Point Bonita Lighthouse
An opening one mile wide might seem like a large gap, easy to pass through. But if a ship is trying to get through this opening, and sea level fog obliterates the view, craggy cliffs jut out on either side, and strong, changeable winds challenge the ship's forward movement, it is more than just a difficult task, it is a risk to life and property. This is often the scenario for ships intending to dock in San Francisco or the East Bay, for all must travel through the one entrance to the region, the Golden Gate.
During the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century, ships from all over the world passed through the Gate in search of riches, and before the first lighthouse was built near the opening, almost 400 ships were lost to the cliffs and outcrops on either side. Evidence of one of these ships, the Tennessee, can still be seen on the shore of the eponomously named Tennessee Valley.
In March 1853, the crew of the steamship, thinking they had already passed through the Golden Gate, turned the ship starboard too soon and hit a reef near what is now Tennessee Cove. All lives were saved but the ship was a total loss and today one can walk the beautiful Tennessee Valley Trail to its endpoint at the Pacific Ocean and, if the tide is low, see the Tennessee's anchor and part of its engine on the beach.
In 1855 a lighthouse was built on Point Bonita, a cliff jutting out from the southernmost tip of Marin County near the entrance to the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was built on a hill, and it was soon discovered that the light projected out at exactly the same level as the fog that would often blanket the area. The lighthouse proved useless under these conditions, and a new lighthouse, even further out at sea and at a lower level, replaced the original one in 1877, and this is the one that is still used today.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse was originally a manual operation. The keeper would have to walk on the wooden bridge that wound its way around the sharp rocks to the lighthouse, and the light was generated using first, lard oil and then kerosene. It was a lonely, dangerous job, numbingly boring most of the time and dramatically intense when ships were in the area.
Nowadays the old wooden bridge is gone, except for a few visible traces on the cliffs' sides. A tunnel was bored through the rock and it opens to a stunning view of the lighthouse and, in the distance, San Francisco up ahead, the Golden Gate, Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge on the left, and the Pacific Ocean on the right. After exiting the tunnel, one must still travel over a short bridge to negotiate the final precipitous drop and rise of land before reaching the lighthouse, and a notice warns visitors that no more than five people should be on the bridge at one time. The light is now powered by electricity and has been automated, beaming out a tremendously strong light that can often be seen 18 miles out at sea, with its signature on-and-off pattern so ships can verify they are truly at the Point Bonita Lighthouse and the entrance to the Golden Gate.
The various tasks in maintaining the lighthouse are shared by several organizations. The lighthouse is located in the world's largest urban park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. Information for the public and guided tours to the lighthouse are provided by the National Park Service.
Most area residents have not seen this historical site, often called the secret jewel of the Bay Area. They may not even know that this sentinel that has guarded our bay for the past 125 years can be easily viewed from a distance, by simply looking to the right when crossing the Golden Gate Bridge southbound. Nothing compares to being there, though. To a visitor it seems like the exact point on earth where some of civilization's greatest structural achievements try to tame, or at least circumvent, the mysterious power of nature. Standing by the lighthouse and looking left, then right, you cannot help but realize which of the two forces will eventually win the final round.
The lighthouse is open to the public on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30pm to 3:30pm and access is free. In addition, docent-led tours are offered on full moon evenings. Be prepared for a sometimes steep half-mile trail to the lighthouse, and wear warm clothing. See the GGNRA's Point Bonita Lighthouse web page or call 415-331-1540 for more information.
Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.