The area around Monterey Bay has been inhabited for thousands of years. Some residents from the area can proudly trace their heritage back to the Esselen of the Big Sur coast or the Rumsen Ohlone from the Monterey Bay area. The first European we know of to see the area was Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo, who sailed up the coast in 1542—just fifty years after Columbus landed on the East Coast. He named several places along the way, including "La Bahia de los Pinos" or "The Bay of the Pines." Many of his place names were later changed.
Sixty years later, in 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Viscaino sailed north looking for a site to build a new port. He came ashore near the present site of Monterey. It must have been a beautiful sunny day because he described the spot in glowing terms, even describing an old oak tree where a port could be built. He named the bay after his sponsor, the Count de Monte Rey and the point at the southern end of the bay, Point Pinos ("la Punta de los Pinos").
In 1770, almost 170 years later, Spain sent Gaspar de Portola north to find Viscaino’s bay. With some difficulty, Portola found the bay and the old oak tree and founded the Presidio of Monterey. It became the capital of Spanish (and later Mexican) California. In 1846 the United States and Mexico went to war, and as a result Upper California became American territory in 1848 and a state in 1850. By then, the discovery of gold (in 1849) meant that thousands of travelers were coming to California, mostly by sea.
In 1850 there were no lighthouses on the West Coast, nor had there been much of a need for them. In 1852 Congress commissioned the building of eight lighthouses, seven in California. Point Pinos was one of the original seven. All West Coast lighthouses were to be fitted with a Fresnel-type lens. Invented by Frenchman Augustine Fresnel (pronounced fruh-NELL), this special lens focused its light into a narrow beam directed out to sea. The light source in the center of the lens came from an open flame, originally burning whale oil. Later, lard oil and then kerosene were burned. In the early 1900s the flame was upgraded to an incandescent-vapor flame and in 1919 the light became electric.
The Point Pinos lighthouse was built in 1853–1854. While waiting for our scheduled 2nd-order lens, a third-order lens became available (one of the first two ever shipped to California) and was redirected to Point Pinos. It was installed February 1, 1855 and Point Pinos officially became a lighthouse. From 1855 to 1912 our light was just a bright light at the southern end of Monterey Bay. A rotating shutter (called an eclipser) was installed in 1912 that made the light blink: on for 10 seconds, off for 20 seconds. That was our signature characteristic from 1912 to 1940. Today our light is on 3 out of every 4 seconds and it is done electronically.
The lighthouse keeper's job was primarily to care for the light. The lens had to be cleaned daily, as soot buildup could damage it. The lens burned in darkness and bad weather but was extinguished and covered in good weather. This saved fuel, reduced soot and smoke, and protected the lens from the light of the sun.
The first keepers lived a rugged life. Point Pinos was a distant three miles from town through forest and sand dunes. Grizzly bears and cougars were still a problem. Supplies arrived periodically by sea and keepers raised some of their own food.
Charles Layton was the first Point Pinos lighthouse keeper. He arrived with his wife, Charlotte, and their four children, in 1854. He watched over the house until the lens was installed and lit on February 1, 1855. He was appointed lighthouse keeper and Charlotte was hired as his assistant. In November of 1855, while a member of a posse, he was shot and later died from his wounds. The citizens of Monterey suggested that Charlotte be appointed keeper as she knew the job and had four children for whom to care. The beginning of 1856 she was appointed keeper, thus becoming the first female lighthouse keeper on the West Coast.
Allen Luce was keeper from 1871 – 1893, during which time he saw and was a part of many changes. In 1875 the second house in the area was built and the Pacific Grove Retreat, a Methodist summer camp, was formed. The "Retreat" grew into a tent city and was incorporated as the City of Pacific Grove in 1889. Luce had a famous visitor during this time who wrote about Luce, the lighthouse, and the tent city. Robert Louis Stevenson wasn't yet a famous author, but his family had designed and built lighthouses in Scotland, and although a writer, he still had an interest in lighthouses. Luce also cleared a trail from the lighthouse through the forest to Monterey. This trail became the modern-day Lighthouse Avenue. By the time he left the lighthouse, Pacific Grove was a city with Victorian homes and hotels. Trains and streetcars ran from Monterey through Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach and back.
Emily arrived at the lighthouse in 1893. She had lived an amazing life with her husband but was widowed at age 48. Her son-in-law helped get her appointed keeper at Point Pinos. She was active and well-liked in the community. She was keeper when the 1906 earthquake hit, damaging the lens and weakening the tower of the lighthouse. The lens was sent to Paris for repair and the tower was repaired and reinforced. Emily was also keeper when the "eclipser" was installed in 1912, giving the light its own signature. She retired in 1914 and lived out her life in Pacific Grove. When the city began showing the lighthouse it was unfurnished. The Adobe Chapter of the International Questers, in keeping with their mission to preserve and restore historic buildings, selected the lighthouse and furnished it as it might have looked when Emily was there.
In 1939, the control of all U.S. lighthouses passed from the U.S. Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 the United States entered World War II, and with the possibility of attack or invasion, a blackout was instituted. All lights along the coast were turned off or covered and that included lighthouses. Barracks were constructed for a shore patrol that enforced the blackout and patrolled the shoreline. The 54th Coast Artillery was brought to Ford Ord (about 10 miles to the north) and a battery of four 155-millimeter guns was stationed at Point Pinos. The Beach Patrol had a command post in the lighthouse. Before the war in 1939, and after the war in 1959, additional houses were built on the lighthouse property but after the early 1960s no families lived in the lighthouse and by 1975 the lighthouse was totally automated.
In 1967, the Coast Guard and the City of Pacific Grove began the process that would give title of the property to the city. That transfer was completed in 2006, leaving the Coast Guard the obligation to maintain aids to navigation including lighthouse lights. The City of Pacific Grove accepted the responsibility of maintaining, showing, and restoring the Point Pinos lighthouse. The major task of restoration was taken on by the all-volunteer Pacific Grove Heritage Society. A group of docents show the lighthouse, while the City of Pacific Grove maintains the lighthouse.
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Point Pinos is the oldest "continuously operating" lighthouse anywhere on the Pacific. Technically, it was the second lighthouse ever built (after Alcatraz) but was never demolished or decommissioned. Although Alcatraz is slightly older, its lighthouse was demolished and later rebuilt outside the prison walls.
90 Asilomar Avenue (near Lighthouse Ave.) Pacific Grove, CA, 93950
The Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, California, is maintained by an all-volunteer staff of restoration experts, docents, and historians. As with all active lighthouses and aids to navigation, the actual electric light itself is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.