History Of Point Sur
Over The Years

     Throughout history, Point Sur has been a navigational hazard, to which many shipwrecked captains can attest.  In the 1880s, lighthouses and lightships provided invaluable warnings to the many ships that traveled close to shore, especially during rough weather when protruding headlands could provide them with much-needed shelter.  It took mariners 11 years of petitioning the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board before money was allocated for Point Sur in 1886.  Three years later, on August 1, 1889, the lightstation keys were turned over to the first keeper.  He and three assistants staffed the lighthouse and fog signal 24 hours a day. 

     The four keepers and their families lived an isolated life.  The trail to Monterey was long and often treacherous, so trips were rare.  The U.S. Lighthouse Service provided a horse and wagon to get mail and supplies from Pfeiffer's Resort (now Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park).  Each family was allotted a garden area for fresh vegetables.  Bulk supplies such as coal, firewood, animal feed, and some food came on a 'lighthouse tender' about every four months. One function of these long, broad ships was to service remote lightstations inaccessible by land.  The tender would anchor south of the lightstation and send in a 20-foot whaler towing a skiff, both loaded with supplies.  The sacks and barrels were hoisted in cargo nets to a platform at the base of the rock.  They were then secured to a flat railcar and winched up to the dwelling area using a steam-driven donkey engine.  Like most remote lightstations, Point Sur was very self-sufficient. As the years passed, life became increasingly less isolated at Point Sur, specially following the completion of Highway One in 1937.  Two years later, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for all aids-to-navigation.  Lighthouse Service employees were absorbed into the new program, and allowed to become either members of the U.S. Coast Guard or remain civil service employees. 

     In the 1960s, the U.S. Coast Guard began automating lightstations in an effort to make more efficient use of their personnel.  In 1974, the last keeper left Point Sur.  Today a U.S. Coast Guard crew services the lighthouse regularly.

The History of the Lens

     The Point Sur Lightstation originally contained a first-order (the largest) Fresnel lens.  The lens was in use until the 1970s when it was replaced by a modern aero beacon mounted on the roof of the fog signal room.  The lens remained in the lighthouse tower until 1978, when it was disassembled and transported to the Allen Knight Maritime Museum of Monterey for display.  The aero beacon was later moved into the lighthouse tower.  

     The Fresnel lens was invented by Augustin Jean Fresnel, a French physicist.  Fresnel's invention revolutionized lighthouses world-wide.  Within a short time his lenses were accepted as the best available.  Many are still in use today.  

     The first-order lens apparatus that was once a part of Point Sur is 18 feet tall, with the optical portion being almost eight feet tall and over six feet in diameter.  The optic alone weighs 4,330 pounds.  It consists of 16 panels of prisms, each with a "bullseye" in the center surrounded by concentric rings of prismatic glass.  Each ring projects a short distance beyond the previous one.  Additional reflecting prisms are located above and below the center.  As the cylinder of prisms turns, each panel "collects" and "bends" light into a single focused beam.  Light from Point Sur's Fresnel lens was visible for 23 nautical miles.

School Days

Until 1927, children at Point Sur were unable to attend school daily.  Keepers' children would stay with families on nearby ranches during the week, going home on weekends, or they would live with relatives. 

In 1927, head keeper William Mollering requested that the school district provide a teacher for the children at the lightstation.  The school district agreed on the condition that there would be at least six students.  In order to meet the quota, Mollering's son began school a year early. 

Teachers were usually young women, just out of college, hoping to get experience.  The teacher lived with the head keeper's family and held classes in a shed behind the dwelling.  Like many of the unmarried keepers, teachers usually did not stay long because of the isolation and lack of social life. 

Later, a one-room schoolhouse was built near Highway One.  By the 1940s, another schoolhouse was built in a location more accessible to a greater number of Big Sur students.  Keepers' wives and older children took turns transporting children between the lightstation and the school in family cars.  The school district paid them for their services.

Coastal Navigation

Since the Point Sur Lightstation opened in 1889, navigational methods have changed dramatically.  With only a horse trail connecting much of the west coast, cargo was transported primarily via ships.  Using "dead-reckoning" and stars to determine a course, coastwise cargo ships often chose to stay within a couple of miles of the coast. 

Navigators used charts and publications such as the "Light List" and "Coast Pilot."  The "Light List" provided the locations, descriptions, and characteristics of all aids-to-navigation.  The "Coast Pilot" supplemented the navigational information shown on charts. 

Each lighthouse, lightship, and lightbuoy has a different characteristic, or flash pattern.  The difference may be in the length of the flash, the eclipse between flashes, or the color of the flash.  Ships are able to determine their exact location by triangulation, using two known points for two corners of the triangle and the position of the ship for the third.  By measuring the angles between these three points, the position of the ship can be pin-pointed.  Even today, there is no more reassuring sight to a ship returning from sea than the well-known characteristic of a familiar lighthouse. 

Until the 1970s, Point Sur also had a fog signal.  The original signal was made by twin steam whistles.  Steam was produced by a boiler which used wood for fuel.  Over the years, the steam whistles were replaced by airhorns.  The fog signal was used whenever fog reduced visibility to the degree that ships were in danger of hitting the rocks off shore.  Technological advances in navigational equipment and weather reporting eventually made the fog signal no longer necessary.



One of the factors influencing the funding for building the Point Sur Lightstation was the wreck of the VENTURA in 1875.  According to reports, the captain was drunk and the ship hit a cluster of rocks just north of Point Sur.  Everyone aboard eventually reached the shore safely, leaving the ship to break up on the rocks and slowly sink. 

While shipwrecks were not a common occurrence, there have been enough to distinguish the Point Sur area as a treacherous navigational hazard.  Other ships lost in the vicinity include the LOS ANGELES in 1894, the MAJESTIC in 1909, the  SHNA-YAK in 1916, the THOMAS L. WAND in 1922, the BABINDA in 1923, the RHINE MARU,  the PANAMA and the S. CATANIA in 1930, and the HOWARD OLSON in 1956. 

Although a wreck meant disaster for the shipping companies and sometimes tragic loss of life for those aboard, it also meant a new influx of supplies for the Big Sur coast residents.  As ships broke up, the cargo floated with the currents, eventually being deposited along the shoreline.  As news of a shipwreck passed along the coast, the local population flocked to the beach to gather lumber, foodstuffs and trade goods. 

Crash of the U.S.S. MACON
On February 12, 1935, two Point Sur lighthouse keepers witnessed the end of an era when the rigid airship U.S.S. Macon crashed offshore and sank in 1,450 feet of water.  Of the 83 crew, all but two escaped from the crash alive.  The helium-filled dirigible had an aluminum frame and a painted cotton skin.  The craft spanned 785 feet in length, three times that of a Boeing 747.  With a top speed of 80 mph, the U.S.S. Macon used a trapeze mechanism to launch and recover inflight the four Sparrowhawk F-9C-2 airplanes she carried. 

In 1990, the U.S. Navy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute discovered and photographed the Macon's wreckage, including her scout planes.  A special exhibit, including recovered parts from the airship, is locate in the Point Sur Lightstation visitor center.