Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, either southbound or northbound, you would never guess that to the north of that road, hidden behind low rolling hills in the Marin Headlands, is a treasure trove of unseen things to do and see. This area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreations area.
Hidden from land but a beacon of hope from the sea, stands the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
I had driven by this area many times going to San Francisco and never realized it was there until a friend, knowing of my love of lighthouses asked if I had been to Point Bonita. I answered I had not, but would rectify that the next weekend, which I did.
Point Bonita Lighthouse is the third lighthouse to be built on the West Coast. It was completed in 1855 after Alcatraz and Fort Point lighthouses. The narrow and steep formation of gray rock that make up Point Bonita extends half a mile off the Marin Headlands forming the outer reaches of the north entrance into San Francisco Bay. Rocks, shoals, fog and strong currents made hazardous sailing conditions.
Congress had received recommendations as early as 1850 from the Coast Survey that a lighthouse should be built on Point Bonita and immediately. But as usual, the funds were slow in coming.
Then in 1853 several events happened to help speed things along. The steamship Tennessee, heavy with passengers was swept ashore north of Point Bonita at what is today called Tennessee Cove. Luck was riding with the passengers of the Tennessee that day as the ship ran aground on the beach, all aboard were saved. The clipper chip San Francisco ran into rocks at Point Bonita, trying to sail in heavy fog, and sank east of the point in Bonita Cove.
The need for a lighthouse in this area could no longer be overlooked.
Those in charge were giving thought to building it at Point Lobos in San Francisco on the southwest side of the Golden Gate Bridge. They began drawing plans accordingly. The local mariners, knowing the coast best, argued for a beacon on Point Bonita. They knew that a light at Point Lobos could not be neared in thick fog without the risk of running into the dangerous rocks where as Point Bonita could be approached within 150 yards safely. The Superintendent of Lights at San Francisco strongly agreed with the lighthouse placement at Point Bonita.
Congress finally appropriated $25,000 in March 1853, to build Point Bonita Light Station. Of that amount, seven thousand dollars was used to by a second order Fresnel lens from Paris. The non-flashing second order lens meant that lighthouse authorities knew the need for an effective and powerful light at this location. An identical second order lends had been purchased for Boon Island lighthouse, nine miles off York Harbor, Main. It is New England’s tallest lighthouse, reaching 133 feet and Coast Guardsmen still think it the most dangerous station to land on in the entire state of Main. Ordering this fixed lens was a major breakthrough in the building of lighthouses on the West Coast. It was finally recognized that Point Bonita was to be of great importance.
Campbell Graham, the 12th District Lighthouse Inspector was given the responsibility to get construction started on the lighthouse on May 1854. With the best of intentions, Graham visited the hard to reach area of Point Bonita. He selected the highest hill for the lighthouse. This would prove to be a big mistake. California was new to most early Americans and their knowledge of the environment was limited. On the lower shores of the East Coast, the higher a light house the better, but on the West Coast where fog was the enemy, this height turned out to be disastrous as they soon learned.
The first lighthouse was a fifty-six foot brick tower that reached 306 feet above the sea. It was a thing of beauty as well as use, with iron gargoyles in the shape of the American eagles on each of the rainspouts.
The second-order Fresnel lens was lit on April 30, 1855. Quarters for the two keepers and their family was built a short distance away. It was built Cap Cod style but without the tower. Stairs leading into the
attic separated the two families. You can still see the covered cisterns today.
A twenty-four pounder cannon was installed in August 1856 as California’s first fog signal. Retired Sergeant Edward Maloney fired the cannon. At the time of one particularly foggy spell Maloney had to fire the gun every half-hour for three days and three nights. During that time, he had only two hours sleep, as the keepers would not help him.
For a short while, the cannon was replaced by a bell-boat anchored close to the bar. Later, a 1,500-pound fog bell hanging from a frame building clanged the warnings.
Life at Point Bonita was not happy. The work was very long and tiring, some of the lens had been installed wrong and were constantly breaking.
The worst part was the isolation and transportation was almost nonexistent. New fog sounding equipment was adder later, which helped, but the fog itself was the worst enemy. When the fog was its worst, the light could not be seen so the shipwrecks continued.
Finally in the 1870’s the lighthouse and fog signal were rebuilt on the high, sheer ridges below where it now stands. Special landing platforms had to be built with railway, derricks and tramway to lift the supplies.
