The Pigeon Point Lighthouse has stood proud and (115 feet) tall since 1872, the year it began to guide mariners from its perch on a 35-foot cliff in Pescadero.
The Wreck That Launched a Light
The latter half of the 19th century was an historic period in California: Gold was discovered in 1848 and the state was admitted to the Republic in 1850. New settlers arrived, and ship traffic increased greatly since transporting cargo from the East Coast was a lucrative business.
On January 28, 1853, the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon set sail from Boston for San Francisco, carrying 1,300 tons of cargo. On June 6, 1853, she ran aground near what was then called La Punta de la Ballena (Whale Point). Although the ship was wrecked, the crew was saved. Before long, the point of land was renamed Pigeon Point in memory of the Carrier Pigeon.
Lens + Lamp = Light
Constructed of unreinforced brick, the lighthouse is the second tallest on the West Coast. The original first-order Fresnel lens (the largest size) is still in order, though it's been temporarily moved due to restoration work on the tower. It's currently on display in the fog signal building. Invented by the Frenchman Augustine Fresnel, the lens consists of 1,008 glass prisms enclosing a light source. The prisms concentrate the light, allowing a low-intensity light source to project a strong beam over a great distance.
Initially, the lamp inside the lens was a series of concentric wicks fueled by lard oil, giving off a light measured between 60,000 and 80,000 candlepower. Later a kerosene lamp was substituted, and then a lamp which used vaporized oil, providing yet a stronger beam. Finally, in the late 1920s, Pigeon Point switched to a 1,000-watt electric light bulb, increasing the light to 680,000 candlepower (visible for more than 20 miles).
Each lighthouse has its own distinctive light pattern which makes it identifiable to passing ships. Ship captains carry a "light list" of the various patterns, and thus can use the signal to help determine their location. As the Pigeon Point lighthouse's Fresnel lens rotated around the light source, it produced a flash pattern of light every 10 seconds. An automated Aero beacon was installed in 1972, but the 10-second light pattern is still maintained today.
The fog signal building, built in 1899, originally housed a steam-generated foghorn which was fired up when the fog rolled in. The foghorn was disconnected in 1976.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse Anniversary Celebration
Each November, hundreds of visitors gather to commemorate the lighthouse anniversary during a daylong event on the Saturday closest to November 15. This year, the celebration will be held on Saturday, November 14, 2015.
The California State Parks department in collaboration with local community and environmental organizations offer guided walks around the property, marine science resources, and historical information about the original first-order Fresnel lens, which is currently on display in the fog signal building.