California Route 1 runs through the Big Sur region, past the castle of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal colony, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and into the tiny town of Pescadero, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. The coastal cliffs bordering the shore, along with the hooking of the San Francisco Peninsula into the Pacific Ocean, define this region and provide the scenery coveted by millions of tourists every year.
The prominent position of the Pescadero State Beach on the bulge of the peninsula makes it prime territory for ships going to the Bay Area—including The Carrier Pigeon, a vessel that shipwrecked near there in 1853 and provided the necessity and namesake for a lighthouse to guide ships along the coast. Built in 1871 and still tied for the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse is a historic landmark of Central California and a beacon of light along a largely unpopulated shoreline.
“We read the descriptions about the hard work and long hours the keepers put into maintaining the light station, but it’s hard to really grasp the full extent of the work today,” says California State Parks San Mateo Coast Sector Superintendent Paul Keel; “responding to the growing shipwreck legacy, in the old days, every detail of the activities was carefully followed and described so the highest level of service could be provided.”
Jutting into the Pacific as if to call ships to the water’s edge, the five-wick lard oil lamp, and Paris-manufactured first-order Fresnel lens comprised of over 1,000 prisms have been showing ships the way since November 1872. With one revolution every four minutes, the lens’ twenty-four flash panels produced a characteristic of one flash every ten seconds. And while the original Fresnel lens is no longer in use, the lighthouse is run by the US Coast Guard and still maintains a high profile in today’s world of modern navigational aids.
As the lighthouse modernized, including some rebuilding after a fire and radio antenna installation, the original Victorian fourplex under the lighthouse was replaced by four ranch-style houses built by the Coast Guard in 1960. Following the covering of the Fresnel lens in 1972 and the automation of the station in 1974, many people became concerned about whether the lighthouse and surrounding area would be preserved.
“It’s always to challenge to keep alive the history of the light station, the stories of the people engaged with it, and a sense of the times themselves,” says Keel; “fortunately, the story is a rich and fascinating one, and it’s not hard to get people interested.”
Indeed, a lot of those concerns were alleviated when, in 1980, the four houses were leased to American Youth Hostels Inc., now Hostelling International (HI). With the involvement of HI came the influence of their mission on the area—an international, multicultural attitude towards showing the world to travelers and operating in a sustainable fashion. The cost of staying in the complex remains economical and accessibility is available by bus, allowing HI to exhibit that lighthouses, despite the modernization of seafaring, still have a place in our hearts and are for everyone to appreciate.
“HI is a terrific partner whose mission fits well at Pigeon Point,” says Keel; “the hostel brings people from California and around the world to the area.”
“Guests definitely have the opportunity to absorb the feel of the place. And the education program here brings kids to the hostel and immerses thousands of them each year in the unique cultural and natural features of this coastline.”
With nearly 100,000 visitors each year, the influx of eco-tourism to Pigeon Point, helped by HI involvement, has worked to preserve the lighthouse in a more original form, and has increased awareness of lighthouses as treasures of our coasts. This attitude has continued even 20-30 years after HI leased the property and has been enhanced by other non-profits. In 2000, for instance, a bed and breakfast located next to the lighthouse property, which many thought would interfere with the area’s atmosphere, was nearing completion. Promptly dismantling this structure, the Peninsula Open Space Trust purchased the property, made other deals to preserve nearby land, and helped keep the lighthouse in a natural state.
Even though the lighthouse has been closed since December of 2001 after some sections of brick and iron fell from the top of the tower, the involvement of HI has allowed tourists to experience the lighthouse in a deeper way than simply driving by and taking a picture. Staying in the former keeper’s quarters gives travelers access to shared or private rooms, a library of travel books, cozy lounges, full kitchens with equipment, free parking, and a patio in the back with incredible views of the waves crashing against the tall, rocky shore.
Jeff Parry, general manager at the hostel, says that HI’s mission of environmentalism and community living is quite salient from the traveler’s moment of arrival. It starts with a cup of shade-grown coffee when gursts check in, signs that encourage guests to use less water, and common areas to hang out and meet interesting people.
“We are a certified Green Business with the County of San Mateo,” says Parry. We have converted all of our lights to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamp] or LEDs [light emitting diode] and use only 100% recycled office paper.”
“Our paper towels are chlorine free. Our water is all on extra low flow faucets. We even compost the paper towels and used office paper.”
Reserves adjacent to the park contain seashore wildlife like crabs and clams, and tidepools on the south of the lighthouse can bring micro-ecosystems of algae, insects, sea stars and shellfish. The ancient redwood forests at Butano State Park and the bird sanctuary of Pescadero Marsh are just a short drive; so are the famous elephant seal colonies of Piedras Blancas and Ano Nuevo State Reserve and the pristine beaches of Pescadero State Park. The annual migration of gray whales from their Alaska homes—believed to be the longest annual migration by a mammal—runs right by the boardwalk behind the lighthouse around mid-December and early January.
Perhaps nothing else defines the HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse experience more than the private hot tub with a panoramic view of the mighty Pacific. For a nominal fee, hostel-goers can reserve the one-of-a-kind hostel hot tub and enjoy the wrath of Mother Nature. It is well-known as one of only a handful of hostels in the country with a hot tub—and practically everyone who stays is captivated.
Cooperation among government agencies continues to act in the interests of preserving the lighthouse. The year following the tower closure, Pigeon Point Lighthouse was listed for transfer under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The lighthouse was officially transferred to the California State Parks Foundation in 2005, and they began efforts in collaboration with the San Mateo Natural History Association to restore the lighthouse and surrounding area.
Keel says the issues stemming from the 2001 damage to the tower continue to be addressed. Reversing the ravages of time and weathering, with no lighthouse keeper to make repairs or wipe the salt spray off the lantern room windows, remains a concern.
“Thanks to a report by [consultants from] Architectural Resources Group in 2008 paid for by the California State Park Foundation, we now understand some of those [maintenance and construction] problems,” he says; “we’re working with the foundation to raise the money to begin the tasks of emergency stabilization, lens restoration, rehabilitation of the tower, and more.”
The project has turned out to be a long process, and it might be a decade before repairs are completed, but Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) has said that $250,000 of the money she requested through Interior and Environment Appropriations for 2011 will be allocated to fix the upper portion of the lighthouse and possibly re-open the interior to visitors.
“We plan to re-open the tower for tours someday in the not-too-distant future and make connections with visitors we’ve never made before,” says Keel.
The long-term preservation and restoration efforts at Pigeon Point are reminiscent of movements all across North America. Every day, the number of operational lighthouses declines because of expensive maintenance and replacement by modern navigation. But because of their symbolic role as a sort of archetypical good—a beacon, a light shining through the darkness, safety, comfort—we can hope that efforts like those at Pigeon Point will continue to restore and preserve these bastions of our heritage. As we await the culmination of the restoration efforts, we remember how traveling to a lighthouse is more than a vacation—it is part of an effort to preserve some of America’s most precious landmarks. Computer navigational tools are useful—but there is nothing like a lighthouse.
Pigeon Point Light Station is now a California state park, the area provides panoramic views of the Pacific, and visitors can stay in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which has been restored as a hostel.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, 210 Pigeon Point Road, Pescadero, CA 94060; Rooms $72-156/night (dorm beds $24-26/night), group rates and full-house rental available; Hot Tub overlooking Pacific Ocean $7/person/0.5 hrs, 2 person minimum, 6-10 PM; (650) 879-0633; norcalhostels.org/pigeon.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2011 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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