Then & Now: Point Reyes Lighthouse

The Point Reyes Lighthouse became operational on December 1, 1870. The discovery of gold in California dramatically increased traffic to and from San Francisco Bay. After multiple shipwrecks and an estimated million dollars of shipping losses, the United States Congress decided it was time to build a lighthouse.

Click and drag the circle at the center of the photos left and right to compare the then and now images.

 
Point Reyes Lighthouse Shortly after Construction, 1870 or 1871
A black and white photo of a short, three-story-tall, white lighthouse on the edge of a cliff. One man stands on the balcony of the tower while a second man stands at the edge of the cliff. A color photo of a short, three-story-tall, white-sided, red-roofed lighthouse, with the ocean and clouds in the background.
Credit: Public Domain / Eadweard Muybridge photograph
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

In 1869, Edward Cordell and George Davidson of the U.S. Coast Survey visited Point Reyes and determined that the best site for a lighthouse was low on the steep, sharp ridgeline, about 270 feet above sea level. A first order Fresnel lens was manufactured in Paris in 1867 and was transported by ship to Point Reyes.

The lighthouse took less than two months to build and it became operational on December 1, 1870. Initially, a lard oil lamp was used as the source of light. Half an hour before sunset, the keeper or one of his three assistants lit the oil lamp and then wound the clockwork every two hours and 20 minutes to rotate the lens and create the flash. They tended the lamp and clockwork mechanism throughout the night. The lard oil was replaced by kerosene in 1887.

During the day, the keepers' duties included washing, scraping, and whitewashing the light station's buildings, cleaning the lens and clockwork mechanism, in addition to hauling coal and pushing it down a chute to the fog signal building.

In 1871, a fog signal building was constructed 150 feet below the lighthouse. Thereafter, on foggy days and nights, the keepers would need to shovel 140 pounds of coal per hour into the fog signal’s boiler. Sometimes, winds were so strong that the keepers had to crawl on their hands and knees to keep from being blown off the cliff as they moved from one building to another.

Over the years, automation and improved shipboard navigational aids rendered the historic lighthouse and fog signal obsolete. The old light was turned off by the station's last keeper, Thomas Smith, in 1975. It was replaced by an automated beacon just west of and below the historic lighthouse.




 
Feeding the Chickens, ca. 1922
A black and white photo of a young boy feeding chickens adjacent to a picket fence with rock outcrops in the background. A color photo of iceplant growing on a steep rocky slope, with a rock retaining wall and rocky outcrops in the background..
Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #000030; Courtesy Jack Mason Museum
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

Obtaining food could be a challenge for lighthouse keepers. It took multiple hours to travel the 20 miles to and from the nearest stores in Olema or Point Reyes Station over the dirt, sand, and wood planking road. The rocky outcropping and foggy conditions limited residents’ ability to grow their own food, so most food would be provided by U.S. Lighthouse Board tenders. While vegetable crops didn't fare too well in the harsh conditions, some residents were able to raise chickens.




 
Stairway and Wooden Water Tank, ca. 1926
A black and white photo of a three-story-tall lighthouse and two buidlings at the base of wooden stairs. On the left, a large, round, wooden water tank sits at the top of the stairs. A color photo of a three-story-tall lighthouse and two buidlings at the base of 313 concrete stairs. On the left, three people rest on a platform near the top of the stairs as two others make their way up from below.
Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #008240
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

A wooden water tank near the top of the stairway stored some of the water gathered in a system of concrete watersheds. The water was then piped to the steam-powered fog signal below the lighthouse.

The wooden staircase was replaced with 308 concrete steps and a cart track in 1959. An electric winch and cart system for hauling equipment was also installed. In 2019, five additional steps were added at the top of the stairs during the Lighthouse Restoration Project.




 
Near the Base of the Stairs above the Lighthouse, 1929
A black and white photo of a wooden ramp running down a rocky, coastal ridge line to a three-story lighthouse tower and two other buildings. A man with three children stand near the base of the stairs. A color photo of a concrete ramp running down a rocky, coastal ridge line to a three-story lighthouse tower and two other buildings. A woman and a man in the foreground have begun the ascent to the top of the stairs, which is behind the photographer.
A man and children pose at the base of the stairs near the lighthouse and new equipment station. Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #047620
Modern visitors begin the ~230-foot ascent. Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.



 
Keeper's House in the Snow, ca. 1932
A black and white photo of a snowy pathway with tricycle tracks and footprints leading to a two-story house on the left. A man stands near the near corner of the house. A color photo of three people walking up a concrete ramp from a green, two-story building on the left. Windblown trees stand beyond the building.
A keeper makes his way down the wooden boardwalk toward his dwelling after a rare snowfall at Point Reyes. Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #043850
In 1960, the old keepers’ residence was torn down and replaced with the multi-unit residence that we see today. Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.



 
Upper Complex, 1945
A black and white photo of buildings, rocky outcroppings, and ocean. A color photo of buildings, rocky outcropping, and the ocean.
Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #051590
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

This historic photo of the upper complex includes the former U.S. Weather Bureau station (on the left), a washhouse, two garages, and two cisterns with watersheds. Over time, the usefulness of the lighthouse and the weather station diminished while operational costs remained high. In 1927, the U.S. Weather Bureau transferred the building to the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which used it to house the principal light keeper until its demolition in 1960. The largest of the two garages was converted into today's visitor center, which opened to the public in 1977.




Last updated: May 5, 2020

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Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

Phone:

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