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Cape Mendocino, CA  Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Interior open or museum on site.   

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Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

Cape Mendocino is the westernmost point in California, just beating out Punta Gorda eleven miles to the south. Standing just offshore from the mountainous headland of Cape Mendocino is Sugar Loaf, a 326-foot sea stack. Several other large rocks protrude from the shallow waters along this stretch of coast, hinting that hidden ledges might lie just below the surface of the ocean waiting for a misguided vessel. That they do indeed exist is evidenced by dangerous Blunts Reef located three miles off the cape.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in 1930 - note windbreak.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
On September 8, 1867, the side-wheeled lighthouse tender Shubrick was steaming towards Cape Mendocino loaded with men and supplies for construction of the light station when it struck a rock thirty miles south of the cape in a dense fog and punctured its wooden hull. The Shubrick’s captain wisely chose to run her aground to save the vessel from sinking. All building materials were lost, but the tender was eventually salvaged. A few months later, new supplies were landed at the base of the headland at Cape Mendocino and hauled up the steep slope to the construction site. Two small sailing vessels were chartered to transport bricks to the cape, and while landing these bricks, one man was drowned.

As the headland slopes steeply towards the ocean, level plateaus had to be carved out of the hill to provide suitable construction sites. Within a year, a two-story brick duplex, a carpenter shop, and a barn were completed. After the lantern room and Fresnel lens arrived in San Francisco, they along with the material for the iron lighthouse that was fabricated in San Francisco were shipped to Eureka during the summer of 1868. To avoid a dangerous landing through the surf, the items were transported the forty miles from Eureka to the cape by wagons

The sixteen-sided, double-balconied Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was bolted to a concrete pad at a height of 422 feet above the sea, making it one of the highest lighthouses in the United States. In fact, after the original Point Loma Lighthouse was discontinued in 1891, Cape Mendocino became the highest lighthouse in the country. The forty-three-foot iron tower is the older twin of the tower at Point Reyes, which would be built two years later. The main difference between the two towers is the shape of the lantern room’s roof. Cape Mendocino’s roof is rounded like an umbrella, while Point Reyes’ resembles a Chinaman’s hat. The first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris by L. Sautter, featured sixteen flash panels and started sending out its characteristic signal of one white flash every thirty seconds on December 1, 1868.

Alfred May was hired as the first head keeper at an annual salary of $1,000, while his wife and two men were paid $625 to serve as his assistants. The position of third assistant was eliminated in 1873, as without a fog signal to care for, the station didn’t merit four keepers. Water for the keepers and their families was stored in brick-lined cisterns and wooden tanks after being captured from the dwelling’s roof or piped in from a spring. Both sources of water proved scarce during the dry season, so water use had to be restricted.

Living conditions on the exposed hillside were most difficult. Violent windstorms would break windows, and earthquakes frequently rattled the station causing significant damage to the structures. In just over forty years, housing for the keepers had to be completely rebuilt three times. The original brick duplex didn’t survive two years, being rendered uninhabitable by an earthquake in March 1871. The keepers were forced to live in a shanty until a new wooden duplex, built using the same plans as the original dwelling at Cape Blanco, was finished in November. In 1875, the duplex was braced with external twelve-inch-square timbers to protect the structure from the heavy winds on the cape that made it impossible at times for anyone to cross the 300 feet from the dwelling to the lighthouse.

Aerial view of station in 1945. Head keeper's dwelling is lower of two dwellings.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
William C. Price came to the station as head keeper in 1891, and on December 24 of the following year, he recorded a frightful storm in the logbook: “Keeper vacating dwellings on account of the great portion of the roof blowing off, blowing the chimneys down…wrenching window shutters off their hinges…” The keepers and their families sought refuge in the lighthouse and then moved into the barn on Christmas Day.

Due to the steep terrain surrounding the station, the land frequently settled and slid during the wet season. As a result, floors warped and ceilings cracked. The dilapidated two-story duplex was torn down in 1895 and rebuilt as a one-and-a-half-story dwelling using as much of the old material as possible. As the new dwelling was smaller than its predecessor, one of the assistant keepers was forced to live in an old oil house until the government provided the requested $5,500 for an additional one-story cottage. Although the Lighthouse Board described the oil house as “almost uninhabitable on account of its bad and unsanitary conditions” and attributed “recent illness and death in the keeper’s family” to it, the wooden shed continued to be used as housing until it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake that caused so much damage in San Francisco. It is interesting that Congress provided $1,000 in 1900 for a fireproof oil house at Cape Mendocino, but couldn’t come up with funds for a new dwelling until after the earthquake. An act approved on June 30, 1906 provided $5,400 for a new dwelling at Cape Mendocino, and this structure was completed in 1907.

