Point Reyes Lighthouse illuminates history

Ferocious winds and dense fog assault the rocky outcropping where the Point Reyes Lighthouse has stood for 148 years at the tip of a peninsula jutting 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Migrating gray whales swim close by and nearly 400,000 people a year visit the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore. The treacherous waters near shore have for centuries claimed ships, from a Spanish galleon to a modern oil tanker, killing hundreds of mariners.

In a long-awaited response to the hazardous conditions, the federal government spent about $100,000 - about $2 million in today’s dollars - to build the doughty, 35-foot tall lighthouse opened in 1870 with a glass lens that cast a bright beam 24 miles to the horizon.

Last year, the National Park Service committed $5 million to the first and only restoration of the lighthouse, a national historic landmark retired in 1975. Two weeks ago, workers peeling away the interior wood panels found a surprise that sheds light on life nine decades ago in Marin and Sonoma counties and the Bay Area.

Tucked behind a wooden fire extinguisher box were five newspapers, brown and fragile, from April to August of 1929, two months before the Black Thursday crash that triggered the Great Depression and a time when isolation from global affairs was a national fixation.

“America First” was the slogan below the masthead of the San Francisco Examiner.

The lead story, datelined Washington, reported that Senate Republicans had thwarted President Herbert Hoover’s request to repeal a 1924 immigration law aimed at curbing the arrival of specific groups of Europeans, including Italians, Greeks, Poles, Slavs and Eastern European Jews.

The law set no limits on Latin Americans, who were allowed at the time to immigrate as “white persons.”

“There’s something powerful about holding history in your hands,” said Cicely Muldoon, superintendent of the 71,000-acre seashore operated by the National Park Service. “So striking how the issues that dominated the front pages in 1929 occupy us still.”

The four issues of the Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst, also carried stories on aviator Amelia Earhart visiting San Francisco, strong sentiment against prohibition, and the Chicago Cubs hoping for a winning season. The Cubs ended a 108-year World Series drought by winning the fall baseball classic in 2016.

“What makes you really weep are the real estate prices,” Muldoon said.

A tiny classified ad listed a Geary Street house with the lower six rooms for $45 a month and upper seven rooms, described as “modern,” with a garage, fireplace and hot air heat for $65.

A large display advertisement that wouldn’t pass muster today said, “If you see the Arab, It’s Hills Bros. Coffee.” The ad depicted a drawing of a bearded man wearing a turban and drinking from a cup.

Closer to home, The Defender declared it was “Published to Promote the Growth and Prosperity of the Rural Sections of Sonoma and Marin Counties.”

A headline on Aug. 7, 1929, in all capital letters, said: “Four die from poison clams.” The story reported the death of four men who died from eating clams and mussels gathered on the Marin and Sonoma coasts.

A letter published on the news pages from Mrs. R.F. Thomas of Timber Cove decried the opening of deer-hunting season as a six-week “reign of bloodshed and fright” for “our soft-eyed friends of the woods.”

There was a story about Cazadero citizens seeking better train service, and an animal feed advertisement by Frizelle, Eales & Co. of Cotati, Sebastopol and Hessel.

The papers were found along with a 10-inch piece of wood attributing the informal time capsule to Gerhard W. Jaehne, the 16th keeper of the lighthouse from 1927 to 1930, and his assistant, Harry W. Miller, who held the post from 1931 to 1938.

Keeping the remote lighthouse shining from sunset to sunrise and maintaining it by day was a brutal job that required a head keeper and four assistants, each working a six-hour shift. Every two hours and 20 minutes at night, a man had to manually wind the brass clockworks by a raising a 170-pound weight 9 feet off the floor, enabling it to slowly drop through a small trap door to ground level 17 feet below.

It was tedious, lonely labor on a promontory that is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast - with spring winds exceeding 130 mph - and the second foggiest place on the North American continent.

Keepers sometimes had to crawl on their hands and knees to keep from being blown off the cliff while climbing stairs 300 feet up from the lighthouse to their residence. Some men lasted several years on the job; others barely a month and at least one keeper was taken away to an asylum.

Today, there are 308 concrete steps and a short ramp down to the lighthouse, and the park closes the stairs when wind exceeds 40 mph.

“This is nothing,” said Roger Barrett, superintendent of the restoration project, recently escorting a reporter and photographer down the steps. “(Tuesday) the winds were 50 mph.”

Helicopters ferried the scaffolding that now embraces the 16-sided steel and cast-iron tower, resting on a perch dynamited out of the granite cliff to place the light below the fog and visible to ships at sea. Three times the air operation was canceled because of fog and wind, Barrett said.

“Isn’t it incredible?” he said, surveying the rugged brown rock at land’s end, almost completely surrounded by a restless blue ocean. “Like Baja and Carmel all rolled into one.”

Inside the lighthouse, stripped to its bare metal bones, two union millwrights marveled at the 19th-century technology involved.

Standing on planks attached to the scaffolding and working in the open air, Scott Bauer hammered at a cast iron cornice that had previously been bolted into place between two other cornices. As it came loose, Jerry Larson cranked on a pulley to lift the cornice free and clear. Remarkable how perfectly it fit, requiring no sealant, they said.

The lighthouse was made and built with “incredible precision,” Barrett said.

Its centerpiece, a beehive-shaped, 6,000-pound Fresnel (fray-nel) lens made of 1,032 crystal pieces divided into 24 panels, has been removed for cleaning and repair by experts.

Made in Paris, where it was invented by the French physicist and engineer Augustine Jean Fresnel in 1823, the Point Reyes lens uses prisms and lenses to transmit 24 individual beams of concentrated light on the ocean.

Turned by the clockworks below at a constant rate of one revolution every two minutes, the lens produced the lighthouse’s signature pattern of one flash every five seconds.

While the Fresnel lens more than doubled the distance lighthouses could shine, it did not alleviate the risk of shipping around Point Reyes. About 20 shipwrecks near the shore were recorded during the ?105 years before the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1975, when the U.S. Coast Guard installed an automated light near it.

Going back further, the area around Point Reyes, located midway between Bodega Bay and the Golden Gate, has recorded more than 73 major marine wrecks, 37 of them total losses. They range in time from the San Augustin, a Spanish galleon loaded with treasures from the Orient that sank in Drake’s Bay in 1595, to the steamer Munleon, which ran onto rocks while carrying sugar, salt and other supplies from San Francisco to Astoria, Washington in 1931.

When the restoration is done - the schedule calls for completion in April, weather permitting - the lens will be back in place, covered with curtains on the ocean side. During summer evening programs, it will be switched on, pointing inland only to avoid confusing modern mariners.

The newspapers are probably too fragile to go on public display at Point Reyes, but images will be posted on social media, said John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation at the seashore.

A replacement time capsule, with contents yet to be determined, will go back in the same place behind the lighthouse walls.

“Who knows when this may be uncovered again?” Dell’Osso said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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