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.
Annual Lighting and Celebration
Each November, thousands of visitors gather to witness the annual lighting of the original first-order Fresnel lens, during a daylong celebration of the anniversary of the first lighting. Instituted by Hostelling International USA, Golden Gate Council more than a decade ago, the event has become so popular that the California State Parks department now acts as master of ceremonies by inviting the U.S. Coast Guard to switch the lights, and local community and environmental organizations participate as well.
The festivities culminate after sunset, when the automated Aero beacon is switched off, the Coast Guard lights the original first-order Fresnel lens, and 24 beams of light rotate slowly around the tower, piercing the night sky for miles across the sea.
Note: Because of tower restoration work, the original Fresnel lens has been moved temporarily to the fog signal building. The November 2012 annual celebration is still on, but the original lens won't be lit.