On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
A recent OTR posting about the Heceta Head Lighthouse inspired me to share some photos and stories about another Lighthouse I have visited “a few times”. For reasons that will soon become obvious, this is easily my favorite Lighthouse (although Heceta Head, along with Pt. Reyes, is certainly near the top of that list as well).
During final edits, I realized this posting is actually a bit of a hybrid and I’m drawing outside the lines a bit; this posting is a mix of both OTR and “Artists In Our Midst” (mostly the former, but at least a little of the latter). In this case, the artists were a dedicated volunteer group of skilled craftspeople that allowed me to work with them for around a decade (I may be dedicated; skilled is open for debate). Over the past 25 years or so, this amazing team has contributed more than 80,000 person-hours (and it has to be near 100,000 person-hours by now) towards the restoration of this Light Station. I account for around 1,000 of those hours; along with occasionally getting really dirty, I was one of the docents when we had guests. It became our (occasionally obsessive) goal to restore this Lighthouse to the look and feel of when it was first operational (which was 1890). It was through this project I became a bigtime pharaohphile (Lighthouse fanatic) and have visited many Lighthouses on the West Coast.
Anyway, with that docent background, I can talk for hours (and have occasionally done so) about this place, so enough introductory words; time for some photos and some stories.
This is the Point San Luis Lighthouse, which is located near San Luis Obispo, CA (given this is Balloon-Juice, I’m amused that the linked map shows Fat Cats Cafe; Fat Cats is actually quite good and, better yet, gives a small discount for Folks that visit the Lighthouse). There are a few clues in the photo that tell me this is a fairly recent photo, not the least of which being my Mother and Aunt, but the first things I see (sorry Family Folks) are the vinca groundcover and the lantern railing. Both changed along the way, but this was the original configuration. The “original” thing will come up a few times in this posting.
PSL Lighthouse is a little difficult to reach. It’s not the most difficult one I’ve ever tried to reach (easily, that would be St. George’s Reef Lighthouse near Crescent City, CA; maybe I’ll share a little about that one in another OTR post) but visiting there is going to take a little bit of planning. I’ll come back to how to get to this hidden jewel of the Central Coast at the end.
Port San Luis and the Lighthouse have an incredible history. There is a video of some of that history here, where I show up VERY briefly (and, no, I’m not going to share which one is me). As part of the docenting, a fair amount of time is spent sharing stories of the Chumash Indians, the narrow gauge railroad, the unique geology of the area, and much more. What would be most spectacular (if we knew when they would show up), it is a FANTASTIC spot to watch for the northbound gray whales (northbound, the mothers and calves get VERY close to the shoreline).
I’ll share one more video link that shares the “before” condition of the project around the time I became a part of it. Not long after I started, we had a visitor named Huell Howser (he was famous in California; if you haven’t heard of him, he did travelogs in the state for PBS). His visit to the Lighthouse begins at 1:12 of this video and concludes around 16:55.
This was the first room restored by the Lighthouse Keepers (and the one I had absolutely nothing to do with restoring; it was done before I showed up). All of the furnishings and artifacts are period authentic (there are better pictures of the parlor, but the stereoscope is a favorite item). Also of note in this picture is the effort made to make the rooms look as original as possible; scrapings were taken to an expert and that was the original color. Every room but one in the house has that look (and I can’t spoil the story of the one room that is different; too long to explain and can’t spoil the surprise for those of you that visit, in person or virtually).
My favorite room in the house and only partially because it was the first room I worked on. The kitchen reminds me of the quality of the original craftsmanship (almost all of the wood in the house is original; there are a few patches here and there, but it is amazingly minimal) and the original design. This structure is SOLID. One of my favorite stories about the Lighthouse is about a strong earthquake that happened in the area; we went over the house very carefully and didn’t find any damage at all. The much younger Duplex a few yards away? Obvious damage.
Oh, the Duplex. I will come back to the Duplex.
One more thing about the kitchen: The original stove was a Eureka #7 coal stove. I’ve looked all over virtually and in every antique store I visit for that stove and … can’t find it. A lot of the things at the Lighthouse are things found here and there by friends of the Lighthouse (for example, the phone on the wall); if anyone ever sees a Eureka #7, we’d love to know about it.
