CENTRAL COAST LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS
In 1939, the United States Coast Guard became responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all lighthouses including Point Sur. When the station was automated in 1972, the lighthouse keepers were no longer needed and left the station.
In 1984, the Coast Guard turned over all but the lighthouse, oil house, and mess hall, to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1987, volunteers began giving tours of Point Sur and in 1993 the non-profit Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers (CCLK) was formed to assist the state in restoring Point Sur Lightstation.
CCLK has no paid employees, yet it is due in part to their work with the State Parks that complete restoration of the carpenter/blacksmith shop (1999), the barn (2000), water tower (2001) and head keepers quarters (2012) has been accomplished. Because of the work of CCLK and all the volunteers we are able to tour this incredible location today!!!!
After a one hour hike, on a magnificent January day,
we arrive at the Point Sur lighthouse.
Our tour began in
the Fog Signal Room.
Originally this room housed the two boilers used to generate the steam for two fog whistles. Now the room is filled with informational placards and vintage equipment.
In order to help mariners determine their location as they travel the coasts of the United States each lighthouse is built with a unique look. When inclement weather or fog makes visual identification impossible, each lighthouse is also equipped with a unique fog whistle sound pattern and light flash pattern.
In the early days of Point Sur lightstation when the fog whistle was necessary, it would take 45 minutes to generate enough steam from the boilers to fuel the steam for the whistle. The lightstation would go through a lot of wood, notice the wood pile in the picture below taken in 1907.
In the 1930’s the steam whistle was replaced with the Diaphone air horn which produced a two tone “bee-oh” sound. The picture below shows the Diaphone horn used at Point Sur from 1935 to 1960.
The boilers in the fog signal room were replaced with large machines that produced the compressed air for the Diaphones. The picture below shows this machinery inside the fog signal room in 1939.
In the 70’s the Super Tyfon (a horn named after a mythological Greek Giant who apparently howled loudly) was installed. It consisted of two compressed air horns that sounded simultaneously and could be heard up to 3 nautical miles away.
For 83 years, from 1889 to 1972, the Point Sur lighthouse was lit by a First Order Fresnel Lens. Today the original lens, which stands 18 feet high, weights 9,570 pounds and contains 586 glass prisms can be seen at the Museum of Monterey.
The Fresnel lens was a complex system of glass prisms that bent light and magnified it. Before the invention of the Fresnel, the brightest lighthouse beam could be seen only 8 to 12 miles away. The light from the Fresnel was visible to ships over 23 miles away.
At night the lens would rotate around five wicks lit by kerosene. As the center “bulls eye” of the lens passed in front of the wicks, the light would get very bright. As it rotated away from the wicks, the light would dim.
The 9,570 pound lens was rotated by a weight mechanism similar to that of a grandfather clock. 450 pound weights were suspending down a center shaft (shaft shown in the picture below) to the base of the staircase. A light-keeper would crank these weights every four hours at night to keep the light working.
Another innovation made possible by the Fresnel lens was the ability to produce individual light patterns. This gave each lighthouse its own unique light signal. Point Sur’s light signal is a flash every 15 seconds.
In 1972 the Fresnel was replaced with the electric incandescent lamp shown in the picture above. In 1975 the incandescent lamp was replaced with the Aero-Beacon which is still in use today. Although the equipment at Point Sur is now automated, the lighthouse still performs its historic function – guiding mariners along the Big Sur Coast.
John now invites us to climb
the spiral staircase to the lantern room.
In 2001, with the help of grants and of course our tour fees (which are quite nominal with what we get in return), the lantern room was completely restored by the International Chimney Corporation. Those who are able to make the climb are rewarded…
…with a never ending vista,
spouts of the migrating Gray whale,
and sea lions frolicking in the kelp.
From the top of the lighthouse we view the steep set of stairs we will take to reach the lighthouse keepers living quarters. These stairs were built in 1945, prior to that the lighthouse keepers reached their living quarters by a dirt trail.
Stairs now lead to the living quarters on the lightstation.
The carpenter/blacksmith shop,
originally built in 1907, was restored in 1999
to look as it would have in 1929.
Next door is the barn which is now used as a classroom for school children on field trips. Restored in 2000, it’s actual building date is unknown.
The picture below shows the barn in the 1950’s when this building was used as a recreation center. The carpenter/blacksmith shop is to the right.
The picture below shows the two buildings today.
The water tower (shown in the picture below) was built in 1907 to store water high enough to provide water pressure for the new flush toilets installed on the 3rd floor of the assistant keepers’ quarters.
The redwood supports on the original water tower were milled in Big Sur. When the water tower was restored in 2001, redwood supports large enough to support the replica tower were not available locally, so the restored supports were milled out of Northern California.
Lighthouse keepers and their families lived in the two building shown below. The one to the right is the head keepers and the one to the left the assistant keepers. Though living quarters had indoor plumbing by 1907, they did not have electricity until 1949.
The picture below shows head keeper John Astrom (center) and his wife, Alice in 1916. There were a number of children living at the Point Sur, most under school age.
Only one family lived in the head keepers quarters…
which was renovated in 2012.
Inside the rooms have been renovated to depict what life would have been like on Point Sur in the 1950’s. Using photos from the 1950’s of the kitchen…
the renovation looks pretty authentic down to the coffee pot. Being Baby Boomers, my husband and I enjoyed touring this renovation….
finding something in every room that reminded us of our childhood. The phonograph…
and yes, parents did smoke in the bathroom.
Next door to the head keepers quarters is the assistance keepers quarters, three apartments, one on each floor.
Currently money is being raised to renovate this building, with the idea of making each floor depict a different era.
Our last stop is the Point Sur Visitors Center, where one may view more informational exhibits and a very informative video on the U.S.S. Macon.
By the end of our four hour tour my pedometer had clocked 2.25 miles. Our decent was easier and faster than our accent…the view, still spectacular!
The tour of Point Sur Lightstation is another hidden treasure in Monterey County. Well worth the price of admission!!! Special tours and events are held throughout the year, check their web page for tour details.
One of the best resources on Point Sur is the book Images of America Point Sur by Carol O’Neil, wife of our fearless tour guide John O’Neil. It is available on Amazon.
And now a video recap
and a map of our hike on Google Maps…
All photos and video by L. A. Momboisse except listed below:
– Black and white photo United States Coast Guard
– Black and white photo from 1907 showing the wood used to power the steam engines for the fog whistle. (Images of America Point Sur, Carol O’Neil, Arcadia Publishing, 2003, p63, photograph courtesy U.S. Lighthouse Society)
– Black and white photo from 1939 showing the machinery that produced the compressed air for the diaphones. (ibid. p 71)
– Black and white photo from the 1950’s of the barn and blacksmith/carpenter shop. (ibid. p 101)
– Black and white photo of head keeper John Astrom and family from 1916. (ibid. p 111)
– Black and white photo head keeper quarter World War II era (ibid. p 97)