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.
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.