This is where I spent a lot of my time getting dirty; the tower and the lantern were my two principal projects out there. The lantern had severe leaks; initially, it was originally guessed to be about 6 months of work, but it turned into a project that lasted about 6 years. The lantern glass was put in by a company that did something with the Monterey Bay Aquarium (so it isn’t ever leaking) and all of the seals were carefully replaced (ditto).
Another story from this photo about how obsessive the Lighthouse Keepers are – the roof on the foghorn building (upper left) is new and special permission had to be obtained to use shingles that didn’t have fire retardant (as those didn’t exist in 1890)…
…that being said, fire was a huge concern at the Lighthouse and we went to extremes to prevent it from happening. By the time a Fire Engine navigated the single lane road out there (especially before it was improved and paved, circa 2008), it would be all over.
Final related story: There was a recent movie called “The Lighthouse Keeper” that used the location; terrible script, incompetent directing, ridiculous special effects, horrible acting, but a beautiful lighthouse (all bias readily admitted). I share that story as, unless it was CGI, lit candles were used inside the house in the movie and, when I saw it on screen, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I’m not kidding; I screamed.
The lantern was also the second best location on the property to watch for the whales. I’ll share the best in a moment.
This is a 4th Order Fresnel lens in it’s own special environmentally controlled room in the Foghorn House. It’s still owned by the Coast Guard and worth … a lot … so it can’t go back into the lantern (not to mention that would be problematic for tours).
The lens was on display for decades in downtown San Luis Obispo; on the day of it’s return to the Lighthouse, the weather was terrible downtown to start the journey. We were all seriously concerned, but, as soon as the Lens returned to the Light Station property, the weather cleared and it was a beautiful day.
Probably the second most photographed location on the property (if we are talking video, it may be Number 1). It’s a great swing and has a perfect view towards Point Sal to watch for whales. Best whale watching I’ve ever seen from land (by far) but, of course, it’s so unpredictable. One time the whale was so close that I saw a large discoloration that I found odd, fearing it was from a ship strike; anyway, I contacted the lead veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center (another volunteer gig at the time) and she said, no, it wasn’t from a strike, it was whale lice. Ewww. Sorry.
Another fairly recent photo, the clues this time are the indoor bathroom and the washroom had both been removed…
…and there is the first look in these pictures of the Duplex. Time to tell THAT story.
I’ll confess up front: Not my photo, but I know the photographer and it’s from a Commons Archive, so I’m calling it fair game. Also, this photo is moderately old. The clue this time? The Porta Potties. Several new bathrooms are there now, all very nice. Get those ugly blue things out of there!
So, there were 5 principal buildings at the lightstation (not counting things like the barn, etc). 4 of those buildings still exist and we have access to 3 of them. From left to right in this photo, the so far not introduced buildings are the Fuel Oil House (for paints and the original light fuel, which was kerosene), the Coal House (cooking and original Foghorns, which were steam whistles)…
…and the Duplex. Siggggggggh. The Duplex.
The original Duplex was a lovely Victorian as well, but it fell into disrepair and was razed circa 1960. The second Duplex just feels so wrong out there. The interior is quite lovely now and highly functional, but the exterior is … unacceptable. A group of us have wanted to recreate the facade of the old Duplex on top of the very nice interior but … it hasn’t happened yet. Someday, maybe.
The one original building we can’t access is probably obvious. The original Coal House is fenced off, mostly because of Vandyland, i.e., Vandenburg Air Force Base (I will not call it “Spaceforce”) and the present day Coast Guard automated Light.
So, some final thoughts. There are all sorts of pictures and videos of the Lighthouse available online, from the website, guests, and local news, etc, but, if you have the chance, this Lighthouse is well worth the time and effort to visit in person. If that isn’t possible, there are virtual tours as well (which became very necessary in these recent pandemic days).
It’s a VERY special places. There is something going on out there that I won’t try to explain. The coffee tastes better. The coffee cake tastes better. It’s just very relaxing in a way that is hard to explain (I have heard this from guests as well; it’s not just the volunteers). If you are able, I would be absolutely thrilled if you are able to visit in person (or virtually) and enjoy (better yet, fall in love with the place and choose to volunteer) this place that has been worked on so hard by a really amazing group of Folks (that tolerated me).
