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.