Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
Towering three-hundred feet above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean, one of California’s most faithfully restored ghost towns occupies prime ocean-view real estate just 25 miles south of Monterey. Inhabited by chickens, a cow, and families with children until less than 50 years ago, the deserted barn, houses, and workshops of Point Sur Lightstation cling to the edge of a great, volcanic rock with spectacular views of the Big Sur coast and marble-tipped peaks of the Ventana Wilderness. Aficionados of the paranormal claim it as one of the most haunted lighthouses in the country.
Volunteers of the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers (CCLK) non-profit organization have restored each of the structures to their appearance at a key era of their functionality and opened the site on Point Sur State Historic Park for public tours. This popular attraction closed in early 2019 for repairs to the access road followed by the great pandemic of 2020. The lightkeepers are again looking forward to welcoming to the public to step back into this 80-year time warp of service as an essential aid to mariners navigating this perilous coast. Check the website for available dates.
“A point that appears as an island”
The solitary sentinel of Point Sur lies within the ancestral lands of the Esselen coastal people. Linguists claim that their name was derived from a place known as Ex’selen, “the rock,” which is in turn derived from a phrase meaning, “I come from the rock.” Although no archaeological resources have been identified within the park, the question lingers: “Could this have been The Rock?”
Known to Spanish navigators as the Moro Rock and described by Spanish maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602 as “a point that appears as an island,” it continues as a distinctive landmark for 21st Century land-borne voyagers driving along Highway One. But the role of this cluster of empty habitations atop the rock is not immediately apparent. As Pacific coastal fogs typically hover above the 300-foot level, the lighthouse itself is sited at a lower elevation on the ocean side of the ridge that can be difficult to see from the highway.
The beacon first shone in 1889. Generations of keepers and their families lived in an isolated community perched on top of the rock until the Coast Guard automated the station in 1974. Without the need for constant human attention, the last residents moved out. The former community at Point Sur State Historic Park is today described as a “ghost town” both for its collection of deserted buildings and for the shipwrecked souls and keepers of long ago who haunt the site. According to the Travel Channel, a tall man in dark blue, 19th-century garb has often been seen lingering around the historic tower.
To raise funds for restoration of the aging structures, the park takes full advantage of this notoriety with special Moonlight Walks, Ghost Hunts, and Halloween events. Uncomfortable with the idea of bumping into a poltergeist at the edge of a windblown cliff in the dark of night, I elected to join a regularly scheduled daytime tour.
In addition to being the only complete turn-of-the-twentieth century light station open to the public in California, the park is unique in that it is the only such facility in the state to be entirely staffed and maintained by a private, non-profit organization. Sharon, one of the many CCLK volunteers who serve at the site, met us at the gated entrance on Highway One just minutes south of Bixby Creek Bridge. She made sure we understood the rigors and hazards of the three-hour walking tour before directing us to drive carefully past grazing cattle on the private El Sur Ranch property to a flat sandy spit that connects to the rock.
Road to the top
We gathered around California Registered Historic Landmark #951, Point Sur Lightstation plaque at the base of the rock. Sharon pointed out the site of a former railway up the steep east face. Powered by a steam donkey engine, a hoist hauled building materials and water supplies to the lightkeepers. Until a road was carved up the slope in 1901, residents climbed nearly 400 stairs alongside the track up the 350-foot rise to reach their homes.
Stopping at intervals to allow the group to rest, Sharon led us at a leisurely pace up the paved access road that winds around the edge of the rock to the lightstation. Each stop offered a new vantage point with panoramic views of the Big Sur coastline. With her remarks illustrated by historic photographs, we learned much of the history of the lighthouse by the time we reached the top.
Peering over the edge to waves churning far below, she pointed out concrete supports of a dock used by a hoist railway that delivered supplies from ocean vessels before practical access from the land. Farther up the road, a plaque commemorating the loss of the USS Macon in 1935 highlighted the reality that– even after the light became operational– numerous shipwrecks continued along this hazardous stretch of coast.
This disaster was unique in that the vessel was a Navy airship operating out of Moffett Field in Mountain View. After a storm damaged the rigid frame the giant 785-foot craft crashed into the ocean just off Point Sur. As lightkeepers watched in horror, a slow descent allowed the crew of 83 to prepare to abandon ship. Just two members were lost. Pieces of the frame were snagged by fishing boats over the years but the exact site was unknown until 1990 when technicians from MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) and the Navy found its location on the ocean floor. Photographs of the wreckage revealed four Sparrowhawk scout biplanes she carried still largely intact.
As we rounded the next bend in the road, a powerful aroma alerted us to the presence of a sea lion colony long before we heard raucous barking echoing from the rocks far below. These huge pinnipeds thrive in the tide pools and kelp forests of Point Sur State Marine Reserve, a diverse ecosystem fed by nutrient-rich upwelling from deep underwater canyons offshore. Its most famous residents, sea otters, have rebounded from a single local colony after being hunted to near extinction for their fur. V-shaped squadrons of pelicans, skimmed the ocean surface. Occasional spouts of foam on the horizon revealed the passage of migrating grey whales. Blue and humpback sightings are common in the summer months.
Few large plants thrive in the high winds that bathe the rock. We noted that the park’s lone, wind-sculpted Monterey cypress, known affectionately as the Point Sur National Forest, survived by sinking its roots deep into the Franciscan formation greenstone rocks of the cliff face. At a fork in the road, one track led directly to the lighthouse. The other continued up to the keeper’s quarters at the top of the ridge. We took the lower path to the lighthouse.
At the Lightstation
Built from locally quarried sandstone blocks, the squat tower and fog signal room of the lighthouse complex features rounded arches and random Ashlar pattern walls of the Richardson Romanesque architectural style popular in the late 1800s.
An assembly of glass prisms comprising a first-order (the largest) Fresnel lens mounted in the lantern room on top of the tower concentrated light from an oil lamp into a beam visible more than 20-miles out to sea. Every four hours, a keeper hand-cranked 450-pound weights to drive a clock mechanism that rotated the lens to generate a unique flashing signal identifying the source as Point Sur.
We climbed the steep spiral staircase to the now empty lantern room. The Fresnel lens had been dismantled and moved to Monterey when the lightPstation was automated. It is now considered a valuable museum artifact and is stored in a secure, climate-controlled facility awaiting restoration before it can return to Point Sur. A flashing aerobeacon, originally developed for use at airfields, replaced the lens assembly and itself was recently retired in favor of a more efficient LED system. CCLK members raised funds for restoration of the lighthouse tower, inside and outside, by an East Coast contractor in 2001.
After warning us to hold onto our hats and glasses, Sharon opened a door to the deck outside the lantern room to the top of the tower. I clung to the rail against a powerful blast of wind. A gentle breeze at sea level had increased to whipping gale force at this altitude. It made me a believer in the story that one of the keepers routinely tethered his free-range chickens by their legs. After admiring the extraordinary view of the ocean and coastline, I carefully worked my way back to the welcome shelter of the lantern room. Back on land, we relaxed in the fog signal room where several generations of fog horn technology are displayed. Other exhibits include sections of a Fresnel lens and contemporary newspaper reports of the airship disaster.
The profile of Point Sur changed dramatically from a rounded top, similar to Morro Rock 100 miles to the south after 80-feet was blasted off the top. Because of its isolated location, the site had to be leveled to accommodate the needs of four keepers and their families. It included vegetable gardens as well as workshops to maintain the operation of the light.
From the lighthouse, steep wooden stairs led up to the now flat area that holds the station’s living quarters. Beginning in the late 1990s. CCLK members began a major project to restore these structures to their appearance at a key era of their functionality. The Carpenter/Blacksmith Shop was the first to be completed in 1999 and is outfitted with tools and equipment typical of the late 1920s.
After nearly toppling over the cliff in a storm, a two-story wooden barn, built circa 1900, presented a significant restoration challenge to the work crew. Originally designed to hold livestock and horses, in later years the barn served as a garage and recreation room. It was finished in 2000 and today is used as a meeting room for groups including students on free field trips. Beauty, Daisy and several other generations of cows who sheltered in the barn provided fresh milk for the residents. In the 1930s, the station cow was seen staring over the side of the cliff. This alerted a keeper who rescued an 8-year old boy who had fallen off his bike and was clinging desperately to a bush below.
The tallest building on the site, a three-story apartment for the assistant keepers and their families was constructed in 1889 and is built from the same solid sandstone blocks as the lighthouse tower. Still undergoing restoration, the raw lath and plaster interior provided a perfect backdrop for ghouls and other monsters that had taken up residence prior to a Halloween fundraiser planned for the following weekend. This is as close as we ventured to the purported ghostly inhabitants of the site although a porta-potty that emitted raucous laughter when the flush pedal was depressed did arouse some shrieks.
A coal-fired donkey engine that powered the hoist railway was housed in a single-story sandstone building. After abandoning the system, a wooden second level was added in 1902 and the building converted into quarters for the head keeper. After restoring the unusual combination of architectural styles (Richardson Romanesque base and half-timbered Tudor upper level), volunteers decorated the interior to match a kitchen that had been upgraded in the 1950s. Appliances, furniture, food packaging, fabrics, and toys from that era aroused nostalgic comments from many in our group.
Our tour concluded in a former mess hall for navy personnel who were stationed as lookouts during World War II. It now serves as a visitor center and gift shop as well as a new home for the spectral being dressed in 19th-century keeper’s uniform that formerly preferred the lighthouse tower.
Return to Earth
The stroll back down the slope offered unimpeded views across the narrow coastal plain and Highway One to the nearly 5,000-foot peaks of the Ventana Wilderness to the east.
Below us and to the south the former Point Sur Naval Facility, built in 1958 to accommodate over 100 naval personnel, occupied an area between the highway and the ocean. A submarine detection capability, employing SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) sonar and radar technology, operated here until 1984. Now incorporated into the State Park, the Central Coast Light Keepers also conduct tours of the former top-secret Cold War-era facility. See the story “Point Sur Naval Facility Tour Reveals Cold War Secrets” previously published on Travel Examiner.
IF YOU GO: Visitor Information
Access to the Lightstation is by guided tour only. Volunteers lead tours year-round. For safety, and to preserve the sense of drama and isolation, no more than 40 visitors are admitted on each tour. No strollers or baby carriages are permitted. As reservations are not accepted, prospective visitors are advised to arrive early. For tour dates and times, volunteering, and other information visit the Point Sur Lightstation website at pointsur.org