Point Arena is roughly 90 miles north of San Francisco. It
is the next major point north of Point Reyes for mariners
travelling to and from the San Francisco Bay. The point
is difficult to navigate due to its currents and reefs.
Nearby Arena rock is a mile long and a mere six feet
With the onset of the Gold Rush, ship traffic increased
considerably as ships transported lumber from the Redwood
forests of Northern California to the growing metropolis of
San Francisco. The increase in traffic leas to a dramatic
increase in loss of ships. In November, 1865,
ten vessels sank in a storm near Point Arena.
In 1866, the US Government began plans to construct a lighthouse
at Point Arena. Surveying began in 1867. Supplies for
the lighthouse were transported to Arena Cove and hauled
four miles overland to the lighthouse site. Local rock
was deemed inadequate for the lighthouse, so a local company
was contracted to produce bricks on-site.
Lighthouse construction began in 1869. The first-order
Fresnel lens with a fixed white light was lit on May 1,
1870. The 100-foot tower was similar to the one at Pigeon Point. The nearby
keeper's house was built for four families. A fog signal
consisting of a twelve-inch steam whistle began operation
by the end of 1871. In the 1880's. the point was connected
to the local country road (now Highway 1) by means of a government
right of way. A new fog signal building, which still
stands, was built in 1896.
On April 18, 1906, the same earthquake which destroyed San
Francisco also severely shook the lighthouse. The keeper's
dwelling was damaged beyond repair, and the tower was cracked
by the quake. Only the fog signal building survived.
Virtually the entire station required replacement, and the
keepers and their families had no viable residences.
When workers arrived, temporary housing was built for the
keepers and the construction workers. A 30-foot tower
was built next to the lighthouse, and a third-order lens
installed. The original tower and residences were razed.
The new 115-foot tower was built of reinforced concrete - an
innovation at the time. The tower construction was contracted
to San Francisco's Concrete Chimney Company - hence the unique
design. The staircase from the original
lighthouse survived intact, and was used in the new tower.
The tower was supported by a massive base to provide further
support. Four single family homes were built to replace the
keeper's dwelling. A first-order lens was installed and lit in
1908. The light characteristic was changed to flash every
The new keeper's dwellings were considered a great
improvement by their residents. The previous dwelling
allowed for little quiet or privacy, with four families
sharing one roof. A log entry from 1880 stated, "threatening
weather and fighting children." (Roberts and Jones, p. 23)
The Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the station prior
to World War II. During the war, extra guardsmen were
assigned to patrol the area. One morning, Keeper William
Owens spotted a submarine in the area one morning. A lumber
schooner was sunk in the area the next day. It was not until
much later that the US Navy would confirm the presence
of the sub off the California Coast.
The keeper's residences were razed in the 1960s and replaced
by four new homes for the residing coastguardsmen and their
families. The fog signal was discontinued in 1976, and the
light was automated in 1977. An aerobeacon was placed
outside the tower, the station was closed to the public.
In 1982, Point Arena Lighthouse Keeper's, Inc. received
permission to conduct tours of the station. In 1984, the
organization signed a twenty-five year lease to manage the
station. The residences were opened to allow visitors to
stay overnight. The fog signal building is now a museum.
In 1992, the film "Forever Young" was filmed at Point Arena.
The film stars Mel Gibson, Jamie Lee Curtis and George
Wendt. A shell of a Victorian mansion and a gazebo were
built on the grounds north of the lighthouse. After eight
days of filming, the crews dismantled the Victorian and left
as quickly as they arrived. Today, only the gazebo stands
along the northern cliffs of Point Arena.
In 2006, the lighthouse was the subject of another film -
this time a documentary. The independent film includes
a description of Fresnel lenses, a history of the light, and
an interview with the Owens sisters - daughters of Keeper
Restoration work at the station is ongoing - much of the work
done by volunteers. In 2004, the
mercury (used to float the Fresnel lens) was finally removed.
Over three gallons of mercury was removed. The mercury was
no longer needed, and represented a health hazard. Lens stabilization
work began in 2005, as the letharge (caulking holding the prisms)
was deteriorating. As of 2006, the tower and fog signal also
require attention. In 2006, the State of California awarded
$200,000 to the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers toward
Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Nelson pp. 143-145
California Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 22-23
The Keeper's Log Winter 2005, Fall 2005, Winter 2006, Summer 2006
Lighthouse Digest, August 2005, August 2006