Digest>Archives> March 2000

Point Conception - The Horn of California

By Richard Clayton

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Point Conception Lighthouse as it appears today. ...

So what happened to the Point Conception Lighthouse? It was set up to be an unmanned, automated station in 1967, but what state is it in now? I've been looking at the choices by collectible lighthouse sculpture artists but never see it offered. You barely find mention of it in most lighthouse books and it does not appear on calendars. How come?

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The only way back from the Point Conception Light ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton


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"Hello, Long Beach, do you read me loud and ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton

History reveals that one of the first plans set in motion by the newly appointed Lighthouse Board in 1852 was to erect a total of seven lighthouses on the California Coast with a target date for full operation in 1855. The light at Point Conception was one of them.

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The 1881 Point Conception Lighthouse as it ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton


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These two "old salts" are (l) EM1 Chuck Stercks ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton

Looking at a map of the diagonal line of the coast of California, one finds a very large headland about half way between San Francisco and San Diego. The southern tip of that headland is called Point Conception. It is also at the entrance to what is called the Santa Barbara Channel. The crescent-shaped coast of the mainland is on the east side of the body of water and about 20 miles off the coast is a straight line of seven Channel Islands. Ships sailing southward following that coast of California make a ninety-degree left turn past Point Conception to sail into and through the Santa Barbara Channel.

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Robin Freeman, Staff Officer Flotilla 61 of the ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton


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This 1946 photograph shows Charley Hellwig, first ...
Photo by: Gene Lester

Nowhere on the entire West Coast have there been more maritime disasters than around the Santa Barbara Channel, where the convergence of two climates and various currents at Point Conception stir up especially fearful seas. The Point looks to be the geographical dividing line between Northern and Southern California. There are lots of trees and rainy weather to the north of it and grassy plains with scant moisture to the south.

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Richard Clayton, photographer and author of this ...
Photo by: Gregory Walcott


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Talk about antique instruments! The original ...

The Point Conception Light is located 165 miles by land from the Channel Islands Coast Guard Station, a one way drive of about three hours. I was invited by the Coast Guard to accompany them on their next trip. Lt. J.J. Jones of Coast Guard Station, Oxnard told me that the Coast Guard Reservation for the light is not accessible to the general public unless you have a Coast Guard escort. The light is located on one of the largest working ranches in California, the Fred Bixby Ranch. I was told to meet the Coast Guard at the Jalama Beach Campground which is about a three hour drive from Los Angeles.

The ride to Jalama Beach winds like a roller coaster through miles of hills, canyons, and ravines. Climbing and twisting its way up and down, left and right, with straight stretches and hairpin turns. You quickly see what George Parkinson was complaining about when he wrote a letter to the Lighthouse Board in 1855.

In the summer of 1854, the newly appointed lighthouse keeper, George Parkinson arrived at Point Conception to find the lighting apparatus had yet to be installed. Parts were still missing on Christmas Day and a notice appeared in the Alta California newspaper stating, "the light will be postponed till Feb. 1, 1856." Parkinson wrote a letter of complaint which stated the following: "Point Conception is 65 miles by land from Santa Barbara, the nearest point at which supplies can be obtained. The road is only passable at very low water and the freight of goods cost more than the keeper's pay (which was $800 per year). The nearest wood to the station is six miles and the nearest water is 600 yards. I am cut off all communications and without means to live on. My pay has not been forthcoming in over four months."

It might be added that the answer to his letter did not arrive until three months later. The U.S. Post Office had never heard of a place called Point Conception.

The road to Jalama Beach is a two-lane stretch of asphalt up and over the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Each turn is different, soft green hillsides with grazing cattle, steep bare cliffs, deep ravines with tall trees, and a few fenced entrances to ranches. The road seems to drive right through one farm with the house and a few buildings on one side and the barn and corral on the other side of the road. It is, by the way, the only sign of life in the 14 mile drive, until suddenly the road curves and opens up to the Pacific Ocean, revealing the camp-ground below. Twenty eight acres with a large parking lot, 110 tent/RV sites. 15 with electrical hookups, several public restrooms, a large stretch of sandy beach and a fine general store. A campers paradise.

We got there early and enjoyed a fine cup of coffee and a sweet roll from the Jalama Beach Store. In the store, there is a photo display of the wreck of the seven U. S. Naval Destroyers in 1923.

On Saturday night, Sept. 8, 1923, fourteen destroyers were running bow to stern from San Francisco on their way to San Diego. The newly installed radio beacon on board the lead destroyer had been turned off and they were sailing under dead reckoning. The officer in charge of the flotilla mistook the light at Point Arguella to be the light at Point Conception, twelve miles to the south.

At 9:07 PM, following the lead destroyer that turned inland, seven destroyers were wrecked by running into the rocks at two or three minute intervals on high seas in heavy fog. Seven hundred sailors wound up in the water and twenty-two lives were lost. The three keepers at Point Arguella saved five men on a raft by hauling them up on the rocks by rope and tending to their wounds.

My friend, Gregory Walcott, a veteran actor of movies and television had come along for the ride. Out in the parking lot we met the Coast Guard personnel, including Electricians Mate 3rd Class Samuel Done who was assigned as our official escort.

