A lighthouse that has stood sentinel over San Mateo County’s rugged coast since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant turned 150 on Nov. 15.
The 115-foot tall Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero — among the tallest lighthouses in the U.S. — has overseen some of the biggest commercial shifts in American life over the past century and a half, and the dangerous waters it watches over have pulled no shortage of mariners to their deaths. Today, it’s a historic site that attracts visitors from around the world who stay at the hostel on the property, but it’s also a landmark in need of repairs, which are finally on the way thanks to recent funding.
The dangerous history of Pigeon Point
The Pescadero area was originally a popular fishing spot for Ohlone people, but was later settled in the late 1800s by people from Italy, Portugal and the Azores, according to Don West and Joseph Kotchett in “The Coast that Time Forgot: The Complete Tour Guide to the San Mateo Coast.”
It took four shipwrecks along the same section of the treacherous San Mateo County coast in the years between 1853 and 1868 before the lighthouse was finally funded and built, according to “Shipwrecks, Scalawags, and Scavengers: The Storied Waters of Pigeon Point,” a 2007 book by maritime historian JoAnn Semones, a docent at Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park.
The first of those shipwrecks, on June 6, 1853, gave Pigeon Point its name. The clipper ship the Carrier Pigeon was on its maiden voyage from Boston to San Francisco and had traveled more than 15,000 miles after rounding Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America and heading back north again. But as it neared San Francisco along the San Mateo County coast, heavy fog and strong winds pulled the ship off course and the ship hit an outcropping of craggy rocks. A couple of people referring to the area afterward reportedly called it Carrier Pigeon Point but then shortened it to Pigeon Point, Semones wrote.
Another shipwreck, the Sir John Franklin, happened in 1865. Mysteriously, dozens of the barrels of spirits reportedly on board disappeared, while others that were recovered appeared to have been tampered with and replaced with saltwater — indicating thirsty Coastsiders may have had something to do with the disappearing liquor.
Two more shipwrecks happened at Pigeon Point in 1866 and 1868. The Coya and Hellespont were ships that carried coal from Australia. When the Coya crashed at Pigeon Point, all but three of its 29 passengers drowned. Then the Hellespont wrecked, killing 11, according to Semones.
After the Hellespont’s wreck, H.A. Scofield, editor of the San Mateo County Gazette, called on the maritime community to push government officials to make a lighthouse and a fog bell or whistle a reality at Pigeon Point.
“Pigeon Point is the most extensive promontory on the coast south of the Golden Gate, and the point seems especially adapted for a lighthouse. No other place on the Pacific Coast has proved so fatal to navigators as this locality,” he wrote at the time.
Getting a lighthouse built along the treacherous coast was also delayed by the Civil War, and by debates over whether the lighthouse should be installed at Pigeon Point or at Año Nuevo. In 1868, Congress set aside $90,000 for the project, and in 1871 a fog signal was installed at Pigeon Point. In 1872, the lighthouse was completed and first lit on Nov. 15 using a first-order Fresnel lens — which is made up of 1,008 prisms, stands 16 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds, according to California State Parks.
But the lighthouse and fog signal didn’t stop shipwrecks from happening, Semones wrote. Many more wrecks would follow in the decades to come. The J.W. Seaver wrecked at Año Nuevo Point in 1887, and the San Vicente, a steamer traveling to Santa Cruz from San Francisco and filled with holiday merchandise, wrecked Dec. 20 that year, killing 12.
Then there was the Colombia in 1896, which wrecked after the captain missed a fog signal. It became a tourist destination for visitors looking to pick up their own relics from a shipwreck. There was also the Point Arena, which hauled lumber up and down the West Coast and lost its mooring, crashing against the rocks. The wrecked steamer was ultimately burned for navigation safety. As one local put it, “It would just not have looked good to have a wrecked ship in front of a lighthouse.”
