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California Lighthouses

Through the Sea by Light, Touring California Lighthouses

By Bridget M. Rohrer


Sunset at Pigeon Point Lighthouse

©2008 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

See Them Now: California Lighthouse Photo Tour

When the California Gold Rush came into full swing in 1850, California and the San Francisco Bay became a magnet for tall ships delivering goods and men ready to seek their fortunes in the Hills of Gold. However, the ragged California coastline can be dangerous for mariners, with hidden shoals and submerged rocks.

California lighthouses sprung up at the most dangerous points, to preserve life and keep cargo from destruction. Beacons by night and symbols of strength, the lighthouses evolved from single lights in homeowners' windows to fully-automated, independent structures on prominent peninsulas and sea cliffs.

The lighthouse was kept by people concerned for sailors' safety and they also acted as visual navigation aids. Most of the lighthouse keepers were men, but a few hardy women also tended the lights. It was a hard life and the lighthouse keeper at Point Reyes once wrote: "Better to dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place."

Maintenance kept the light keeper busy, maintaining oil lamps throughout the night and day. When the skies became heavy with damp fog, manually rung warning bells kept the keepers around the clock. On treacherous nights, it was not unusual for a lighthouse keeper to stay awake all night to ensure that their light guided travelers safely along the ragged California coast.

Visiting California Lighthouses

The almost-300-year era of manned California lighthouses is over, but many light towers are automated and still in use today. Lighthouses no longer on active duty still remain important, adopted by non-profit organizations determined to save them.

The northern California coast offers some of the oldest lighthouses in the state, while the southern California coast offers additional interesting lighthouse finds, each with a unique history. Each structure has purpose.

The tall structures signal seamen great distances from the shore, while the low structures avoid fog and low visibility. Some lighthouses are freshly painted in contrasting colors making them a distinct landmark, while others are weathered and blend with the landscape and still reflect their lights brightly.

Almost 30 lighthouses still stand strong on the California coast. Just over a dozen are open to the public:

Sleeping in a California Lighthouse

Alive with stories of days gone by, these California lighthouses afford guests a unique opportunity to live as the lighthouse keepers once did, with the roar of waves and howl of the wind lulling them to sleep.

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