Point Cabrillo Light Station
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Point Cabrillo in the spring of 2012
Along the rugged coast of Northern California's Mendocino County, between the town of Mendocino and the city of Fort Bragg, Point Cabrillo juts out into the Pacific, surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs sheltering tight coves.
While the area was remote in the early days of California settlement, and remains so even today, the far Northern reaches of the state were rich in natural resources, many of which were used to develop the population centers of the state further to the south. Mendocino county in particular was a major source of lumber, including much of the wood used to rebuild San Francisco after the great earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906. Lumber was shipped south in small boats known as schooners that sailed much closer to the shore than larger oceangoing vessels, making them more susceptible to hidden rocks or tricky currents. For many years, a 115 mile stretch of coastline between Point Arena in the south and Cape Mendocino to the north in Humboldt County was completely devoid of any lighthouse.
In 1906, Congress appropriated money for the construction of a lighthouse at Point Cabrillo, and the structures which stand today were completed by 1909. The light station remained in use until 1972 when it was decommissioned. It then became a Coast Guard station until 1992, when it was turned over to the nonprofit North Coast Interpretive Association for restoration and preservation. In 2002 the property became a California State Historic Park, with the land owned by the State Parks Service and operated by the Point Cabrillo Light Keepers Association, an arrangement which remains in place to this day.
The Point Cabrillo Light Station is a National Register of Historic Places district consisting of nine buildings and two structures. It is significant for its representation of the role marine transportation played in the development of California, for its role in promoting commerce in the region, and for its well-preserved Craftsman style architecture. A description of each of the 11 resources along with their individual significance is below.
LIGHTHOUSE TOWER/FOG-SIGNAL BUILDING
From a distance, one might mistake the lighthouse for a country church, with the 47-foot high octagonal lighthouse tower serving as the "steeple." This quaint, wood-frame style of lighthouse was popular in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the example at Point Cabrillo is the only one of its kind in California.
The glass encased lantern room houses a third-order Fresnel lens which is original and has been kept in remarkably good condition. The iron railing around octagonal platform surrounding the lantern room and the large brackets supporting it are exceptional Craftsman style features.
The unique design and high degree of historic integrity are what make this lighthouse so special. As with many of the structures in the district, the wooden clapboard construction is fittingly reminiscent of the role the light station played in supporting the regional timber industry.
Main Keeper's Quarters
The three homes on the property were built as the Keeper's Quarters. The largest home, in the center of the three (pictured above), was built for the use of the Keeper, while the two flanking cottages (below) were intended to house the Assistant Keepers. The three homes feature the same Craftsman-style brackets and white wooden clapboards as the Lighthouse Tower, creating a cohesive architectural district.
While the Craftsman style was a popular choice in early 20th century California lighthouse construction, the only other remaining example of the style in the state is at the Point Loma light station in San Diego, which features only one such building.
As with the lighthouse itself, the rustic design, style, and materials of the cottages lend themselves well to the remote Northern Coast location and reflect the importance of the regional timber industry. Much as the Lighthouse Tower appears as a country church, the Keeper's Quarters collectively resemble a small pastoral village.
Assistant Keeper's Quarters
Note: I was unfortunately unable to photograph the Oil House during my visit to Point Cabrillo, however a photograph is included in the official NRHP Nomination images linked to below.
The oil house is a squat, one story concrete building with an iron fireproof door and an extension on its eastern side which serves as a storeroom. The Oil House is similar in design to many others found throughout California. Its lack of Craftsman style or any notable architectural details reflect its utilitarian function. Erected in 1910, the building is one year younger than the rest of the district.
This one-story, single room building features many of the same Craftsman style details as the other structures in the district. The brown wooden shingles which make up the bulk of the structure and the white clapboards which run along the bottom gives it a similar appearance to the Keeper's Quarters cottages, albeit on a smaller scale.
The isolated location of Point Cabrillo meant that blacksmiths and carpenters were needed on-site, as both wood and metal were essential to the maintenance of the station. As advances in transportation made it easier to travel long distances, many other California light stations no longer found a need for such a shop on their properties and subsequently demolished or remodeled many of them. Point Cabrillo's Carpenter/Blacksmith shop is one of only two remaining in California, the only other intact example being at Point Sur in Monterey County.
Today, the building is used as a Marine Science Education Center.
Each of the three Keeper's Quarters cottages was also equipped with its own storage building, later converted to a garage by the addition of garage doors. Like the larger homes they satellite, the small buildings feature brown wooden shingle siding and red shingle roofs, tying them architecturally to the rest of the district.
The storage buildings allowed residents of the cottages to store whatever they needed, and eventually, their automobiles. These buildings have been renovated into small cottages now available for rental.
Note: I was unfortunately unable to photograph the Pump House during my visit to Point Cabrillo.
The pump house sits behind the Keeper's Quarters and the storage buildings. It is another small, one room building with the same clapboard siding featured on the Lighthouse Tower. The most notable design feature is the original five-paneled wooden double doors at the entrance.
Note: I was unfortunately unable to photograph the Water Tank during my visit to Point Cabrillo.
The water tank sits near the pump house behind the Keeper's Quarters and storage buildings, and is painted in the same red and white color scheme. The metal structure is about 15 feet tall.
Water storage was an essential feature, especially given the remote location of Point Cabrillo and the exceptionally dry California summers. Additionally, the fog signals at the station were powered by steam engines, making a plentiful supply of water a necessity for the effective operation of the complex.
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