Pigeon Point’s role in the Prohibition era
By the end of World War I, shipping waned at Pigeon Point as it became cheaper to transport materials over land and it was closed as a port. But seafaring activity on the San Mateo County coast spiked again when Prohibition began in 1920. The caves of Pigeon Point in particular became a popular spot for rum runners to stash their goods.
When Prohibition started, the boundary of where international waters started was 3 miles offshore, so it became a popular way for coastal boat owners to make money. Rum runners would meet ships carrying alcohol from other countries, particularly whiskey from Mexico and Canada, to bring back to the coast for distribution. Enforcement got harsher after the “rum line” boundary shifted to 12 miles offshore in 1924 and the Coast Guard beefed up its personnel and boat count, Semones writes.
The Mygrants family that had lived at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse said that at one point, the rum runners were brazen enough to use the lighthouse property’s derrick for unloading their wares. And Jesse Mygrants, assistant lighthouse keeper, was once forced at gunpoint to drive rum runners down the coast.
In 1929, Pigeon Point had its worst shipwreck: the San Juan, a passenger steamer, collided with an oil tanker. Because of the fog, they didn’t see each other until it was too late, and the wreck killed 75 people.
Starting in World War I and continuing through World War II, Monterey’s Cannery Row rose to prominence and the city became the “sardine capital of the world.” Two sardine fishing boats from Monterey crashed into the rocks at Pigeon Point in 1932 and 1934. But by the early 1950s, overfishing had dried up much of the sardine supply, according to Semones.
A growing tourist destination
In 1960, the Coast Guard built several houses for Coast Guard families near the lighthouse that would eventually become what’s now the Pigeon Point hostel, said Jeff Parry, general manager of the hostel.
In the 1970s, then-Gov. Jerry Brown pushed for a chain of hostels along the California coast. While not many were built, some remain, including at the Montara Lighthouse, Fort Mason and Point Reyes, Parry said.
The hostel first opened in 1981, geared toward young people on a budget looking to travel and learn. Parry said that since he began working at the hostel in 1997, the tourism to the area has increased tenfold. When the pandemic hit, Hostels International, the nonprofit concessionaire that runs the hostel at Pigeon Point, was hit hard, losing about 80% of its staff. “It was pretty devastating to the whole organization,” Parry said.
The Pigeon Point hostel transitioned to a vacation rental model, allowing people to rent out each of the three buildings individually. It’s proven to be successful for now, and they plan to reopen the site as a hostel in the summer. Each building accommodates about 14 to 15 people. The site is also used midweek for the “Exploring New Horizons” program, a three-day, two-night science and environmental education program for fifth grade classes, he said.
The lighthouse was automated in 1972 and is still used for navigation by the Coast Guard. But the tower has fallen into disrepair.
The tower was closed in 2001 after a large metal piece fell off it, and it’s been off-limits to the public and deteriorating ever since, according to the Half Moon Bay Review. An $18 million state-funded project is now in the works to restore the tower. As of now, the money has been set aside and a lot of behind-the-scenes work has gone into readying the project to go out to bid, said Linda Hitchcock, senior park and recreation specialist and one of the people leading the tower restoration project.
Much of the funding will pay for restoring the tower’s top section, which had been subject to water damage and rot, according to the Half Moon Bay Review. The project is estimated to take at least 18 months and will involve reinforcing the interior with concrete beams and replacing the roof among other repairs, according to Peninsula Open Space Trust. The restoration work will begin after a contractor is selected. An advisory group is working on structuring public access once the project is complete, according to State Parks.
“To be realistic, we are probably still two years +/- away from the project’s completion,” said Janet Oulton in the Coastside State Parks Association’s most recent newsletter.
In the meantime, the park recently received a $10,000 grant from San Mateo County’s Measure K funds to create an online virtual tour of the lighthouse tower using a 3D model developed by CyArk. The goal is to complete the virtual tour in time for the anniversary, according to the State Parks website.
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