Built in 1855 and still functioning today, the Point Pinos lighthouse is the oldest remaining lighthouse on the west coast of the United States.
When California became a state in 1850, Congress realized the need for navigational aids to guide shipping along the country’s new west coast. In 1852 they commissioned the building of seven lighthouses in California, of which the Point Pinos lighthouse was one. Construction began on the lighthouse in 1853 and it was placed into service when the lamp was lit on February 1, 1855.
The lighthouse is equipped with a second-order Fresnel lens. The light was originally provided by an open-flame lamp fueled by whale oil. This was later changed to less-expensive lard oil and then to kerosene. In 1919 the lamp was replaced with an electric light, which must have made the lighthouse keepers happy since they no longer had to wake up several times each night to refill the lamp. Today the light source is a 1000-watt electric light. Focused by the lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens, the light is visible 17 miles (27 km) out to sea.
Many lighthouses are located on rocky islets surrounded by inhospitable surf, and if you were a keeper stationed at one of those you could expect a lonely life. However, Point Pinos is on the mainland and readily accessible, and many of the keepers here took advantage of the opportunity to entertain guests from nearby Monterey. Robert Louis Stevenson himself descended from a lighthouse engineer in Scotland, and visited the lighthouse in 1879 when he lived in Monterey. The best-remembered keeper was Emily Fish, a meticulous woman who managed the lighthouse from 1893 until 1914 and who entertained so often that she became known as “the Socialite Keeper.”
With the advent of automation in the second half of the 20th century, lighthouse keepers became obsolete. By the early 1960s no one lived at the Point Pinos lighthouse any longer and by 1975 it was completely automated.
Ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the city of Pacific Grove in 2006, but the light is still in operation and maintained by the Coast Guard, which has the responsibility of maintaining aids to navigation including lighthouse lights. The all-volunteer Pacific Grove Heritage Society performs ongoing restoration of the building and they provide docents who operate the museum. Thanks to their efforts the historical significance of this aging beacon will continue to shine.
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