U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
|Bakersfield Field Office|
Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area
Before the establishment of a lighthouse at Point Piedras Blancas, sea captains depended upon navigational charts, their sightings of natural landmarks, and their own navigational ability to guide them. Before there was a lighthouse the large white rocks would have been a visual aid to navigators. The name, Piedras Blancas, means “white rocks” in Spanish.
The earliest indication that a light station would exist at Point Piedras Blancas occurred on May 22, 1866 when W.B. Shubrick, Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, wrote to J. M. Edmunds, Commissioner of the General Land Office, requesting that twenty acres be reserved on the point for lighthouse purposes. This request was promptly forwarded to James W. Harlan, Acting Secretary of the Interior and from there to the President of the United States. On June 8, 1866, Andrew Johnson replied saying, “Let the lands within described be reserved for lighthouse purposes as recommended by the Acting Secretary of the Interior”.
On June 10, 1872, an appropriation of $75,000 was approved by congress for a first order light and fog signal and before the end of the year the actual site for the light was selected. In early 1873 a detailed survey of the site was completed and a map had been made.
Captain Ashley was appointed to superintend construction. He had previously proven his ability when he completed construction of a similarly designed lighthouse at Point Arena.
In 1872, Henri Lapaute of Paris, France completed manufacture of the first order Fresnel lens for the Piedras Blancas Light Station. In the center of the lens assembly was an ardent vapor light source consisting of a pool of lard oil, and later mineral oil, with five wicks in it. This was later replaced with a kerosene lamp which consumed four to five tons of kerosene per year, all of which was carried up the circular staircase by the keepers. The light could be seen on a clear night from the mast of a sailing vessel as much as 25 miles to sea.
The light was rotated by a clock mechanism to flash once every 15 seconds, controlled by the measured fall of a weight attached to a cable running down the center of the tower. The mechanism was also made by Henri Lapaute in 1872. The lighthouse keepers cranked a drum, rewinding the weight every few hours. Each evening when the mechanism was put in motion, the timing of the rotation had to be regulated by adjusting the feathering air vanes on the governor. Three men were required to maintain the station, working shifts during the night. A large two-story triplex house was provided for the men and their families.
The lighthouse was first put into operation in February, 1875. Stephen H. Morse was the head keeper until 1879 when Captain Lorin Vincent Thorndyke was placed in charge. He served as its head keeper until he retired in 1906 at the age of 67. During the nearly 30 years Captain Thorndyke was in residence there, no shipwreck occurred, a credit to the efficiency of the warning system and the men in charge of the light.
Captain Thorndyke was born in Camden, Maine and claimed to have circumnavigated the globe five times before becoming a coastwise sailor. He finally quit the sea to become keeper of the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas. The Captain’s wife, Elizabeth Jarmon, was a younger sister of Mary Jarmon who was married to Thomas Evans, owner of a ranch near the light station. Their sons, Lorin V. and John Emory, were born at the lighthouse.
Elizabeth died when her youngest son, John Emory, was four years old leaving the responsibility of raising two boys upon the shoulders of the Captain. After a brief and unsuccessful second marriage, Captain Thorndyke married Margaret Jarmon in 1897, sister to his first wife, Elizabeth and to Mary Jarmon Evans.
At the age of 67 Captain Thorndyke decided it was time to retire. He used the installation of the fog signal as his excuse, saying that the noise it created was so great he could no longer work under the strain. According to Lorin, Jr., it did not bother him particularly.
The lens, lantern room, ornate railing and the upper portion of the tower were removed by the U. S. Coast Guard in 1949 when they judged that the tower could no longer safely support the lantern room due to a large crack about 25 feet down from the top. The crack was the result of an earthquake occurring on the last day of 1948 with an epicenter quite close to the lighthouse. The lens was then loaned to the Cambria Lions Club for care and display in Cambria. It now stands near the Veterans' Memorial building on the Pinedorado grounds in downtown Cambria.
In place of the old light an automatic electric drum aero-rotating beacon with a 36-inch lens was installed. Operating in conjunction with a 1,000 watt electric bulb, it was capable of casting a light beam a distance 18 miles from its altitude of 141 feet above sea level.
In 1960 the head keepers house and the large, two-story triplex which served the station personnel for so many years were removed and replaced with four cinder block buildings which still exist.
On October 12, 2001, Piedras Blancas Light Station was officially transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. A formal transition ceremony was held on May 25, 2002, and, that very night, a new a new marine rotating beacon (VRB-25) was first illuminated.
Original by Jerry Praver, with edits.