Story by Donna B. Ulrich
Photos by Larry Ulrich
As the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean each day, dozens of historic lighthouses still stand vigil on cliffs, promontories and beaches. From Point Loma in Southern California to Washington’s San Juan Islands, my husband, Larry, and I have photographed most of them.
To us, they offer a unique opportunity to capture the past and present in harmony with some truly spectacular landscapes. To sailors, they’re lifesaving beacons in darkness, storm and fog. To legions of lighthouse lovers, they’re a proud symbol of our national heritage.
Once, Larry and I were photographing historic Point Reyes Light on Point Reyes National Seashore when a park ranger approached us. Uh-oh—he’s going to yell at us for climbing over the retaining wall, we thought. Instead, he asked, “Do you want me turn on the light for your photograph?” He did, and it made a much better picture.
The U.S. Coast Guard completed the West Coast’s first lighthouse on Alcatraz Island in 1854, adding dozens more up and down the coast in the next half century. The early beacons were lit by wick lamps and whale oil, which required the constant attention of dedicated light keepers. The addition of electricity and automation made them much more reliable—but much less romantic.
According to lighthousefriends.com, 90 of those lights remain standing today. The National Park Service cares for 62 of them. Like snowflakes and covered bridges, no two lighthouses are exactly alike. Some still work as active aids in navigation, but many are maintained solely for public enjoyment. Because of their locations on prominent peninsulas and cliffs, lighthouses let you enjoy the sea at its most romantic and charming.
Several even offer overnight accommodations. We haven’t yet spent the night in one, but it’s high on our bucket list. Imagine listening to the sound of the ocean all night long from quarters not unlike the ones the original keepers lodged in—but with the luxury of indoor plumbing.
On the other hand, imagine being alone on an exposed Pacific Coast promontory during a storm like the one keeper Fred Harrington recorded at the Trinidad Head Lighthouse (in the photo above right from Kraig Anderson of lighthousefriends.com) near our hometown of Trinidad, California: “The storm commenced on Dec. 28, 1914, blowing a gale that night. The gale continued for a whole week and was accompanied by a very heavy sea from the southwest. On the 30th and 31st, the sea increased and at 3 p.m. on the 31st seemed to have reached its height, when it washed a number of times over (93-foot-high) Pilot Rock, a half mile south of the head. At 4:40 p.m., I was in the tower and had just set the lens in operation and turned to wipe the lantern room windows when I observed a sea of unusual height, then about 200 yards distant, approaching. I watched it as it came in.
“When it struck the bluff, the jar was very heavy, and the sea shot up to the face of the bluff and over it, until the solid sea seemed to me to be on a level with where I stood in the lantern. Then it commenced to recede and the spray went 25 feet or more higher. The sea itself fell over onto the top of the bluff and struck the tower on about a level with the balcony, making a terrible jar. The whole point between the tower and the bluff was buried in water. The lens immediately stopped revolving and the tower was shivering from the impact for several seconds.”
Look at where the lighthouse sits atop that cliff, then try to picture a wave big enough to wash over it! When Larry and I are photographing these stately sentinels, we love to learn the stories behind them. They continue to beckon us today, just as they’ve welcomed lost and weary sailors for the past 150 years.