August 23, 2014

from a popular bridge to a rather obscure lighthouse

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photo by Donald Kinney

The cables of the Bay Bridge move fluidly in waves of light and motion. Tinseltown razzamatazz…  It really is quite a mind-blowing light-show.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

A lesser known landmark, Point Montara Lighthouse, is 25 miles south. The lighthouse isn't very tall--designed that way to shine under the fog layer. Most cars pass by on Highway-1 and few ever notice the lighthouse and other buildings, although there is a popular Youth Hostel located here.
The much larger and more visited Pigeon Point Lighthouse is to the south.

After numerous ship wrecks along the San Mateo coast in the mid-1800s, a foghorn was installed at Point Montara, near Moss Beach. First sounded in 1872, the horn eased the way for ships entering the San Francisco Bay from the south. In 1900, a short light tower was erected to work in tandem with the fog horn and ensure an even safer approach to the Golden Gate. Today, the light is still an active aid to sea navigation, visible for 14 miles at sea. (source: Wikipedia)

For years, vessels caught in the thick fog along the final approach to San Francisco Bay were forced to hug the coast, putting them in danger of the rocky outcroppings that provide the beautiful vistas to sightseers, but prove deadly to boats. Although by the mid-1800's almost 90 vessels had met the business end of jagged rocks off Montara, it wasn't until two high profile incidents in 1868 and 01872 that Congress was finally motivated into action.

On November 9, 1868, the Colorado, a large Pacific Mail steamship carrying hundreds of passengers and the US mail, ran aground on the unseen shoals off Point Montara. Although the ship eventually floated free and all the passengers--and the mail--survived, the near-disaster left its mark on public sentiment.

Four years later another ship caught on Colorado Reef was not as lucky. On October 17, 1872, the British sailing Aculeo collided with the rocks after being lost for more than three days in a blinding fog. As the ship cracked open and filled with water, the crew made its escape on lifeboats. For over a week, the abandoned ship was pounded by waves before a salvage crew could get to it.

The next March, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a fog signal at Point Montara, to be positioned at the end of a rocky bluff 70 feet above the ocean. Earlier signals had been installed to the south at Ano Nuevo, and to the north at Yerba Buena Island. Operational March 1, 1875, the signal was a 12-inch steam whistle whose five-second blast could be heard up to 15 miles away. The whistle didn't come cheap--it took betwen 150,000 and 200,000 pounds of coal to fuel it every year, depending on the number of foggy days.

However, the fog signal wasn't enough to prevent continuing disasters along this stretch of coast. Four years to the day after the Acuelo was impaled on Colorado Reef, a three-masted Welsh ship, Rydal Hall, crashed in the fog onto Frenchman's Reef. Only 21 members of the 30-man crew survived, and none of the cargo did. Salvage was impossible--the broken ship languished almost a month on the rocks before cracking apart, meanwhile spilling tons of coal into the water and onto the beach. Further wrecks of ships carrying railroad iron and lumber littered the rocky coast as more vessels met their demise on the rocks. (source: information signs at Montara Lighthouse)

Donald Kinney Quarterly - volume 2014 issue 2       
Donald Kinney Quarterly - volume 2014 issue 1       

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