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Lighthouses Around San Francisco Bay

by Susan Saperstein

Our friends from other locations think of this area as sunny California. But if you live around San Francisco Bay, you know about the fog. And there are other dangers for ships, including strong gales, rocks, and shoals. Lighthouses were built here since Gold Rush times to warn ships of the dangers. I spoke with City Guide Patricia Duff, who works for the United States Coast Guard in their Lighthouse Divestiture program. As Patricia told me, the lighthouses were operated by the U. S. Lighthouse Service until 1939, when the Coast Guard took control. By the 1970s, most lighthouses were automated, mariners were using GPS systems, and the keepers were not needed at these sites. The keepers’ quarters were either abandoned or used by other government organizations. In some cases, locals made agreements with the Coast Guard to take over the site. This happened with the East Brother Lighthouse in Richmond, where they kept the historic buildings and opened an inn. However, there were many historic lighthouses without keepers, and the structures were falling apart.

The Coast Guard and lighthouse enthusiasts recognized this fact and had legislation passed to have the Coast Guard disposition them. The National Historic Preservation Act of 2000 enables the federal government to report the lighthouses as excess property and let other entities apply for ownership to continue the historic preservation. This bill enables nonprofit organizations to legally own them without having to compete with larger, more affluent groups. The Coast Guard still has access to the properties because the lighthouses are still used in navigation as a day mark. Pat’s job is to prepare the documents, including environmental analyses (yes—they all used lead paint), and make them available. Applications are sent to the National Park Service. In the Bay Area, California State Parks manage the lighthouses at Pigeon Point, Bonita, and Montara. Although now they are automated and without lighthouse keepers, you can still visit some. Here is a description of three. Next month GuideLines will describe other lighthouses around the Bay.

Mile Rocks—Two large rocks named Mile Rock and Little Mile Rock are located just off San Francisco’s Point Lobos. The rocks were first marked with a bell buoy in 1889. After a shipwreck off Fort Point in 1901 in which many people died, it was decided to build a lighthouse here. The builder set out with a crew, but his potential workers refused to work when they saw the wave-swept rock worksite. The contractor came back with divers as builders.

The lighthouse was essentially a cylinder on top of a rock. Families could not live on the station because it was so small, the noise from the fog signal was deafening, and it was often difficult to get on and off the rocks because of powerful waves. Mile Rocks lighthouse was automated and then closed in the 1960s. The tower was removed, and the base is used as a helicopter landing.

Lime Point—Established as a fog signal station in 1883 on a projection of rocks by the Golden Gate entrance, this lighthouse is now under the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. The first prob-lem it encoun-tered was land-slides from the hill above it, which now sup-ports the Golden Gate Bridge. After the bridge was built, tour-ists would drop things off the side onto the building, and orange paint drops from the bridge painters dripped down on the keepers. In 1959, the lighthouse was even robbed by a gunman. It was automated in 1961 and the keeper’s house removed. The station is now closed to the public.

Point Bonita—This lighthouse in the Marin Headlands, built in 1855, marks the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It was the first fog signal on the West Coast using a cannon, a predecessor to later bells, gongs, horns, and sirens. Like other lighthouses, the tower was build on a high area. However, it was soon discovered that the beacon was above the fog line and ships could not see it. In 1877 the lighthouse was moved lower on the hill. The new site had a walkway around the hill cliff side with a suspension bridge to the lighthouse. At the same time, Chinese laborers experienced in digging rail tunnels were hired to pick axe a 180-foot tunnel to bring supplies to the lighthouse. Automated in 1980, it was the last manned lighthouse in California. The Point Bonita Lighthouse is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and open several days a week.