The original lens was used in the second lighthouse. At first a narrow trail was used around the edge of the hill to get to the light, but the constant wind and weather kept eroding the trail. In 1876 Chinese workers were brought in to hand carve a tunnel. Because of the closeness
to a fault line, dynamite could not be used. The tunnel, 118 feet long was cut solid rock in just six months. When you visit the lighthouse, you will go this very tunnel to get there.
Keeper Captain John Briercliff Brown lit the lamp in the new lighthouse on February 1, 1877. He was much happier with the new light. It was much sturdier and did not rock in the wind, as did the old light. When Brown retired from service after 27 years he was honored as a faithful keeper and respected. He and his assistants had saved forth men from the sea with the light from the new lighthouse. There was now a Point Bonita Life-Saving Station above the cove.
The new lightkeeper, Hermann and Freda Engel and their two children moved in the dwelling in 1901, which by now were pretty musty. The house needed to be rebuilt but little was done about it until the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 took care of matters. On April 18, at 5:12am, Freda grabbed their two sons and barely made it outside before the building collapsed. The old original tower had also withstood the earthquake. It was later torn down. Luckily, no lives were lost, but the family had to live in an army engineer’s office for the next two years. Being very cramped, the children loved to play outside. Even though the yard was fenced, the children had to be tethered to a pole in order to keep them from falling over the cliff. Finally a new home was built.
A narrow landbridge connected the mainland to the new lighthouse until 1941when a landslide took it way creating a chasm. In 1954 the Coast Guard, now in charge of the station, built a wooden bridge and a suspension bridge.
Walking along the trail to the lighthouse, you can look down and will see remains of a loading area were supplies were brought in by boat. Despite the lighthouses and the foghorns that were installed, many ships still wrecked when the fog was thick. It was hard for the lightkeepers to get down the cliff to try and help. There are remains of a dock, ramp and rails where smaller ships were kept for emergencies. The keepers could get to them and out to sea quicker If walking over a swinging suspension bridge does not bother you, it is worth the short walk to get a really good look at this lighthouse and the years of history that surround it. This is the only American lighthouse that is reached by a suspension bridge, built as a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. You will also get a totally different view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay that you could only get coming in by boat. I was told that this was the sight many soldiers first saw after coming home from the war. What a wonderful sight that must have been.
In 1979 Point Bonita was the last manned lighthouse in California. It became automated in 1980 and its automated beam shines from the southwestern tip of the Marin Headlands at the north side of the Golden Gate.
Do you know how the name Golden Gate came about? This area was first explored by Sir Francis Drake back in the 1700’s. He set anchor here by mistake. He was looking for the Monterey Bay Harbor and went to far north. He finally sent boats in to see if this was the right area. After several days of exploring, they realized it was not Monterey, but thought this was certainly an area that could offer a “golden opportunity” to new settlers and ships. Since the opening looked like a gate, thus the name Golden Gate.
Point Bonita Lighthouse is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just one of the many great places to visit and see in this area. After exiting off 101, just before the Golden Gate Bridge, you go through a tunnel that opens up a whole other area of fun and enjoyment. The lighthouse is only open for touring on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 12:30 to 3:30. At 12:30 there is a guided tour that I highly recommend.
The guide will not only tell you the history behind the lighthouse, but point out geology structures, wildflowers and other things along the way that add to your outing.
The tide was out as we walked the path to the lighthouse and we could see the harbor seas on the rocks below as they snoozed in the sun. This added to the enjoyment of the trip.
The view from the lighthouse is quite varied from the endless sea in two directions, the hill behind and the beautiful scene of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco in the other. I tried to imagine what this must have looked like many years ago before the bridge, people or buildings.
It must have been even more breathtaking. This was the first time I had seen the entrance to the harbor and the Golden Gate Bridge from this view. Take a trip to this part of the Marin Headlands and discover for yourself all the wonderful things to see and do beside the lighthouse.
The Bay Area Discovery Museum provides children, parents and teachers’ programs in science, technology and the arts. The Headlands Institute outdoor classroom offers a natural setting for exploring a variety of ecosystems. The Marin Headlands Hostel is one of more than 4,500 worldwide that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds in an atmosphere of intercultural exchange and cooperative living. The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation hospital for stranded marine mammals. They provide many educational programs. .
ENJOY! Finding your way: 101 southbound, Last Sausalito exit before Golden Gate Bridge 101 northbound: exit “Alexander Avenue” just before Golden Gate Bridge.
Follow brown signs into park and to Point Bonita Marin Headlands Visitor Center 415-331-1540.
This story appeared in the
August 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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