Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2016

200-Foot High Wave Strikes Trinidad Head Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison

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This vintage view of the 1871 Trinidad Lighthouse ...

Although California’s Trinidad Head Lighthouse had its share of storms that caused havoc at the light station, overall it was considered a desirable station to serve at for lighthouse keepers and their families.

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Veteran lighthouse keeper Frederick L. Harrington ...

The 25-foot tall lighthouse tower, short by most lighthouse standards, rests majestically at the edge of a 175-foot high cliff overlooking Trinidad Harbor. No one could ever have imagined, or planned for, what would happen when, on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1914, a 200-foot high wave would strike and engulf the lighthouse.

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This view shows the entire Trinidad Lighthouse ...

Veteran lighthouse keeper Frederick L. Harrington, who had been stationed at Trinidad Head Lighthouse since 1888, was in the tower preparing the lens for the night when the wave struck. It had been blowing a gale since December 28th and with each passing hour the sea from the southwest got heavier. Frederick Harrington later recalled that at 3 p.m. on the 31st of December that the storm had appeared to have reached its peak when he saw the sea wash over the 93-foot high Pilot Rock, which is a half mile from Trinidad Head Lighthouse.

In the station’s log book, Frederick Harrington later wrote what happened next. “I was in the tower and had just set the lens in operation and turned to wipe the lantern room windows when I observed a sea of unusual height, then about 200 yards distant, approaching. I watched it as in came in.” We can only imagine what thoughts of possible fear went through his mind as he witnessed the giant storm-wave approaching him. He had nowhere to go, and even if he had tried to exit the tower and get away from the lighthouse, he might have been washed over the cliff to what would surely have been his untimely demise.

His writing in the log book continued. “When it struck the bluff, the jar was very heavy, and the sea shot up the face of the bluff and over it, until the solid sea seemed to me to be on a level with where I stood in the lantern 196-feet above sea level. Then it commenced to recede and the spray went 25 feet or more higher. The sea itself fell over onto the top of the bluff and struck the tower about on a level with the balcony, making a terrible jar. The whole point between the tower and the bluff was buried in water. The lens immediately stopped revolving and the tower was shivering from the impact for several seconds.”

Keeper Harrington was lucky. The violent force of wave did not blow out the lantern windows and take him out with it. Basically he was saved because of the large rocky outcropping, just seaward of the light, which had helped absorb the tremendous jolt when the wave struck with a force unknown to man.

Frederick Harrington’s grandson, Ralph Hunter, had been watching from outside the keeper’s house, which is a distance away from the tower. He recalled that when he saw the wave that engulfed the lighthouse with his grandfather inside, the water was solid green in color. For a few seconds, as the lighthouse was hidden under the wave, he probably thought for sure that the lighthouse and his grandfather were gone forever.

Harrington’s words in the log book proved the immensity of the event when he wrote, “During the 26 years that I have been stationed here, there has at no time been a sea of any such size as that of the 31st experience here.” High waves continued throughout the night and into the next day, but none were as high as was the 200-foot wave. He wrote, “By the 3rd of January, 1915, the sea moderated to some extent, but a strong southeast wind and high sea continued until the 5th.”

Frederick L. Harrington had an illustrious career in the lighthouse service and his story of surviving the 200-foot high wave will always be remembered in the annals of lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 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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