American Lighthouses: West Coast

Lighthouses might not be the first thing you think of when talking about California, Oregon, Washington, or Alaska, but the west coast of the U.S.A. has some beautiful, historic lighthouses. The story of their construction and service is linked to the territory and early statehood days of these coastal states, the maritime history, and the Lighthouse Board.

Today, we’ll take an overview glance at the lighthouses in this region and their unique piece in maritime and national history.

Original lighthouse on Alcatrez Island, San Francisco

The Coastline

The geography and ecosystems along the California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaskan coasts vary greatly. From beaches and perfect harbors to rocky cliffs and icebergs, the west coast boasts a beautiful variety of coastal views…which – as we’ve learned – means that there are different styles of lighthouses built to serve the navigational needs at each location.

How about a little history review to explain the navigational history along these coasts? The first known European to sail to California and explore its Channel Islands and coast was Juan Cabrillo (1542); he was followed by other Spanish explorers who eventually mapped the California coastline and probably sailed farther north. Supply ships and later trading vessels cruised the California coast as the Spanish established missions and a colony. Farther north, Russians and English established trading posts. American merchants started venturing to California in the early 19th Century, bringing trade items to exchange for hides and tallow from the California Ranchos.

The California Gold Rush (started in 1849) brought thousands of Americans, foreigners, and adventurers to the newly acquired U.S. Territory and, shortly thereafter, state. The increasing maritime traffic along the west coast prompted the construction of aids to navigation – lighthouses – in the early 1850’s. Why is that significant? Read on…

Point Pinos Lighthouse was the first lighthouse built on the west coast! Notice the similar design to Old Point Loma Lighthouse. (By Ed Bierman – originally posted to Flickr as Point Pinos, CC BY 2.0,

“Classic” Structures

Remember the U.S. Lighthouse Board established in 1852? They sent surveyors and engineers to the west coast to choose lighthouse locations. It was a significant and early project for the new organization. And it played into the design of the first eight west coast lighthouses!

See, the Board want to be economical, modern, and efficient. They designed a “classic” lighthouse that they believed could be built just about anywhere that didn’t need a tall tower. After-all, why re-invent the lighthouse every single time one had to be built? So…if you look at floorplans or photos of the first eight lighthouses built on the West Coast in the early 1850’s, you’ll notice they all look very, very similar. And then, if you look at the style of lighthouses constructed in New England in the same time period, you’ll see the continued similarities. It’s an easy way to guess a lighthouse date!

As time went on and other lighthouses were built on the west coast, other styles were constructed so you’ll find more “looks” that just the “1850’s cookie cutter” New England style floor plan.

Famous West Coast Lighthouses

Old Point Loma Lighthouse – constructed in 1854 on the high cliffs at the entrance to San Diego Bay, this lighthouse was in operation until the 1890’s when a new structure was built at the base of the cliff to avoid the fog and be more effective. One of the first eight lighthouses, it follows the basic “classic” design and pattern from the Lighthouse Board. The sandstone structure was painted in the 1880’s to keep the wind and elements from eroding the rock. During World War II, the lighthouse was used by the U.S. Army as a communication base and was even camouflaged! It’s now part of Cabrillo National Monument and is restored to its 1880’s appearance.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse (undated USCG photo)

Point Bonita Lighthouse – entering service in 1855 – stands at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Equipped with a fog cannon, this post soon caused desparation. One gunner tasked with firing the fog cannon at regular intervals for three days and three nights in a dense San Francisco fog! By 1857, the fog cannon got replaced with a different warning system. In 1877, the lighthouse was moved to a new location for better visibility. It’s now protected by Golden Gate National Recreation Area and can be visited.

Point Bonita Lighthouse (1856 photograph)

Heceta Head Lighthouse, north of Florence, Oregon, was built in 1894. It’s the lighthouse with the most powerful lens in Oregon. Constructed in a remote location and known for its lonely beauty, Heceta Head Light Station is restored and is a bed and breakfast. (We know you always wanted to stay at a lighthouse!)

Heceta Head Light Station By Cacophony – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Scotch Cap Lighthouse near Unimak Pass, Alaska, (far western islands) was one of the most isolated lighthouses in the United States. So remote and lonely that families were not permitted to live there with the keepers; instead the keepers got one year of shore leave every four years. The lighthouse went into service in 1903. In April 1946, an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the lighthouse and drowned the five keepers at the station. The Coast Guard later erected another structure.

Scotch Cap Lighthouse, 1903

A Story To Remember

Sometimes lighthouse construction costs more than the time and materials. St. George’s Reef Light Station was built on the dangerous reef, six miles off the California coast. In 1865, a passenger ship ran aground on the reef, prompting the need for an aid to navigation. However, it took almost twenty years to get the necessary funds and plans for construction

St. George’s Reef Lighthouse

In 1887, work crews and engineers began building a stone structure on the exposed rocks, eventually making a pier 144 feet above the waves. The sea wasn’t kind, destroying the workmen’s quarters, and, on another occasion, sweeping an unlucky workman off the reef.

Location and building challenges made St. George’s Reef Lighthouse the most costly lighthouse constructed in its era. The price tag: $704,633.78. Fortunately, the construction was well-done; the light still stands and is still active. (At least one keeper died trying to reach his post). Check out more details here.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

5 thoughts on “American Lighthouses: West Coast

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  4. Totally interesting. I’ve blogged about a Great lakes Lighthouse in Door County, Wisconsin. The blog was hardly near your historical detail however. Love the breakdown on how to tell the age of a lighthouse. There are quite a few in my area, being so close to Lake Michigan.

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