Fort Point—Three lighthouses were constructed at Fort Point. The first, completed in 1853, was never used because it was still waiting for its Fresnel lens when it was torn down three months later to build Fort Winfield Scott. A second lighthouse was built in 1855. A structure built on a narrow ledge between the fort and the seawall, it was torn down eight years later when the Army needed to repair the eroding seawall. This photo shows the next structure, built in 1908. The tower was built on the parapet of Fort Point, and the houses of the three keepers were behind on the bluff, connected by a catwalk. It was deactivated in 1934 when the Golden Gate Bridge was built because the bridge blocked the light. You can see the lighthouse when visiting Fort Point.

Alcatraz Island—The Alcatraz lighthouse, dating from 1853, was the first on the Pacific Coast. The 1906 Earthquake caused a crack in the tower. Because by this time the military buildings on the island were obscuring the tower, it was decided to build a taller light tower rather than fix the cracked one. The old lighthouse was replaced by an 84-foot tower of concrete in 1909.

When the island changed from a military prison to a federal prison in 1934, the prison guards helped the keepers by informing them of the fog because they could see it better from their lookouts. The lighthouse was automated in 1963. Angel Island—Several light and fog signal stations were placed around the island. On the southwest end of the island, just offshore from Tiburon at Point Knox, a fog bell was installed in 1886. A one-story keeper's dwelling was built adjacent to the bell house. The station was reached by a long wooden stair-way down the face of a steep cliff facing the Bay. Juliet Fish Nichols was the sole keeper in 1902. She followed in the footsteps of her husband, Henry Nichols, a lighthouse inspector, and her aunt/stepmother, Emily Fish—who was the keeper at the Point Pinos lighthouse in Pacific Grove. (Juliet’s mother died during childbirth, and her aunt married her father.) Both women were on duty during the 1906 Earthquake. The Point Knox building was destroyed by fire in 1963.

In 1915, a second light was put at Point Stuart for the north side of the island. A third signal was added in 1960 at Point Blunt for the southeast area of Angel Island. There was also a light and fog signal place at North Garrison. Point Blunt was automated in 1976.

The lighthouse sites are not accessible, but are visible from the ferries traveling in San Francisco Bay.

Yerba Buena Island—Established in the 1870s, the lighthouse was built primarily as a guide for ferries between San Francisco and Oakland. The land had already been cleared by the wood-choppers and goats that inhabited the island, formerly called both Wood Island and Goat Island. Poet Joaquin Miller suggested replanting the trees, and California’s first Arbor Day was celebrated here in 1886. Within a few years the trees were quite tall, so the cliff directly below the station was painted white to give it greater visibility, as seen in this photo. The Yerba Buena lighthouse was automated in 1958. The Coast Guard Admiral now lives in the keeper’s house.

Oakland Harbor Light—When Oakland became the terminus for the Central Pacific Railroad, two piers extending two miles out into San Francisco Bay were built to form a shipping terminal. The first Oakland Harbor lighthouse opened in 1890 on wooden pilings off one pier. Within a few years a marine termite weakened the wooden pilings, so in 1902 another structure was built using steel and concrete supports. Both the piers and the city of Oakland extended towards the lighthouse. The keepers were able to travel back and forth to the lighthouse by car rather than rowboat. In 1966 an automatic beacon was installed and the lighthouse was deactivated. The building was auctioned in 1984 and moved to the Oakland Estuary, where it was converted into a restaurant, Quinn’s Lighthouse Restaurant and Pub.

Sources: Patricia Duff, United States Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Specialist, Program Manager for West Coast Lighthouse Divestiture Files in the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library Guardians of the Golden Gate, Ralph Shanks and Lisa Woo Shanks California Lighthouse Life in the 1920s and 1930s, Wayne C. Wheeler

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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People looking at Mile Rocks Lighthouse from Point Lobos in 1947

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View of Lime Point Lighthouse during Golden Gate Bridge construction.

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Undated photo of Pt. Bonita Lighthouse

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Fort Point

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The first Alcatraz lighthouse, and the tower that replaced it

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Point Knox Lighthouse ib Angel Island in 1946

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The Yerba Buena lighthouse

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