Shine a Light

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

We visited Piedras Blancas lighthouse in San Simeon this spring. Located six miles north of Hearst Castle on Highway 1, Piedras Blancas is more than a light station — it’s a protected ecological and cultural reserve where native plants flourish on the ocean-side bluffs.

Along the rocky coastline in front of the lighthouse, our own aquatic show awaited: gray whales breaching, long-legged oystercatcher birds “wheeping”, boisterous elephant seals lounging on the adjacent beach and sea otters floating on the waves.

Docent Abel Martinez, a former colleague from my public health days, guided us on a tour of the light station and its environs.

The tower’s Fresnel lens produced a flashing light that alerted mariners of dangerous conditions starting in 1875. A fog signal building was added in 1906 with equipment that make sounds loud enough to carry to sea. San Simeon was then a bustling whaling seaport. Ships brought their catch to off load at the San Simeon pier just north of the large, treacherous white rocks — thus named Piedras Blancas.

The Bureau of Land Management has managed the station since 2001 and, with a dedicated volunteer team, is restoring the lighthouse to her former elegance. In 1949, removal of the upper three levels of the earthquake-damaged 100-foot lighthouse reduced the tower to 70 feet. The Fresnel lens is now displayed on Main Street in Cambria.

Did you ever wonder what lighthouse keepers did to keep themselves from going bonkers in such isolated areas? I was delighted to see a traveling library box of reading material that was sent to light stations by tender ship. The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Pictures Every Child Should Know, The Professor at the Breakfast Table and Sailors Knots were among the 33 well-thumbed books in U.S. Light House Establishment library box 141. Notice the last book on the bottom shelf is Wonders of Nature, apropos to this post.

U.S. Light House Establishment Library Box, # 141, Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

U.S. Light House Establishment Library Box # 141, Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

The light from Piedras Blancas is now an automated Vega marine rotating beacon. The Coast Guard has automated all light stations in the U.S., eliminating the need for operating personnel — except for one. Sally Snowman is the resident Coast Guard Keeper of The Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, America’s first lighthouse, built in 1716. Next year marks its 300th anniversary and it’s still a major navigation aid into Boston Harbor.

Piedras Blancas and other majestic ladies dot our coastlines and are being preserved as national treasures of our rich maritime heritage. There are hundreds of lighthouses in the U.S. and 53 of them are in California. I hope you can visit one, but if you can’t, you can always read about a lighthouse keeper’s life. The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman, is set on a remote island in Australia and P.D. James’s The Lighthouse is set off the English Cornish coast. They both shine a light on what can happen even in an orderly, solitary place.

24 thoughts on “Shine a Light

  1. This is a fascinating post. Lighthouses have always intrigued me, but I did not know about our own “local” treasure at Piedras Blancas. I always learn something from your posts! And this makes me want to visit Piedras Blancas too. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Thanks Bonnie. I hope you get to see Piedras Blancas. It’s a wonderful way to spend part of a day. Plus so many fun places to stay in the area and endless wineries to visit too!

  2. Susan, as always you tell an engaging story about different subjects.
    I enjoyed reading about “my lighthouse” – the one nearest where
    we live. You made everything come alive – between the sea life
    and showing the books that those lighthouse keepers read
    during their many hours of duty. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks Andrea. And just think, we were all sharing lunch and spirits together in Cambria the day before this adventure began!

  3. Hummmm….never thought about lighthouses much —– now I will. Thks Susan. We stayed in a lighthouse coverted to a motel once in Homer Alaska. That was a kick for the kids. Best Marc

  4. Susan, your pictures are beautiful and your narration took me right to SanSimeon, where our family camped summers when we were kids. It is a fond memory. Thanks for the reminder. Cathy

    1. Thanks Cathy for sharing your memories of camping in San Simeon in your childhood. What great times those must have been.

  5. Piedras Blancas is also the name of the border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica (the legal one anyway), so the name caught my attention first. But lighthouses are also an enduring interest, because they are often the first sign of civilization. This past summer included a trip to the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, where we visited a light house that was built in response to ship wrecks in the area. Now decommissioned, the lighthouse and surrounding area is now a comprehensive park and museum, providing a glimpse into early settlement of the region.
    Cape Canaveral Florida, near where I grew up, juts out into the Atlantic and was the graveyard of many Spanish ships and others. So the Canaveral lighthouse was one of the first structures built in the area and the families of the first lighthouse keepers led rough and interesting lives as some of the first permanent residents in the area of European descent.

  6. Susan what a great and informative piece on lighthouses! I have always loved the beauty of them during the day, majestically perched on the shores of vast bodies of water. Also at night, twirling their mighty beams of light round and round, protecting ships from running aground.

  7. Loved this piece. Light houses do trigger the imagination. They stand so bold and strong along the shores of most of the continents in this world. I love the ones along our East Coast. I particularly love the one on Martha’s Vineyard standing at the top of the multi-colored cliffs. You have clearly triggered memories. And, as Petrea mentioned, I think I want to check out one of those books. That was a fascinating fact. Besides, I could use a switch from reading books about, by and for cats. You know, everything has been cats. Thanks for this piece.

  8. Oh how exciting and mysterious lighthouses are! And you’ve brought that excitement to this post. Duane and I have seen many including this one, but never took the tour. Thanks to you, we have a preview. I too want to hear more about Sally Snowman and want to read the books you suggested. There’s a book about a lighthouse in England taking place in one of the world wars. Was it Snow Goose? I will research that and get back to you…it was a wonderful book. Thanks for your beguiling writing style and inviting content. Love, Susan

  9. Ahoy Mate…thanks for sharing your visit to Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS) in this very enjoyable and informative “Shine a Light” post! Hope some of your readers will visit us at the PBLS or any of the many other spectacular lighthouse sites; visiting or staying at a lighthouse is beyond a special treat and unique adventure. You got me thinking about visiting the Boston Light next year and maybe we can meet Sally Snowman! One of my favorite books is “Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built” by Dennis M. Powers about California’s St. George Reef Lighthouse. Look forward to your next post. Happy Holidays!

  10. Great post and wonderful story of this California lighthouse. Love the photo of the bookcase. It really
    gives you a feeling about how light keepers spent their ‘day off work.’
    A trip up the coast of Oregon to visit 9 of their 11 lighthouses was a fascinating experience. Nine of the 11 lighthouses
    are open and some are are the National Register of Historic Places. Oregon’s coast is so different from California’s.

  11. Thank you Susan for sharing. I love lighthouses and plan to visit some up this way. There is one you can even stay over night called Pt. Reyes. I love the one in San Diego too. Xoxo

  12. HI Susan. Very interesting. It was wonderful that Abel Martinez provided your tour. We just returned from a 5-day tour of the Savannah, Georgia area. There is a lovely lighthouse on St. Simon Island that we toured. Now I am more interested than ever in lighthouses.


  13. Hi, Susan. Wonderful post. I love lighthouses and really enjoyed reading about your tour. When Mike and I first married, we stayed in a few lighthouses that had been turned into hostels. It was a wonderful experience and we had fun seeing the lighthouses and doing a few “chores” around their buildings. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and Happy New Year!

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