We drove back up the road in the Coast Guard van and stopped at a rancher's gate. There were no signs to be seen identifying the ranch or the lighthouse. The gate was unlocked and we drove onto the ranch property for about five miles on a narrow one-way road, winding our way slowly through a herd of cattle. We stopped for a calf that was lying in the middle of the road. No one wanted to get out and discuss it with the mother cow standing nearby. Samuel honked the horn and several steers walked up a hill with the calf chasing them. It was a very large herd of Black Angus and Herefords.

We got to the top of the hill, crossed over the railroad tracks, and there was the U. S. Coast Guard reservation with only one red tiled-roof small building in view. As we pulled into a parking area, there was a crew of about eight or more personnel performing various maintenance duties. We were there to look and they were there to work.

And then we saw it, sitting on a mesa, down the hill from where we standing. The Point Conception Lighthouse erected in 1881. It replaced the original structure that was severally damaged in the Fort Tejon earthquake on January 9, 1857.

There was a steep, wooden stairway that belonged in a different era. The wood was weathered with almost all traces of paint missing. There are 189 steps to the top if you're down below, the equivalent of walking the stairs of a 15 story building. And, at the bottom, a wood-plank sidewalk with a photo opportunity of a picturesque past. Lush green ice plant covers the hillside and Coast Guard personnel were cutting it with machetes away from the steps.

Upon entering the lighthouse building, we were standing in a hallway. On the right was a large high-ceiling room with varnished pine wood paneled walls. There were cement wells in the floor alongside one wall where the very large kerosene storage tanks had once been stored. (The lamp was lit by kerosene until 1946 when electricity was installed for the first time.)

The room on the left was about the same size with pine-paneled walls, and a lovely fireplace. On one wall was a lovely, large cabinet with cut-glass inserts in the doors. It may have once displayed a lady's best dishes. It was now used to house electronics gear. One Coastguardsman was dusting and sweeping up while another worked on the computer equipment.

The hallway led back to the spiral iron stairs leading to the upper levels of the tower. There on the second floor was the original clockworks still in operation. An electric motor now drives the mechanism, which rotates the lens platform at a uniform speed on the original brass-plated wheels. The original weight and pulley unit are in readiness as a standby, should the electric motor fail.

One more flight up the iron stairs to the tower. The classic Fresnel lens, made in Paris, France in 1854 is still in use today. What a magnificent piece of work. The lens is classified as a First order, 16 panel lens and measures seven feet high with a diameter of five feet. The intensity of the light is rated at 1,500,000 candlepower, as the light is magnified through the lens bullseye from a 1,000-watt mercury vapor lamp. It can be seen at a distance of twenty miles out to sea. Each of the 16 lens panels display a 2-second period of light, followed by an eclipse of 28 seconds.

Robin Freeman, of the Coast Guard's Public Affairs office, and I had a delightful photo experience in the lighthouse tower. Looking into the bullseye of the Fresnel lens, looking past the mercury vapor lamp in the middle, one could see the scenery through the opposite side of the lens, inverted as though looking at a viewing screen of a large format camera.

Standing on the mesa where the Point Conception Light shines 133 feet above the level of the ocean, we were indeed fortunate to have such a lovely day with just a light breeze. Dec 16th was right in the middle of the "Southeaster Season" in that location. It didn't look stormy at all, a bright and clear day. To the eye, it looked like a summer's day. It reminded me of a passage from the book, Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. Of Point Conception, he said: "The Pacific rolls in here before a Southeaster and breaks so heavy a surf in the shallow waters that it is highly dangerous to be near the shore during the Southeaster Season. The wind is the bane of the coast of California. Between November and April, which is the rainy season in this latitude, you are never safe from it and accordingly in the channel during these months, vessels are obliged to lie anchor at a distance of three miles from shore, with slip ropes on their cables, ready to slip and go to sea at a moments notice."

After saying our good bye to this fine Coast Guard crew, Samuel Done drove us back to our cars at the campground. Tucked into the central coastal range, Jalama Beach is so remote and geographically enclosed that the Bixby Ranch once used the area as a bull-pen. Even today, some non-AAA maps don't show the parks existence. We were tempted to try the "Jalama Hamburger," which they say the General Store is famous for. Maybe next time.

On the way back, Greg said, "It's very fortunate that such a magnificent historical treasure such as this is kept by the Coast Guard and is located on this very secure Fred Bixby Ranch. Such a remote location as this would surely become pray to vandals, if this were not the case."

Looking at the scenery along Jalama Road for the 14 miles back to SR 1, I could envision what a difficult trail it must have been for a team and wagon bringing supplies to the lighthouse station back in the 1850's. George Parkinson said that the station was remote and without communication. It seemed just as remote today. The nearest service station is in Lompoc, 20 miles away. My car radio didn't work very well, and the only was to see television there would most likely be via satellite dish.

Incidentally, on that day at 12 noon, on December 16, along the twisting and turning 14-mile drive of Jalama Road, we did not meet or pass a single vehicle. The Lighthouse is still a very lonely outpost in rugged country. But thanks to the United States Coast Guard at the Channel Islands Harbor Station, the Point Conception Lighthouse is alive and well.

This story appeared in the March 2000 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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