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Feb 27

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, guiding the way to San Simeon

In our present era of GPS location finding, a lighthouse is a relic of man’s attempt to impose order on the chaos of nature.
By the 1970s the remaining manned lighthouses were converted to automated stations ending what had been a century old occupation in some locations.
Light keepers would faithfully clean lenses and light the signal flame, day after day, often in some of the most isolated and remote circumstances to help people they didn’t know arrive safely.

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse north of San Simeon in 1963 with the lantern house removed. © The Tribune/Neil Norum

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse north of San Simeon in 1963 with the lantern house removed.
© The Tribune/Neil Norum

As the county entered its third decade as an American state in the 1870s a transition was being felt on the coast. The Pacific Ocean was the first commercial highway of the state and the Yankee proclivity for trade was increasing traffic. Ships were making regularly scheduled stops at Port San Luis and San Simeon but a mistake in navigation would pile a ship on the rocks. George Hearst and partners built the landing at San Simeon in the late 1860s and a steamer would make stops every two weeks there and at Port San Luis.
Both harbors would get lighthouses north of their anchorage to help ship commanders navigate safely to harbor.
The first West Coast lighthouse was on Alcatraz Island in operation June 1, 1854.
The lighthouse just north of San Simeon would be built at about the mid-point of the over 30 California lighthouses constructed.
Piedras Blancas, named for guano whitewashed rocks, would provide a beacon in the rugged coast between lighthouses at Point Pinos at the southern end of Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara.
Built solid, the 115-foot tall tower of inflexible masonry was capped with a heavy iron lantern room.
The tower cracked as a result of a magnitude 4.6 earthquake December 31, 1948. The quake’s epicenter was about 6 miles offshore and like the San Simeon Earthquake of 2003 the shock damaged structures to the east.
The lantern room was removed, and the light replaced.
The prisms that made up the original lens were made half way around the world by Henri Lapaute and first lit the coast Feb. 15, 1875.
After the lantern room was dismantled the ornate lens was eventually rescued and restored. It sits in a place of honor in Cambria and the lighthouse is open to tours by appointment only.
This story ran in the Telegram-Tribune Central Coast Living section October 12, 1963 was an advance story for a community meeting. The meeting information is omitted. The story introduction is unbylined.
AN OLD VIEW...The Piedras Blancas Light Station grounds looked like this a long time ago. The light keepers dwelling in the foreground has been removed and is now a private residence in Cambria. Most of these older structures have been removed or torn down to make way for modern living quarters for the Coast Guard force manning the station and their families. This old photograph was provided by the San Luis Obispo County Museum and is from the remarkable Irene Carpenter Collection of Historic San Luis Obispo County pictures.

AN OLD VIEW…The Piedras Blancas Light Station grounds looked like this a long time ago. The light keepers dwelling in the foreground has been removed and is now a private residence in Cambria. Most of these older structures have been removed or torn down to make way for modern living quarters for the Coast Guard force manning the station and their families. This old photograph was provided by the San Luis Obispo County Museum and is from the remarkable Irene Carpenter Collection of Historic San Luis Obispo County pictures.

Cabrillo Sighted Danger at Piedras Blancas
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a very bold and able Portuguese navigator, opened the first page of modern history for what is now San Luis Obispo in 1542, just 50 years after Christopher Columbus began the saga of the Americas in the West Indies in 1492.
Cabrillo was to die the following year on the Santa Barbara channel island of San Miguel, but before he did, he charted this central coast and identified a singularly dangerous point for seamen, naming it “Piedras Blancas,” north of San Simeon, the graveyard of many ships and sailors since Cabrillo’s initial warning.
Piedras Blancas is as bleak and treacherous today as it was in Cabrillo’s time, though certain precautions to safeguard sailors at this point as well as at other zones of danger along the San Luis Obispo coast have been taken. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse has been issuing its sight and sound warnings seaward since 1875, though the beam cast from this old tower is more powerful today than ever before and its booming fog horns convey their warning a greater distance.
Louisiana Clayton Dart, curator at the County Museum, provided an account of the history of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse last year. Telegram-Tribune readers following a tour of this Coast Guard facility in June by members of the Historical Society.
She wrote:
“The lighthouse was built in 1874 and began operation in 1875.
“It was first run by the U.S. government with private hired individuals serving as Lighthouse keepers. In 1939 under the Lighthouse Act, the Coast Guard was put in charge. The four families of the custodians live in modern quarters nearby and four men service the light. The old lighthouse keeper’s house has been moved to Cambria and is used today.
“The lighthouse was originally 110 feet high but in later years was cut down to 74 feet as it was felt that the original height was dangerous because of fierce coastal winds. Because the lighthouse is built on a high promontory of rock and soil, the tower is still 142 feet above sea level.
“The original light was cut and ground in France. It was a kerosene vapor lamp, In the center of the rotunda of the lighthouse was the fixture which housed the mechanical crane. A series of cables ran from it to the ancient light above. The light was turned by the measured fall of the weights. The early lighthouse keepers had to crank the drum, controlling the weight, every hour. The beautiful lamp now stands in Cambria next to the Veterans Memorial Building.
“The new light is a double drum rotating beacon light. It has a 36-inch diameter lens. Its 1500-watt magnifies to 200,000-candle power, which can be seen 18 miles out to sea on a clear night. Power is furnished by PG&E. However there is an emergency generator in the lighthouse, which can supply the main light and fog signal in case of power failure.
“The lighthouse is built of a double wall of bricks with an air space between for condensation. The air space keeps the bricks from sweating and thus deteriorating in the damp sea air. The lighthouse is painted an immaculate white both inside and out. The rotunda is painted with Latex masonry. The original three flights of 77 front steps, circling up to the light, are painted deck reddish brown.
“All of the exterior trim on the lighthouse, on door and beautiful keyhole windows, is done in spruce green.
“Following the tour, the group walked down the path to the edge of the cliff to see the numerous seals on Piedras Blancas, the rocks which give the lighthouse its name. Many enjoyed the seals’ raucous barking. The rocks were also covered with cormorants and sea gulls.
“The typical beach flora surrounding the lighthouse was interesting and in full bloom. The sea asters, heavy with bloom were particularly lovely.”

The article concluded with the names of the Coast Guardsmen stationed there and a note that the light had been improved to 2 million-candle power with a shield on the landward side to screen motorists traveling Highway 1. The fog horn had also been improved to be audible 5 miles at sea.

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