Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #30

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The original (1870) Point Arena Lighthouse. National Archives photo 26-LG-63-38-ac.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Inspector Snow, when he last visited Robbins Reef, told me about the damage done to the tall masonry tower on Point Arena headland north of San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake. He said that a rare earthquake had struck Pensacola, Florida, in 1885, but earthquakes were much more common in California.

The Point Arena keeper described that experience: “A heavy blow first struck the tower from the south . . ., accompanied by a heavy retort. The tower quivered for a few seconds, went far over to the north, came back, and then swung north again, repeating this several times. Immediately after came rapid and violent vibrations, rending the tower apart, the sections grinding upon each other; while the lenses, reflectors, etc., in the lantern were shaken from their settings and fell in a shower upon the iron floor.”

The earthquake struck before dawn. At least one of the keepers would have been in the watch room at the top of the Point Arena tower. Imagine his thoughts as he made his way down the broken tower. The keepers must have gone up the stairs again because they immediately disassembled the lantern and reassembled it on a temporary tower in order to maintain the light.

The tower was cracked and leaning beyond repair the keepers dwellings uninhabitable and the wind too strong to use tents. The keepers constructed four bungalows for their families.

Letters from the 12th district engineer to the Light-House Board dated May 9 and November 30, 1906, stated, “Experience in this city shows that in order to be earthquake-proof, the new tower must be a steel frame construction or else of reinforced concrete. . . . the cost of a cast-steel tower similar to the Cape Fear tower, but 100 feet high, will exceed the cost of a reinforced concrete tower.”

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The new (1908) Point Arena Lighthouse. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A reinforced concrete tower was chosen for Point Arena, the first in the nation, completed and lit with a new first-order lens the largest of the Fresnel lenses in 1908. It was electrified in 1928 and automated in 1977. It is now managed by the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, Inc., who provide overnight accommodations in the keepers dwellings.

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The first-order Fresnel lens, now on display on the museum at Point Arena. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

The inspector said that other California lighthouses were damaged by the 1906 earthquake. It s a dramatic story, worth Googling, if you want to learn more about it.

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Information is from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 80 and Entry 48, File #550; and Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 64.

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