Charting the Course

Joe Church, Point Arena lighthouse keeperSmooth sailing, that’s what we all seek. But there are sometimes rocks, sometimes fogs, sometimes heavy undertows. What a relief to spot a lighthouse, to hear a foghorn sounding its warning, to know we have help charting our course. How encouraging it is to know we are not adrift alone.

The Point Arena light station north of Bodega Bay stands tall on a spit of land along a desolate, sometimes treacherous coast. This land arising from the sea protrudes into the shipping lanes that follow the coast; it points like a finger to the offshore rocks and hidden reefs, seemingly unmovable, that have spelled disaster to seafaring men for at least two centuries. It, like lighthouses everywhere, unites those on land with those at sea.

Living on land, living at sea, both have their perils. Originally built in 1870 the 100-foot masonry tower provided a measure of safety for ships that brought goods and materials to build the California we know. But it was a hard life for those who lived on this lonely stretch. Keeping oil lamps lighted atop a tower in gale force winds, living with only occasional contact with the rest of humanity, working grueling shifts of endless monotony made this an outpost of frontier living with hardships as harsh as any.

The seeming solidity of this point of land proved to be false. In 1906 the San Andreas Fault, which lies just offshore, lurched, reducing the lighthouse and its surrounding buildings to rubble and irreparable ruins. But ships were needed more than ever to bring supplies to a crippled coast. Within less than a year the tower was rebuilt, this time of reinforced concrete by a smokestack builder. A magnificent lens, 666 pieces of hand-ground glass mounted precisely in a six-foot diameter each tilted just so, sent the light from an oil lamp placed in the center out twenty-five miles piercing the night, the fog, the mist.

As I gaze out to sea from atop this tower still used to guide ships, I can only imagine what life was then, not that long ago. The sun gleams off the waves as whales swim by spraying seawater skyward. The tranquility of the moment belies former hardships. I marvel at the craftsmanship of the huge lens, operable although no longer in daily use, and the clockwork and crank that raised pendulums that made it turn, its great weight floating effortlessly in a pool of mercury, sending out brilliance through the darkness.

The light was automated in 1977. But there are still keepers of this light. Joe Church, a docent, lives in Point Arena. Although there is no longer a need to light the lamps, trim the wicks, polish the 666 glass prisms to crystal clarity, or hoist the pendulum every four hours to make the light revolve, he, and others like him, still do from time to time.

And the light still shines, a beacon of both the past and the present that still warns of dangers, still connects those on land with those at sea, still holds the promise that there will be patches of smooth sailing ahead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.