For 150 years, ships at sea have identified Pigeon Point Lighthouse by flashes of light spaced 10 seconds apart.
“It’s what’s called the flash characteristic, or address, of Pigeon Point Lighthouse,” said Julie Barrow, special projects coordinator at Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park.
Now in her 23rd year of service, Barrow has, in her own way, become a keeper of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. For one thing, her knowledge of the lighthouse is encyclopedic, allowing her to make Coastside maritime history come alive for visitors arriving from both near and far.
Ask her about the clockwork mechanism that rotated the Fresnel lens before the invention of electricity. Ask her about the tender boats that delivered everything from library books to lard oil up and down the coast. Ask her about the fog banks and hidden reefs that caused shipwrecks. Ask her anything and, more likely than not, she will deliver an answer.
Barrow also attends to day-to-day operations at the lighthouse — anything from rebuilding a fence based on historic photographs to supervising the next generation of state park interpreters. Her latest project has been to organize a sesquicentennial event on Nov. 12.
Saturday’s program will feature live music by Lighthouse String Band and the Half Moon Bay High School Jazz Band. Family activities include crafts, face painting and a puppet show. Kids can also win a prize by collecting passport stamps from the info booths.
From 1:30-3:30 p.m., on the half hour, docents will offer rare tours into the base of the tower. Visitors can step inside the head lighthouse keeper’s office, where a south-facing window frames a stunning view of whitecaps and cliffs below a ridge of stalwart mountains. At the bottom of the spiral staircase, it will be possible to gaze up into the 115-foot tower.
Another highlight of the sesquicentennial event is a panel discussion organized by JoAnn Semones, a local historian and author who has written widely about Coastside maritime history.
Two of the panelists are former keepers who had tenures at the lighthouse in the 1950s and 1970s, while one participant is the relative of the longest-serving keeper. The fourth panelist, D’Ann Burns, is the granddaughter of Mrs. Willie Jasmine Brown, who was aboard the passenger steamer San Juan in 1929 when it collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Pigeon Point. After the event, a videorecording of the discussion will be posted online.
The celebration will culminate in a lighting of the Fresnel lens, which was used in the tower for more than 100 years before the lighthouse was automated in 1974. The original, first-order Fresnel lens will be lit from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Fog Signal Building, where it is currently housed.
As of last year, Pigeon Point Lighthouse has secured state funds for a restoration of the tower, which sustained structural damage in 2001. Barrow said it looks likely that the Fresnel lens will eventually be returned to the tower. In the meantime, a virtual tour of the lighthouse will soon become available to the public, both as a DVD and an online, interactive learning tool.
The history of Pigeon Point Lighthouse started years before the first brick of the tower was laid when the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon, which would later lend its name to the lighthouse, ran aground just 500 feet off the shore. It took three more shipwrecks to incentivize the U.S. government to erect a lighthouse on the site in 1872.
According to Barrow, Pigeon Point Lighthouse was an in-demand duty station among lighthouse keepers — among other reasons, because their children could walk instead of row to school.
“It wasn’t out on a rock or on Año Neuvo Island,” said Barrow, referring to another lighthouse in San Mateo County.
A century and half after its construction, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is still a beacon for seafaring neighbors and strangers. Barrow said the lighthouse continues to serve the local fishing fleet and private sailboats, along with ocean-going vessels like cruise ships and cargo ships.
“We do occasionally hear from them that they still like to see the lighthouse,” she said. “It’s just one of those things that you come to rely on when you’re at sea.”