Point Arena is on a narrow peninsula several hundred feet wide with a length of almost 800 feet. The bluffs on which the lighthouse stands rise 50 feet from the surface of the water. The great danger in approaching the point is Arena Rock. This massive rock is a mile long and sits six feet under the surface of the water a mile and a half off the headland.
On May 1, 1870, the new light shone for the first time. A steam fog whistle went into operation the following November using cord wood to fuel the boilers. During years when 1,000 hours of fog enveloped Point Arena, the station would burn more that 100 tons of wood. To feed the thirsty boilers, two underground water cisterns ran from one edge of the point to the other each lined with brick.
The keeper’s dwelling was a great two-and-a-half storey brick residence that housed the entire four man crew and all their wives and children. Life could be terribly confining at an isolated light station and Point Arena’s single residence made privacy minimal. The big house, filled with adults and children, had thick walls to cut down on sound but the thin floors seemed to amplify the sound. Noise would echo through the house and an assistant light-keeper trying to sleep after a long watch could have a difficult time getting his zzz’z in!
The wind at Point Arena is fierce. During the winter of 1879-1880 all the fences blew down. In February 1880 in one of the worst windstorms ever hit the station hurling anything moveable in every direction.
When the frequent heavy fog blew in the light keeper would fire up the boilers in the fog signal building. Cold water from the cisterns would take 35 minutes to build up enough steam to blow the fog whistle. The fog, wind and sea make Point arena a dangerous place for mariners. From 1870, when the light was first lit, till 1900 there were 13 major shipwrecks at or near the point.
The great earthquake of 1906 that leveled San Francisco also struck the Light Station. The Keeper’s residence and Lighthouse were damaged so severely that they had to be demolished.
The United States Lighthouse Service contracted with a san Francisco based company to build a new lighthouse on the site, and specified that it had to be able to withstand any future earthquakes. The company chosen, normally built factory smokestacks, which accounts for the final design for the new Point Arena Lighthouse; featuring steel reinforcement rods encased in concrete. This was the first lighthouse built this way.
The new Lighthouse began operation in 1908, nearly 18 months after the quake. It stands 115 feet (35 m) tall, and featured a 1st Order Fresnel lens, over six feet in diameter and weighing more than six tons. The lens was made up of 666 hand-ground glass prisma all focused toward three sets of double bullseyes. It was these bullseyes that gave the Point Arena Lighthouse its unique “light signature” of two flashes every six seconds. This incredible optic, that held an appraised value of over $3.5 million, was set in a solid brass framework, and was built in France.
This excellent site gives a detailed history of the Point Arena lighthouse.
One of our members recently visited the lighthouse and climbed the 100+ft to the lantern room and took a set of panoramic photos. Unfortunately he hadn’t brought his tripod, so the result wasn’t perfect. But you can click here to see the view. (Note – This is a large file – too slow for dialup. Once opened, use your mouse to “drag” the view. Click the “+” to zoom in and “-” to zoom out.)