In 1870, Haus Buhne filed suit against Head Keeper Seth Chism, claiming that he owned the land on which the light station was built and demanding that the keepers be ejected. The case was tried in the district court in June of that year and resulted in a “nonsuit,” but Buhne appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court. The suit was decided on October 10, 1872 in favor of the government.

Sleeping quarters with a stove and two bunks were erected adjacent to the lighthouse in 1883 for the keepers as it was often dangerous for them to go between the dwelling and tower on dark and stormy nights. Previously, they had to occasionally stand watch in the tower’s unheated watchroom in wet clothing which led to them contracting lung disease and suffering from rheumatism.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse circa 1948
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The light station was serviced by lighthouse tender during its early years due to its remoteness. In 1881, the tender Manzanita arrived offshore and Inspector Charles J. McDougal boarded a boat to be rowed ashore. Large breakers capsized the vessel, tossing the occupants into the turbulent water. Three of the men aboard drowned, including McDougal, who was reportedly weighed down by a bag of gold coins fastened about his waist that was to be given as compensation to the keepers. A year later, McDougal’s widow was appointed keeper of Mare Island Lighthouse near Vallejo, a position she held for thirty-five years.

In 1905, the Cape Mendocino station received neighbors when Blunts Reef Lightship was stationed offshore to more clearly mark that deadly hazard. The lightship would take on an unexpected role in 1916 when the passenger steamer Bear ran aground nearby. Initially, the vessel’s lifeboats were used to row passengers ashore, however, after five people drowned in the surf, it was deemed safer to row toward the lightship. Somehow, 150 survivors managed to squeeze aboard the lightship until they could be safely transported ashore.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse burned lard oil up until 1888 when mineral oil lamps were supplied. In 1911, the intensity of the light was raised from 71,000 candlepower to 340,000 candlepower by changing the illuminant from oil vapor to incandescent oil vapor.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Station was quite large, comprising 172 acres. Although much of the terrain was steep, the pastoral hills did provide good feed, and several keepers grazed cows at the station. An industrious assistant keeper named Paschal Hunter decided to raise ponies on the station for the stage line that ran past the lighthouse on its run between Ferndale and Petrolia. Given the undulating nature of the landscape near Cape Mendocino, a change of horses needed to be made just four miles northeast of the lighthouse in Capetown. Hunter provided horses for the stage until a gasoline vehicle was introduced on that line. Shortly after his supplemental income dried up, Hunter transferred to Punta Gorda to be closer to his hometown.

The elevated station proved an ideal lookout for vessel traffic. On an October day in 1926, Keeper Morton M. Palmer observed that a passing steam schooner, the Everett, was afire. Using the station’s telephone, Palmer called for assistance, and when a rescue vessel arrived at the burning vessel, it was discovered that the crew had been overcome by the fire’s fumes. The observant Keeper Palmer was credited with saving the lives of those aboard the Everett.

Modern Light - discontinued May 29, 2013
The Coast Guard took control of Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in 1939, by which time the new caretakers were able to drive vehicles to their remote residences. Following World War II, the lighthouse was automated, and the Fresnel lens was removed and a rotating aerobeacon was placed in the lantern room. The lens was taken to Ferndale, where in 1948 it was installed in a replica of the tower, constructed on the Humboldt County Fairgrounds. During each night of the fair, the lens was lit and sent forth its sixteen beams of glorious light, but then in 2008, the Coast Guard visited the lens to assess its condition and the manner in which it was housed. In April 2010, the Ferndale City Manager received a letter from the Coast Guard explaining that “the continued deterioration of the lens, due to a lack of a controlled environment, and the potential for further damage must be addressed.” The lens was removed from the replica lighthouse in September 2012 and placed in storage at the fairgrounds. The City of Ferndale was given four years to build a climate-controlled exhibit space for the lens. A Save Our Lens group was established and raised some funds for a new home for the lens, but the amount was far from enough. The lens was still in storage at the fairgrounds in 2018, but the Coast Guard was expected to pick it up at any time.

