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Point Cabrillo Lighthouse’s Fresnel Lens Closer to Being Decommissioned


The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time on June 10, 1909

The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is a State Historic Park property which is owned by California State Parks and operated by the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association. The lantern room which houses a third order, British built Fresnel Lens with a range of 13 – 15 miles is owned by the U. S. Coast Guard.

It is reported that Chief Warrant Officer Barthel, is waiting to list the decommissioning of the Point Cabrillo Light Station’s beacon in a local notice to mariners until the Coast Guard Curatorial Service Office makes a decision about a waiver applied for by the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association. 

When a lens is decommissioned, it becomes a historic artifact under Coast Guard regulations. The lens is then under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Coast Guard Exhibit Center and is subject to specific rules. Regulations require lenses to be extinguished and removed from the tower. 

It was back in 1939 that the U. S. Lighthouse Service was officially absorbed into the U. S. Coast Guard. Originally the lens rotated by means of a clockworks mechanism with a descending weight. A chain with a 65-80 LB weight on the end of it passed through the floor of each level of the light tower. The light keeper would crank up the chain onto a drum every 2 hours. At some point, a portion of the concrete foundation on the ground floor was removed to add an additional 4-5 feet to the chain, gaining (perhaps) an additional ten minutes between windings. The clockworks were replaced with an electric motor and the oil lamp with a light bulb when electricity was introduced at the Station in 1935. The lens rotated at a fixed speed and produced a flash at ten second intervals. The rotation pattern of a lighthouse is printed on the nautical chart, it’s the lighthouse “signature” and must not vary.

In 1973, the Fresnel lens was disengaged, and an aero-marine type rotating beacon was mounted on the roof of the fog signal building. The original lens remained in the lantern room but the clockworks and fog signal machinery were removed. Then in 1996 the Conservancy was awarded a federal grant through the ISTEA program (Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Activities) for the restoration of the lantern room and the creation of public service facilities at Point Cabrillo (parking and restrooms). Work on the project began in August of 1998 when the Fresnel lens was dismantled and removed from the lantern room. The lantern room restoration was completed in April 1999 and the Fresnel lens was refurbished and reinstated as the active aid in time for Point Cabrillo’s 90th Anniversary. The restoration of the Fresnel lens was funded by the NCIA with assistance from the Coast Guard. The restoration of the fog signal building was funded by the NCIA and the Coastal Conservancy. The restoration of the rest of the lighthouse tower and fog signal building was completed in August of 2001 with funds provided by the Coastal Conservancy and the NCIA.

In 2002 ownership of the Lightstation was transferred from the California State Coastal Conservancy to California State Parks. The terms of the transfer provided $4 million dollars from State Parks to the restoration of the remaining buildings at the light station. This money, administrated by the Conservancy was provided over a 5 year period to the Point Cabrillo  Lightkeepers Association to do the actual restoration work. During this period the East House was restored and is now serving as the Lightkeepers Museum, the Head Lightkeepers house was restored and is now a vacation rental. The three outbuildings were also restored and two are now vacation rental bedrooms, while the third was converted to a public restroom. Restoration work ceased in 2007 with restoration of the West House awaiting additional funding.

The Point Cabrillo LightKeepers Association has applied for a waiver through the U. S. Coast Guard Curatorial Service Office to keep the Fresnel lens operating as a private aid to navigation after it is decommissioned, since the U. S. Coast Guard policy is to protect the lenses and the service does not care to keep the lenses operating after decommissioning them. A decommissioned lens remains the property of the U. S. Coast Guard, but that the U. S. Coast Guard regularly loans decommissioned lenses to museums. The Point Cabrillo Light Keepers Association, the nonprofit organization that manages the Point Cabrillo State Historic Park, would become borrowers of the  lens.

The Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association circulated an email to supporters and volunteers stating that losing the light would be catastrophic for the light station and the park, effectively removing the heart if the light goes out in the lighthouse, the park’s soul will go dark with it. Also removing the lens from the top to inside the lighthouse would be expensive.

Originally restoring the lighthouse and lens cost about $1.5 million dollars from taxpayers and local donors. There is more than 50,000 visitors that come to the light station every year.

It is reported that Loren Rex, who is the superintendent of State Parks Mendocino District, said an agreement between the U. S. Coast Guard, the California State Parks and the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association provides the contained operation of the light should it be decommissioned. He said the California State Parks and Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association would work in partnership to maintain the light and facilities, but the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association would assume all financial responsibility for operation and maintaining the light. 

There was no comment from the State Parks Mendocino District on the waiver process. The state is respectful of the U. S. Coast Guard authorities in Washington D. C. to honor their promise to this community that if we raise the money and did the work, when they decommissioned it, we would be allowed to turn it back on as a private aid.

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