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Point Bonita Lighthouse is located at the end of Point Bonita—a sharp rocky peninsula that extends into the Pacific Ocean from the Marin Headlands not far from San Francisco.
Walk through a hand carved tunnel and cross two wooden bridges—one a suspended bridge designed to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge—to reach the lighthouse.
Construction of Point Bonita Lighthouse—the last manned lighthouse in California and third lighthouse built on the west coast, after those on Alcatraz Island and Fort Point—was begun in May 1854, but on a high ridge—not its current location. (The oldest continously opperating lighthouse on the West Cost is the Point Pinos lighthouse in Pacific Grove.) A few miles up the coast the Point Reyes Lighthouse began service in 1870.
Pressure had been building for years to provide a warning to ships venturing near the half mile of rock extending west from the Marin Headlands and forming a dangerous north entrance to Golden Gate Strait and San Francisco Bay. As many as 400 shipwrecks had occurred here or nearby.
In 1853 the steamship Tennessee ran aground just north of the point while the clipper ship San Francisco ran into rocks at Point Bonito and sank.
Fortunately no lives were lost when the steamship ran aground. Today you can walk the Tennessee Valley Trail through the Marin Headlands to Tennessee Cove where the Tennessee's anchor and part of its engine can still be seen at low tide.
Experience on the west coast suggested that having a warning light as high as possible gave the maximum amount of visibility so the original lighthouse was constructed on top of the hill with a fifty-six foot brick tower a total of 306 feet above the sea.
A second order Fresnel lens—purchased and shipped from Paris—was installed. Unfortunately it was soon discovered that thick fog obscured the light at the most critical times so shipwrecks continued.
A solution was attempted with the installation in August 1856 of a twenty-four pounder cannonCalifornia's first fog signalbut after having to fire the gun continuously every half-hour for three days and nights during a particularly foggy spell it was obvious that changes would have to be made. A temporary anchored bell-boat was soon replaced with a 1,500-pound bell on shore.
The lighthouse was finally rebuilt at its current location—much closer to the water—and the original lens was reinstalled. An electric fog horn suppliments the light as a warning in thick fog having replaced a steam siren first installed about 1874.
The new lighthouse was first lit on February 1, 1877. The lamp was modified from a fixed to an occulting lens (an intermittent light characterized by a period of light that equals or exceeds the period of darkness) in the 1920's. The unique combination used by navigators to identify the Point Bonita Lighthouse is on for three seconds, off for one.
Access to the Point Bonita Lighthouse—which was originally via a narrow frequently eroded trail—improved when a hand carved tunnel was dug through 118 feet of rock over 6 months in 1856.
A suspension bridge was added by the Coast Guard in 1954 to improve access to the lighthouse after the narrow land bridge connecting it with the coast was destroyed in a landslide.
The suspension bridge was made to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge which is visible to the east on a clear day.
For safety, park personnel and volunteers were stationed at either end of the suspension bridge to limit the number of people crossing at one time until it had to be closed making the lighthouse innaccessable. The bridge was due to be replaced and open in Spring of 2012. The tunnel and sometimes steep half mile trail to the lighthouse are open only on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
The original lighthouse keeper's quarters were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Both the original and replacement lighthouses survived the quake but the original was later torn down.
Wild cabbageoriginally planted by the keepernow clings to the rocky soil around the lighthouse and the trail leading to it. With the job of lighthouse keeper being lonley and often dangerous, Point Bonita Lighthouse was automated in 1980.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson