gophers to protect her precious carrots and potatoes, and one day Bessie the cow went missing. After searching the station, Cora finally discovered Bessie on a ledge about eight feet down the bluff near the fog signal building. Bessie was unable to climb the steep and soggy bank, so the keepers rigged up a block and tackle and used the family’s Packard to pull her up. After Bessie was safely back atop the bluff and untied, she just sauntered away as if nothing had happened.
When World War II broke out, the keepers at Point Arena were required to report all sightings during their watch. During one of Owens’ watches, he thought he saw a submarine off the point, but when reporting it, he was told, “There are no subs in these waters, go back to bed and get some sleep.” Unfortunately, Owens’ report proved accurate as the lumber schooner Amelia was torpedoed just north of Fort Bragg shortly thereafter.
In 1960, the keeper’s bungalows were razed and four modern, nondescript, ranch-style houses were built in their stead. The station was automated in 1977, when a rotating beacon was placed on the tower’s balcony, leaving Point Bonita Lighthouse as the only staffed lighthouse in California. Although not used, the Fresnel lens remained in the tower. The Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, a non-profit group, obtained a twenty-five-year lease to the light station in 1984, and was awarded ownership in 2000. A fine museum is housed in the fog signal building, and the four keeper’s dwellings can be rented for overnight stays. Adjacent to the tower, is the lintel from the doorway of the original tower that was found in the surf by Keeper Owens.
In 2008, renovations costing 1.6 million dollars were carried out on the public restrooms, fog signal building, and the tower, whose concrete had begun crumbling in recent years. As part of the work, a new copper roof was installed atop the lantern room, and the first-order Fresnel lens was relocated, along with its pedestal and drive mechanism, to the fog signal building. Fresnel lens expert Jim Woodward was brought in to oversee the dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling of the lens. The tower was reopened to visitors in February 2009 but remained unpainted due to a lack of funds until November 2010. A metal floor has been installed in the lantern room, and this large space, formerly filled by the Fresnel lens, makes for a great observation room. Click here for a live view of the lighthouse.