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Restoration of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in doldrums
June 19, 2017, 05:00 AM By Jim Clifford

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the San Mateo County coast.

Efforts to restore the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a literal coastal landmark that’s been closed to visitors since 2001 when a section of its exterior fell off, have run into rough seas.

A fundraising drive by the California State Parks Foundation has “become somewhat stagnant” and the lighthouse “is in serious need of repair before it comes tumbling down,” said William Howland, a retired Army major and member of the San Mateo County Historic Advisory Board. The lighthouse is familiar to drivers zipping up and down Highway 1, but Howland says few know about the building’s plight.

According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the 115-foot lighthouse, one of the tallest in America, will stay closed until the structure is fully restored. When Pigeon Point was open, docents took visitors on tours all the way to the top where they could view and walk around the original Fresnel lens of 1,008 glass prisms. The lens concentrated the light and projected a beam powerful enough to be seen 20 miles out at sea, a sea so dangerous it claimed many ships, including the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon that ran aground and gave the area its name.

The lighthouse started guiding sailors on Nov. 15, 1872, when the lens, which stands 16 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds, was lit for the first time. In 2011, the lens was moved to the adjacent fog signal building where it will stay until the restoration project is complete.

Each lighthouse has its own distinctive light pattern that makes it known to passing ships. The Pigeon Point light produces a flash every 10 seconds. An automated beacon was installed in 1972, but the 10-second pattern still holds.

There was no lighthouse on June 6, 1853, when the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon met its fate. Historian John Edmonds, a former Coast Guardsman, wrote a vivid account of the ship’s demise in the Journal of Local History, which is published by the history room at the Redwood City public library.

“She sailed beautifully through the rough waters around Cape Horn on her fully loaded trip to San Francisco,” Edmonds wrote. “After the ship passed Santa Cruz, the fog settled in and formed a blinding blanket that eliminated the ability to do star navigation.”

The captain thought the Carrier Pigeon was well out to sea, but the ship hit rocks that extended underwater nearly 400 feet. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. The crew of the clipper ship Sir John Franklin was not as lucky in 1865 when the vessel hit rocks about three miles south of Pigeon Point in an area known today as “Franklin Point.”

“The captain and twelve others were drowned in attempting to reach the shore after the breaking up of the ship which occurred soon after she first struck,” the San Mateo County Gazette reported on Jan. 21, 1865.

According to Edmonds’ account, “the men who drowned were all buried on Franklin Point and they remain at rest there. There was a wooden monument to the captain and crew but it has disappeared, as monuments do over time.”

At least six other ships have gone down off Pigeon Point, the latest a deadly collision between the steamship San Juan and the tanker S.C.T. Dodd. The rocks did not play a role in the disaster. The ships were 12 miles out at sea when they collided on Aug. 29, 1929. At least 72 people died, all of them aboard the San Juan.

The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.



Tags: pigeon, lighthouse, point, there, ships, after,

Other stories from today:

San Mateo County police reports
Restoration of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in doldrums
Local graduation rates higher than reported: Inaccurate reporting to state officials falsely depressed county rates by almost 20 percent

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