The Piedras Blancas Light Station is located on a rugged, windswept point along the central coast of California. Prior to 1949, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse was arguably one of the most elegant lighthouses along the west coast. First illuminated on February 15, 1875, the light has changed many times over the years.
The first light at Piedras Blancas was a first order Fresnel lens constructed by Henry Lapaute of France in 1872. Originally the light was a fixed white light varied by a single white flash every 15 seconds. In a fixed light there is some light visible at all times. In the Piedras Blancas light there were eight horizontal panels of lenses and prisms alternating with eight panels referred to as bull's eye lenses, which are curved with a circular lens in the center. The horizontal panels, or barrel lenses, produced the fixed light, which was little more than a glow. The bull's eye panels produce a beam which is seen as a flash as the lens rotates. The entire lens apparatus rotated on chariot wheels, making one entire rotation every two minutes. The 1879 light list reports this light could be seen for a distance of 19 miles.
In 1916 an interesting reconfiguration of the lens occurred. The horizontal lens panels were removed and the bull's eye panels were rearranged so they were side by side in sets of two. Placed between each set of bull's eyes were two opaque panels, called eclipse panels. As the lens revolved, the reconfiguration of the panels produced a grouping of two flashes every 15 seconds separated by a period of darkness caused by the opaque panels. The timing was adjusted so the entire lens rotated once every one minute.
Why would the decision be made to drastically change the lens in this fashion? We don't know for certain, but the 1912 light list provides a clue. At that time the light at Point Sur flashed alternately red and white every 15 seconds. Perhaps the fixed-and-flashing-every-15-seconds signature from Piedras Blancas was too similar. We do not know what happened to the eight panels of horizontal lenses after they were removed. It can only be imagined how beautiful the lens was before it was altered.
There was more change coming of an even more drastic nature. In 1949, as a result of earthquake damage, the entire upper portion of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse was removed, including the fourth floor landing, the watch room, and the lantern room. Whereas it had been 100 feet from the base of the tower to the top of the ventilator ball, the height of the lighthouse was reduced to 74 feet. The
first order lens was carefully disassembled and the pieces numbered. Members of the Cambria Lion's Club moved the lens to a location next to the Veteran's Memorial Building in Cambria, where it was reassembled and is on still on display.
A vertically stacked 36 inch aero beacon was placed on top of the truncated tower and the lights were positioned at an angle so the signature remained a double flash every 15 seconds. In 1975 it was replaced with a 24 inch aero beacon, with the lights facing in opposite directions. At that point the characteristic changed to a single flash every ten seconds.
The 24 inch aero beacon failed in 1999 and the emergency light was pressed into service. This change was not well received by residents of the nearby community of Cambria, who found the emergency light too dim to be seen. In 2001 management of the Piedras Blancas Light Station was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In May 2002, the BLM replaced the emergency light with a new VRB-25 beacon. Although the current beacon uses a very small 12 volt halogen light, the 2006 light list reports the light can be seen up to 21 miles. The characteristic is a single flash every ten seconds.
The BLM's Management Plan for the Piedras Blancas Light Station calls for the site to be restored to its period of greatest historical significance, 1875-1939. Restoring the lighthouse will be an expensive challenge. Studies indicate it may be possible to replicate the upper portions of the tower using modern engineering techniques. Perhaps someday a replica of the beautiful, original, first order Fresnel lens will be placed atop a fully restored Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
July 2009 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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