At the southern end of Monterey Bay in California is the picturesque Point Pinos Lighthouse. Since 1855 it has helped those at sea find their way. Families are welcome to explore Point Pinos, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the west coast.
The lighthouse consists of a small, two-story house. Rising above the roof is the multi-prism Fresnel lens (pronounced fray-nell) that projects the light many miles out to sea. Unlike many lighthouses that sit at the water’s edge, Point Pinos is located a several minutes walk inland.
During my family’s visit we rounded the front of the building and were reminded of the rainstorm that was approaching from the Pacific Ocean. A strong and cool wind was blowing and dots of horizontal rain patched our clothes.
A man with a white beard welcomed all of us into the warm and cozy building. He was a volunteer docent, but was dressed as though working at a lighthouse was his profession. He could easily have walked out of the late 1800’s.
As he closed the door the blustery outside wind immediately ceased. The house was noticeably solid and well built. The walls were roughly a foot thick and had been constructed with a granite core; the building’s outside had been covered with wood and was whitewashed.
The main floor included three rooms and an old-time bathroom with a gravity feed water closet. A living room was refurnished with furniture and décor.
Moving to the second level we ascended a steep spiraling staircase. Here were two rooms: first was a refurbished bedroom of the lightkeeper, the second bedroom offered a glimpse into the history of the area during World War II when soldiers were stationed here to help protect the coast from possible enemy attacks.
A visit to the third level, with the Fresnel lens, was unfortunately off limits to visitors and we could only peek up the spiraling stairs … very curious about the lens we could not see.
Returning to the main floor we explored some side stairs that led to the basement. The basement was made with the same rock as the house; it was obvious this entire building was stoutly constructed and looked as though this place would survive any calamity. As we stepped into this cozy underground space another docent greeted us as. She was very eager to share her knowledge and gladly answered our questions.
A well-machined series of gears, levers and weights sat inside a Plexiglas display. This curious looking machine was an original ‘clockworks’ timing mechanism that allowed a shade to move around the light, giving the light a characteristic ‘light signature.’ The docent picked up a large wrench, inserted it into the machine and gave it a good turn. Immediately the weight raised and the gears began to rotate. Above the machinery a large polished metal shield quietly turned briefly blocking the light from our view.
A display about the Fresnel lens showed how the use of simple glass prisms can help a small light be seen very, very far away. The light bulb used in the lighthouse is about the size of an adult’s thumb, yet the Fresnel lens allows this light to be seen 17 miles (27 km) out to sea!
As we left the lighthouse the damp wind blowing off the Pacific greeted our faces. Looking across the ocean swells of 12 to 15 feet (12.6 -13.5 m) were rolling into the shore less than a quarter of a mile away. Even from this distance it was easy to see spray jumping into the sky as the waves pummeled the rocks. Dark clouds were on the horizon and a gray ribbon of rain was falling in the distance. If I had to be on a ship, I would want nothing more than to make it safely home – and would be comforted to see this beacon of light from the Point Pinos Lighthouse.
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The suggested donation is $2 per adult and $1 per child. Donations are for helping to repair the lighthouse.