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Point Reyes Lighthouse reopens after 13-month, $5.4 million renovation

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POINT REYES — It is beloved and historic and iconic, but the truth is, the Point Reyes Lighthouse was starting to look as sorry as the sound of its dirge-like foghorn.

Perched on a jagged promontory in one of the windiest, foggiest spots on the Pacific Coast, the 148-year-old structure had been exposed “to an incredibly harsh environment,” said Jennifer Stock, the National Parks Service’s acting chief of interpretation and resource education. “There was a lot of deterioration over time.”

With the building “losing its historical integrity,” as she put it, the Parks Service decided to spend $5.7 million on renovations. After 13 months of work, it reopened to visitors Nov. 8.

While recapping some of the upgrades for visitors Friday morning, Park Ranger Chris Lish couldn’t help mentioning why they were necessary in the first place.

“Someone decided to make the tower out of cast iron,” he said, highlighting that the material, while sturdy, is prone to rusting when exposed to salt air.

The tower to which he referred is the vast lantern housing the nearly 10-foot tall Fresnel lens, consisting of 24 glass prisms, plus the clockwork that made it rotate at a speed causing it to flash brightly once every five seconds, a warning to mariners “they dare not pass east of there,” said Lish.

That warning has often gone unheeded. The Point Reyes peninsula juts 10 miles into the sea, and has seen 73 major marine wrecks, 37 of them total losses, according to Richard Blair and Kathleen Goodwin, authors of “The Point Reyes Lighthouse.”

That lens assembly was built in 1867 in Paris — a morsel of news that elicited a fist pump and “Yay!” from Pierre Ponsonet, a Parisian seeing the lighthouse for the first time on Friday.

While that lens was decommissioned in 1975, replaced by a more modern but less interesting beacon affixed to the cliffs 100 feet below, the original held much historic value. As the only “first-order” Fresnel lens “still connected to its original, operable clockwork” in its original tower and location, Lish explained, it was designated for preservation by the National Parks Service.

Around that time, the glazing sheltering those prisms from the elements was swapped out for Plexiglas, said Stock, which had become so clouded that “you couldn’t even see the lens.”

In addition to rebuilding the tower, workers refurbished the visitors center and equipment building that houses, among other items of interest, the old foghorns.

Back in the day when those foghorns were in use and the Fresnel lens reflected light thrown off by burning lard oil, the lighthouse was not run by a single attendant. The principal keeper would have had three assistants, who each worked “60 to 80, maybe 100 hours a week,” said Lish, who added that second and third assistants were “often bachelors who for some reason never wanted to stay more than a year.”

“It’s a little desolate, but it’s still beautiful,” said Kara Godwin, who’d come from Sunnyvale to see the lighthouse. “If you’re a person who didn’t like being around people, this is a pretty good job.”

Getting here is a job in and of itself. Fourteen miles northeast on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a sign warns prospective visitors that the attraction is closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — sparing them the final stage of a circuitous journey on a two-lane road pitted with potholes and crossed with cattle grates.

Despite the relative remoteness of the lighthouse — which, come to think of it, is a large part of its appeal — and the 0.4-mile walk from the circular parking lot to the visitors center, and the 330-step descent to the tower (“the equivalent of a 30-story building,” a sign warns), the lighthouse attracts some 400,000 visitors a year, Stock said.

On the days the lighthouse is open, hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30, though an exception will be made on Sunday, Dec. 1 — the 149th  anniversary of the day it was first illuminated. That day, it will remain open past sunset.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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