Alcatraz Lighthouse: 160 Luminous Years

Original Lighthouse Circa 1893

Original Lighthouse Circa 1893

On June 1, 2014, an important anniversary passed quietly as the Alcatraz Lighthouse, the first erected on the Pacific Coast, turned 160 years old. There is an asterisk next to that statement that we’ll cover in a minute but the story of how the lighthouse was built is much more compelling.

Lighthouses Along the Pacific Coast

California had barely entered the Union when Congress first allocated funds for lighthouses to be built along the Pacific Coast. Contractors were selected, materials were acquired and construction began in 1852. But trouble loomed from those very early days. There were allegations about how the contractors had been selected. There were arguments about schedules and about the type of lens that would be used. As a result, construction of the lighthouse wasn’t completed until June 21, 1853. There was only one problem: there was still no light in the lighthouse.

The Battle Over Lenses

The original design had called for traditional Argand lamps to be installed. By the time construction had begun, the newly formed federal Lighthouse Board decided newer Fresnel lenses should be used in all the future lighthouses. A decision was made to proceed with construction and use a separate contract to install the Fresnel lens. But when construction was completed, the funds that had been reserved for installing the lens proved woefully inadequate to attract any reputable firms to the project. Stubbornly forging ahead in the face of adversity, the government proceeded to hire the first lighthouse keeper, functioning light be damned.

Let a Light Shine Forth

It wasn’t until the following year that the Lighthouse Board negotiated an arrangement with the Chief Engineer of the Army to finally install the Fresnel lens. On June 1, the lens was in place and the first lighthouse along the coast went online.

Now About That Asterisk…

Photo of Alcatraz Lighthouse 2015

The Alcatraz lighthouse served the area well for many years, though improvements were made from time to time. The military began using the island as a prison. In 1906, the Great Earthquake damaged the building but it was quickly repaired. But in 1909,the decision was made to convert the military facility into a federal penitentiary. New buildings would be required and some of them would  block the lighthouse. So the historic structure was dismantled and replaced with a new, taller light tower. While Alcatraz remained the site of the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, the honor of oldest lighthouse fell to Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, which was activated 8 months after the Alcatraz light went online.

For a more in-depth history of the Alcatraz lighthouse, visit The Rock website.


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