PIGEON POINT — Some visitors see the Pigeon Point lighthouse as an object of curiosity, a relic of a bygone era. But for a small group of Coastside families, it was home. Bob Davis’ aunt, now deceased, grew up on the grounds of Pigeon Point, where her father had the all-important role of lighthouse keeper in the 1920s and 1930s.
He was responsible for making sure the light at the top of the tower was lit, that the foghorn blew at regular intervals and that no ships ran aground on the rocky shoals, which often were shrouded in fog. The Fresnel lens lighting will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. The popular annual event typically draws 3,000 locals, who park by the road and take in the 135-year-old lens’s starburst-like projections.
The lens actually is made up of 1,008 small lenses, which revolve mechanically and project a distinctive flash of light every 10 seconds. “They were such an incredible engineering feat of the time,” said Paul Keel, local supervising ranger with California State Parks, referring to the Fresnel lenses that were designed for many Northern California lighthouses built in the 1870s.
The Pigeon Point lighthouse is the oldest functioning one in California, built as it was in 1872 amid an outcry over the great number of ships running aground at the foot of the cliff, killing dozens of passengers and crewmen.
A century later, use of the Fresnel lens was discontinued — along with the tradition of the lighthouse keeper — made redundant by automation and the Coast Guard’s ability to monitor the lighthouse from elsewhere.
The new interactive museum exhibit aims to bring much of that period to life, with colorful displays about the Fresnel lens, the historic shipwrecks of Pigeon Point, and the lighthouse keepers and their duties. One section of the exhibit allows visitors to push a button and hear different fog horn signals, since each lighthouse was distinct. Another area contains a 3-foot-tall, cutaway replica of the lighthouse so people can explore what’s inside it (the actual lighthouse has been closed to visitors since it was damaged in 2001).
Semones wrote all the text for the exhibit, and the original research she did took her three years to complete. She was the one who tracked down the families of former lighthouse keepers and invited them to the event on Saturday.
“It’s living history. There’s something here that you can see and touch and picture,” said Semones. “I think it brings alive the history of the lighthouse and the way coastal life used to be.”
Staff writer Julia Scott Oakland Tribune, Nov 16, 2007