Año Nuevo Island is five miles south of Pigeon Point and roughly nine acres in size. After surveying the coast north of Monterey for the U.S. Coast Survey, A. M. Harrison made the following recommendation for a light at Año Nuevo in an 1855 report. “Point Año Nuevo possesses all the requisites as a site for a guide to Santa Cruz harbor, and would also prove of advantage to the vessels in the coasting trade. This point once made, it becomes a matter of little difficulty to reach Santa Cruz; and vessels from the Northward, bound to Monterey, and even up and down the coast, would find a light here very serviceable.”
Before an appropriation for a first-order light on Año Nuevo Island was made in 1868, the Carrier Pigeon was lost in 1853, followed by the Sir John Franklin in 1865, and the Coya in 1866. Año Nuevo island had been reserved for light-house purposes by the President of the United States, but the owners of the surrounding rancho still claimed title to the island. After some difficulty, the government finally purchased Año Nuevo Island and land on Pigeon Point for $10,000 in 1870.
The Lighthouse Board decided to place a first-order light on Pigeon Point and erect just a fog signal station on Año Nuevo Island. The first blast of the island’s twelve-inch steam whistle was emitted on May 29, 1872, with John Kenney as the first head keeper. Kenney served just six months before being removed, and most of his immediate successors served just a year or two before being removed or resigning. The keepers’ dwelling was placed at the southern end of the island, with a wooden walkway running north to the fog signal, located about halfway up the western side of the island. To collect water for the thirsty steam whistle, a water catchment basin and cistern were built on the slop just east of the fog signal building.
A duplicate steam whistle was added to the station in 1880, and on January 1, 1881, the characteristic of the fog signal was changed from a fifteen-second blast each minute to a ten-second blast followed by fifty-five seconds of silence. The fog signal was in operation roughly 700 hours a year and consumed about forty tons of coal. To protect the fog signal building, a seventy-foot-long seawall was built along the bluff nearby bluff, and a cave in the sandstone just north of the structure was filled with cement in the spring of 1886.
On February 12, 1890, the island’s first light, a lens lantern mounted on a post on the seaward side of the fog signal, was placed in operation to improve the station’s effectiveness. Ten years later, a small frame structure, with plate-glass planes, was constructed around the lantern to protect it from the weather.
Thomas Butwell became head keeper at Ano Nuevo in 1894, after having worked as a boatman in San Francisco. Keeper Butwell brought his full-blooded setter Jip to the island, and when the dog passed away three years later, his death was noted in a San Francisco paper. Jip, whom the paper called the most sagacious and useful canine, was known in San Francisco as “The dog detective,” “The dog life-saver,” and “The dog paper-carrier.” Some of Jip’s most noteworthy acts were saving a boy who had fallen off the end of Mission Street from drowning, finding a boy who had been lost for four days, and helping the police apprehend numerous thieves and wrongdoers. Any human would have been proud to have an obituary with as many meritorious deeds as found in Jip’s.
The dwelling for the two keepers is barely sufficient for one, as both are men of family, and are worthy of something better in the way of living accommodations. The dwelling is a one-story frame structure, 36 feet by 28 feet in plan, with a small kitchen attached and no cellar. It has been partitioned off, so that the two keepers with their families live in it, but at great inconvenience and discomfort. The Board is of the opinion that it is necessary to encourage capable men to take service with the Light-House Establishment; that to do so it is necessary that they should be provided, at least, with reasonable accommodations. It is estimated that an additional keeper's dwelling can be built here for $6,000, a much larger sum than would be required were it not that the island is in the open sea, outside of all freighting accommodations, and that the material for the dwelling would have to be transported to the site by special arrangements.A nine-room, two-story addition was attached to the original dwelling in 1905, resulting in “ample accommodation for the keepers and their families.”
Fences were built around the dwelling to keep the island’s sea lions from invading the house and adjacent garden. Permission was granted in 1899 to the State Fish Commission to thin out the island’s sea lion herd that was affecting the fishing industry, provided the keepers were not interfered with and the carcasses were removed from the island. Just days after the killing started, the Lighthouse Board revoked its permission due to protests they had received. In 1916, the keeper’s complaints about the sea lions, which they were forbidden to kill, were picked up by newspapers throughout the country: “When he opens the door troops of young sea lions march into the house, and at meal time the entire colony surrounds his domicile, barking for admittance. Sleep is difficult, he declares, for the slightest disturbance in the night is a signal for a sea lion chorus which can be heard all over the island.”
A 15,000-gallon redwood water tank was erected on the island in 1907, and in 1911, a lantern room was placed atop the tank for displaying a fourth-order light. In 1914, a square, skeleton tower with an enclosed watchroom and lantern room was built next to the water tank, and the Fresnel lens was transferred to this structure.
At 4:40 a.m. on October 22, 1926, an earthquake struck the station and shook the incandescent oil vapor lamp off its base and sent it crashing into the lens. About one-third of the lens prisms were shaken out of the brass framework and fell to the lantern room floor. Thought it was nearing sunrise, the keepers promptly displayed a hand lantern to seaward. An hour later, a second quake struck, and the tower rocked so much that the lens was torn loose from its table and thrown to the floor, with about half of the glass falling through the hatch into the watchroom. Crockery, glassware, and clocks were broken and thrown about in the keeper’s dwellings, and several gallons of kerosene sloshed out of the 200-gallon storage tanks in the oil house. A replacement fourth-order lens was shipped to the station, and the light was soon back in commission.
The station on Año Nuevo Island was deactivated in 1948, replaced by a whistle buoy anchored about 1,600 yards south of the island. Frank Spenger bid $100,000 for the island at an auction in March 1958 with the intention of building a causeway to the island and converting the abandoned light station into a resort and commercial fishing base. The State of California, however, had first dibs on Año Nuevo Island, and it acquired the island in April 1958 for $51,094 and incorporated it into the newly acquired reserve on the adjacent mainland. The island had been offered to the state in 1956 for $18,000, roughly half of its estimated value, but after the state failed to finalize the purchase, the island went to auction. The success of the auction prompted the federal government to raise the state’s sale price to half of the winning bid plus the cost of the auction.
Nature and vandalism quickly took their toll on the station’s buildings following abandonment of the island. In 1976, the state cut down the steel lighthouse as it was likely to collapse. The toppled tower remains on the island and can easily be viewed from the mainland.
Año Nuevo Island and Point are part of a Wildlife Protection Area located in Año Nuevo State Reserve, which features a live SealCam on their website. Modern visitors can experience the seals’ calls and grunts and strong odor that so bothered the keepers by taking a 1.7-mile hike from the parking area at the state park. The parks visitor’s center has a model of the island, showing how the station looked during its prime.
From December to March, access to the point is permitted only on regularly scheduled guided walks. During these months the females give birth to their pups, and the giant bull seals fight for dominance and the privilege of mating with the females. At other times of the year, visitors are free to visit the point during park hours. The seals return to the beach to molt from April until August. The historic fog signal buildings on the island are used as a laboratory/dormitory for the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz.