Posted on July 20, 2021
Popular, but crumbling, 150-year-old landmark between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz to be renovated
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a venerable landmark that has stood dramatically over the San Mateo County coast for 150 years but fallen badly into disrepair over the past two decades, appears finally to be headed for a major restoration.
The 115-foot-tall brick structure south of Half Moon Bay has been awarded full funding to complete an $18.9 million restoration as part of California’s new state budget.
The towering white structure — tied with the Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County for the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast — was built in 1871 to keep wooden ships from hitting the rocky shoreline. For years it was a popular attraction, with tours taking schoolchildren up the winding stairs and docents dressed as 19th-century lightkeepers.
But in 2001 the building was padlocked after large chunks of its black cast-iron bracing, each weighing about 300 pounds, plunged to the ground. Today, the aging lighthouse, owned by California’s State Parks department, is surrounded by chain-link fence, its masonry cracked and its white sides streaked with rust. Every day, disappointed visitors ask rangers why they can’t go inside, or how they can help restore the landmark to its former glory.
One engineering report in 2009 said the upper tower was “structurally unsound” and “in critical condition,” potentially in danger of collapse. But now contracts are expected to go out to bid this fall, with construction to start next year, said Linda Hitchcock, a senior park and recreation specialist for State Parks.
“I’m just thrilled. I’m so excited,” she said. “We have worked so hard to try to get this project funded. To be able to do the whole thing at once is tremendous.”
Construction will take about 18 months to complete, she said.
Crews are expected to erect scaffolding up the unreinforced masonry tower and strengthen its insides with concrete beams. They will repair the catwalk, cast iron bracing, guardrails and other features. Also on the list: repairing cracked masonry and leaking brick walls and shoring up the roof.
“Whoopee!” said Wayne Wheeler, president emeritus of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a preservation group based in Hansville, Washington. “That’s spelled W-H-O-O-P-E-E.”
Wheeler said the lighthouse is one of only about eight built in 1871 that are still standing in the United States, with a similar design to other classic lighthouses, like the one at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
“The last thing fishermen saw when they went out, and the first thing they saw when they came back was the lighthouse,” he said. “It’s emblematic of the community. It’s a shame what happened, but I’m glad the state is finally putting some money into it.”
The lighthouse has suffered from nearly 20 years of neglect.
In 2005, the Bush administration announced the federal government would transfer it to California’s State Parks department as part of a public-private partnership that former Interior Secretary Gale Norton heralded as “nothing short of grand.”
But because of complexities in old real estate records and bureaucratic inaction, it took six years to transfer to state ownership. Then the State Parks department, hamstrung by former Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget cuts, could not afford to restore the structure. A nonprofit group, the California State Parks Foundation, tried to raise money to do the job but fell short.
With the once-proud landmark becoming an eyesore, state lawmakers finally approved $9.1 million for the job in 2019. The original plan was to remove the top one-third of the tower, along with its upper decking and roof, repair them, and then come back later for a second job when more funding was available to rebuild the brickwork, replace windows and other renovations on the bottom of the tower.
But last year’s COVID pandemic, and then wildfires that damaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park and other nearby state parks in August, diverted resources and slowed progress. With California’s budget surplus this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers in May boosted funding for state parks maintenance from $20 million to $185 million statewide, putting the entire Pigeon Point restoration on the list.
“It’s a unique and important part of California history,” Hitchcock said. “People just love to come out there and take photos and look over the back deck and see the harbor seals and the dolphins. It’s a real draw, a real accessible part of the rugged coast. It’s elegant. People are passionate about it, like when they see the Golden Gate Bridge.”
This is the third major historic lighthouse restoration project in the past two years in Northern California. In November 2019 crews finished a $5.7 million upgrade to the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County. In May, State Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, secured $4.5 million to rebuild two bridges to restore public access to the Point Sur Light Station in Big Sur.
Laird said that upkeep in State Parks is often uneven because there is no permanent funding source and the system relies on the year-to-year vagaries of the state budget.
“These lighthouses are a part of history,” Laird said. “Navigation has gotten very sophisticated and traditional lighthouses aren’t needed in the same way, but they give you a flavor of what life was like in California during those days. They are very popular with the public.”