There are a few different ways to get there in person.
By road, one has to go through the gate at Diablo Canyon (which means only a limited number of people can drive out there; tours are offered). There is a reasonably easy 3.5 mile (round trip) trail with hikes offered at least twice per week (docent led; the nuclear plant property is crossed and they insist). There is one steep section but it isn’t bad and we take our time. Finally, my personal favorite (other than driving, naturally) is getting there by kayak. Some might be tempted to walk out at low tide; that is a really bad idea (don’t ask me how I know this fact; let’s just call it a Dangerman thing).
As mentioned, I can go for hours on this place; I hope I didn’t share too much here. Thanks for reading.
What a special place. You must be so proud of your work to keep it alive for others.
Beautiful, and what an enormous amount of work! Also, I learned a new word today!
I hope everyone takes the time to read the whole thing. This is definitely not just a post of photos of a lighthouse.
(Which would be fine, too, but in that case it would matter less if you didn’t read the text.)
Old California, especially old coastal California, has a remarkable ambience. Bless you for restoring this jewel and for sharing the story.
In a previous life I had reason to be at Vandyland (what a great moniker, and I too refuse to call it a Space Force base) and I had no idea this was there. If course, I was but a callow youth at the time. I would love to visit now!
Thank you for the wonderful photos and the write up. I was late to the gym but worth the delay!
cool story and photos! I think it’s charming that people love to look at lighthouses when the entire goal of the lighthouse is to say STAY AWAY
I have lived in CA for decades, have visited Lompoc for the murals (but not visited Vandenberg base for any reason), had dinner in Avila Beach before they tore the whole town apart for toxic remediation; literally had never heard of this lighthouse. Now it’s on my must-do list, thanks to your post. Maybe I’ll see you on the hike out there :)
Dangerman: “we take our time” on the hike: does that mean you are (sometimes) one of the hike leaders? If so, which dates would you suggest that I could sign up for?
@hotshoe: 2 or 3 times a year, I’ll do the hike (it’s called the Pecho Coast trail) and try to learn something new about the Coast; there are so many experts on different things (I think it’s a Cal Poly influence). And I have heard at least 2 versions of why it’s called the Pecho Coast (one of which is slightly naughty, so if there are children, that one might not be shared). My favorite time of the year is spring for the wildflowers but I’ve done it all seasons; if it’s a particularly nice day (often) and I wake up early (not as often), I’ll do the hike. Reservations are very strongly encouraged but I get recognized and the scheduled docents kindly let me just show up. It isn’t often when there isn’t room for more Folks but I do suggest reserving a spot.
@eclare: Yup. Coolest project I’ve ever been a part of and by far the best team (and Ive been on a few).
@hotshoe: I miss Old Avila!
Interesting that the living quarters are attached to the lighthouse; a combined facility as it were. What struck me about Heceta Head was how far the keeper’s housing was from the lighthouse, with a story about a path and rope line so they could manage the walk back and forth in deep fog and bad weather. Probably lots of reasons to build it that way; I can think of at least 3 and one specific to the terrain and resupply issues.
Did the keepers live inside the same building complex as the lighthouse at this location? How difficult was resupply in the early days of this gorgeous structure and associated buildings?
There’s definitely something special about lighthouses…
@Benw: I thought the goal of lighthouses was for you to find your way back home?
@StringOnAStick: Yes, the Head Keeper’s Family lived in the house; the duplex was for the Assistants and Families. Families were very much encouraged as it was fairly isolated. The first road, such as it was (goat trail), didn’t come through until the 1950s, so everything came in by boat. If you follow the road down to Coast Guard Beach on Google Maps, you’ll see remnants of the pier on the rock and seaweed growing on the remaining pilings. We will replace the pier someday. The list of things to do is long, but the fundamentals of the structures are done.
One of the cool things about the place is guests can go just about anyplace after the tour for pictures or whatever; the only exception I can think of right now is the Widows Walk outside the lantern. That had to be restricted because we outsmarted ourselves on the original thing; a bit of a long story but, in short, the original design of the Widows Walk left something to be desired. That will get fixed someday, too.