In July 1960, the two wooden keeper’s dwellings along with the power house, oil house, and store house at Cape Mendocino were put up for sale to the highest bidder with the stipulation that they be removed from the station. When no takers came forward, the wooden structures were burned in January 1962 and the remains were pushed over the cliff. The rotating beacon was removed from the tower and placed on a pole farther up the hill in 1971, the same year that Blunts Reef Lightship was withdrawn and replaced by a large navigational buoy.

The abandoned lighthouse was slowly inching down the hillside and gradually succumbing to rust until a movement was initiated to save the tower and relocate it thirty-five miles south to Shelter Cove. During the first week of November 1998, a helicopter from the Army National Guard lifted the lantern room off the tower at its old home and carried it south to Shelter Cove. The remaining pieces of the lighthouse were numbered, dismantled, and trucked to a construction yard for renovation. In the summer of 1999, the lighthouse, restored, painted, and fitted with new glass by the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society, was reassembled at its new home at Point Delgada in Mel Coombs Park. The lighthouse was dedicated in September 2000 and opened to the public on Memorial Day 2001.

The modern light marking Cape Mendocino was discontinued on May 29, 2013 and removed, bringing to an end the roughly 145-year-long era of a light on the remote cape.


  • Head: Alfred May (1869), Joseph Corbett (1869 – 1871), Seth P. Chism (1871 – 1874), Archibald P. Marble (1874 – 1891), William C. Price (1891 – 1893), Robert Watson (1893 – 1894), David L. Spencer (1894 – 1895), William Henry Otto (1895 – 1897), Peter Jensen (1897 – 1921), Malcolm Cady (1921 – 1924), Morton M. Palmer (1924 – 1943), Roy M. Crockett (1943 – at least 1950).
  • First Assistant: G.A. May (1869), Adeline Corbett (1869 – 1871), George Trogdon (1871 – 1873), Henry T. Holbrook (1874 – 1875), John Glanz (1875), William H. Davis (1875 – 1877), Lorin V. Thorndyke (1877 – 1878), Joseph Collins (1878 – 1880), William McCarty (1880), William Windsor (1880 – 1887), Thomas Quinn (1887 – 1890), Alexander McDonald (1890 – 1892), Robert Watson (1892 – 1893), Rasmus O. Berge (1893 – 1894), William Henry Otto (1894 – 1895), Melvin P. Giles (1895 – 1903), Paschal Hunter (1903 – 1911), Albert M. Elston (1911 – 1916), Robert W. Hanson (1916), Henry G. Weske (1916), Winfield S. Williams (1916 – 1917), Richard Graefe (1917 – 1920), Alfred Cedergren (1920), James K. Neales (1920 – 1926), Peter S. Admiral (1926 – 1932), Philson Rickard (1932 – 1947), Edward E. Charron (at least 1950).
  • Second Assistant: Horace B. Whiting (1869), Walter Cutler (1869 – 1870), E.S. Curtis (1870), Samuel Ensign (1870 – 1871), Amelia Chism (1871 – 1874), Mary Marble (1874 – 1875), John H. Jeffrey (1875), Lorin V. Thorndyke (1875 – 1877), Joseph Collins (1877 – 1878), Victor H. Richet (1878 – 1879), E.T. Cole (1879 – 1880), William McCarty (1880), Nicholas Reynolds (1880), John Russell King (1880 – 1882), Frederick L. Harrington (1882 – 1885), Thomas Quinn (1885 – 1887), Thomas Reed (1888 – 1889), Alexander McDonald (1889 – 1890), Edward M. Wheeler (1890 – 1891), Robert Watson (1891 – 1892), Charles H. Mullen (1892 – 1893), Rasmus O. Berge (1893), William Henry Otto (1893 – 1894), Adolph Schander (1894), William H. Stumpf (1894 – 1895), Samuel Baxter (1895 – 1896), David R. Roberts (1896 – 1902), Carl E. Reit (1902 – 1904), Perry S. Hunter (1904 – 1908), Henry G. Weske (1908), H.T. Loesae (1908), C.C. Gingery (1908 – 1910), Charles W. Cook (1910), George M. Dowd (1910), William E. Greer (1910 – 1911), Perry S. Hunter (1911 – 1916), Richard R. Turkington (1917 – 1919), Emory Vradenburg (1920).
  • Third Assistant: J.G.P. Miller (1869), Ephraim H. Pinney (1869 – 1870), J.M. Sterling (1870), Joseph Collins (1870 – 1873).


  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
  3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.
  4. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, L. LeFevre, Russell Barber, used by permission.
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