It’s hard to believe that the quiet cove at San Simeon was ever a bustling seaport, but in the late 1800s that is exactly how it was. Whaling was a huge industry and ships that plied the waters off the Central Coast brought their catch in to the San Simeon pier to offload to the Whaling Station there. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo noted the prominent rocks just north of San Simeon in 1542 and named them Piedras Blancas, which means white rocks. Naturally, ships’ captains tried to be careful of them, but many a ship met its doom after slamming into them. A light station at Point Piedras Blancas, just north of the bay, was needed.
In 1894 building began and the tower was erected. During that time, lighthouses in California were built on top of high cliffs. The tall imposing lighthouses common on the Atlantic coast were not necessary thanks to this terrain. But at Piedras Blancas, a classic tall lighthouse was built and it is now one of only two like that in the state, Pigeon Point being the other.
Originally the lighthouse stood more than 100 feet high with a first order Fresnel lens on top. In 1949 the lens and the upper section of the structure were removed due to earthquake damage and a rotating aero-beacon replaced it. The present height of the lighthouse is 74 feet. The Fresnel lens was saved and is housed in an enclosure in downtown Cambria.
In 1906 a fog signal building was built. Inside was the latest equipment to make sound loud enough to carry out to sea. Different fuels were used over the years to burn and produce the light. Oil and kerosene were two of them and these were kept in a small bunker just below the lighthouse and in front of the fog signal building. This bunker was constructed of concrete and is the first concrete building built in San Luis Obispo County. Light keepers and their assistants had to haul the oil or kerosene from the bunker up to the lighthouse and then ascend the winding staircase to the lens housing area.
Piedras Blancas Light Station, which was once administered by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and then the U.S. Coast Guard, is now managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. The BLM and the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association are restoring this wonderful historical site to its former glory.
The lighthouse grounds consist of fields full of native vegetation. For many years the area contained overgrown ice plant called capobrotus, the type seen along California freeways. Volunteers worked long and hard pulling this invasive plant out and miraculously the native vegetation began to return on its own. Docents have placed interpretive signs near the plants to benefit recognition.
Inside the lighthouse are displays explaining the early equipment used in operating the beacon. In the middle of the interior hangs a weighted pendulum that extends into an eight-foot hole in the floor. The pendulum swung and was part of the apparatus that made the beacon up top turn.
In the early days lighthouses were recognized by ships at sea during daylight hours by their special colors. Each lighthouse was assigned a specific set of colors and was painted accordingly. A ship passing by could tell where they were based on those colors. The ship’s captain could spy them through his looking glass and say, “Aha, white with black, we must be at Point Piedras Blancas.”
Recently the lighthouse was painted a bright white with dark trim. This removed the grime and rust stains that had been part of the façade for many years. Salt air takes its toll on buildings situated by the sea so five special coats of paint were applied to the lighthouse structure to protect it. The structure now more closely resembles what it looked like in its earliest days.
Volunteers have worked more than 100,000 hours restoring the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. The fuel oil house has been restored and a replica of the station’s shingled watch room has been completed. Other historic structures on the site have also been repaired. The Piedras Blancas Light Station Association gift shop is housed in what once was a strip of small offices. The next project slated to be done is to replicate the tower’s lantern room and although the Fresnel lens will not be moved back, this will have the lighthouse appearing exactly as it was when it was first built.
A tour of the light station would be a highlight of a visit to the Central Coast.
In summer tours are available from June 15 to August 31 Monday through Saturday. During the rest of the year tours are held on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. There are no tours on holidays. Tours start one and a half miles north of the entrance to the light station at the old Piedras Blancas Motel parking lot at 9:45 Am No reservations are necessary and tour guides will be waiting there. Tours last two hours and cost $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for ages six to 17, and are free for children five and under. For more information see blm.gov or call (805) 927-7361.
— Ruth Ann Angus