We know a lot about life at the house. Never heard of any complaints about noise from the need to service the light 7×24. Details here are a little fuzzy in my brain, but IIRC, the light was serviced every 4 hours or so (fuel and resetting the grandfather clock mechanism).
The original elementary schoolhouse was roughly at the Diablo Canyon entrance so the Children had to hike out every day during initial schooling…
…and there are so many stories to share. Water is a big topic. But I gotta go away for a while…
A little more. There were 3 houses of that design in California. One at Ballast Point in San Diego (long gone) and one at Table Bluff near Eureka (mostly gone; I tried to get into the old foghorn house and was unsuccessful, but I did talk my way into the tower which was moved to Eureka). Anyway the living arrangement wasn’t completely unusual. We think (but aren’t sure) that to save money, these houses were a repurposed/redesigned kit house.
Its possible this might have had something to do with the Lighthouse at St George’s Reef, which took a long time to build and was very expensive. SGR and the wreck of the Brother Jonathan is a helluva story in itself. But that is for another time.
I haven’t been to the PSL lighthouse, it looks beautiful, the restoration looks absolutely first rate. I have spent time at the Point Reyes lighthouse (not near as much as The Dangerman has spent at PSL) and it is spectacular as well. As a sailor, both in my own sailboat and in a motorboat about 15 times larger I appreciate the concept of them getting people into port and of avoiding landing at a place not intended to land a boat.
They actually do both, they show you where to land and where to avoid.
My appointment is running a bit late; anyway, Lighthouses are really kind of amazing places. Often born in tragedy (SGR) with sole purpose being to save and improve lives. For lotsa reasons, this Lighthouse was really important to commerce in SLO.
Lighthouses warn of coastlines and reefs to stay away from, but also provide reference points for ships to track their progress along a coastline. Each lighthouse has a different signal.
With modern aids like GPS these roles are less important but they still have a place.
On another subject, the coastal cliffs in the last photo provide a great example of why so much of the California coastline is unstable and vulnerable to coastal erosion.
Looking at the site on Google Earth, it’s on a coastal terrace. This is a gently sloping surface carved out by ocean waves long ago when the land was at a lower elevation in relation to the ocean. These are very common along the California coastline because so much of the coastline has been uplifted over recent hundreds of thousands of years.
On top of the wave-carved terrace are sedimentary deposits, consisting mostly of marine sediments deposited in a shallow but somewhat energetic offshore environment. Being geologically young and never deeply buried, they have not been consolidated into rock. This makes them weak when under attack by erosion. Once the terrace is uplifted above the ocean level, it may also receive terrestrial sediment washed down from higher areas.
When this marine terrace is lifted above the water it’s attacked by ocean waves. Consisting of weakly bonded materials, it erodes and collapses relatively easily. This may not be obvious over a short period of time since most of the erosion tends to take place during unusually stormy winters which may be separated by a number of years.
Often, coastal development in California has been constructed quite close to these unstable coastal cliffs (great ocean views!) but there may not be any consequences for quite a while. Then much later this development is threatened by erosion or even falls into the ocean. Even if a 50 or 100 foot buffer is left as a margin of safety at the time of construction, that can disappear over a period of decades during several widely spaced stormy winters. Or, it could even disappear in a couple of years if your timing is unlucky.
In the end we see footage of houses falling into the ocean, or at least being threatened by that, or houses on top of cliffs held together by last-ditch efforts to fend off the ocean’s erosive power.
While you can find hard bedrock in many places in California, the California coastline is not like rocky coastlines in Maine or the Great Lakes that mostly consist of hard bedrock hundreds of millions of years old. The coastal geology in California is generally weak, young bedrock or unconsolidated sediments that give way readily to the power of the ocean.
Go up to Cayucos and take Cayucos Rd to Thunder Canyon to see my grandfathers barn. The old milk barn.
The house where my mom was born is still standing.
Granddad came down with family in around 1870 from Oregon.
Back in the late 1960’s we took a drive along the coast road. I remember driving over the road that looked like it was still sliding.
Thanks for sharing photos and prose. What a beautiful place!