California Lighthouses


Alcatraz Lighthouse, San Francisco, CA

Alcatraz Island Lighthouse, California's First Light Station

Alcatraz Island Lighthouse in San Francisco Bay was California's first lighthouse. Now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it once housed the nation's most notorious criminals. Alcatraz was named for a Spanish word meaning strange bird. Referring to pelicans living on the island when Spanish explorers discovered it, Alcatraces was changed to Alcatraz by the US Coast Guard Survey in 1851. Blue & Gold Fleet Tickets for this cruise-- ; Red & White Fleet Bay Cruise --

The Gold Rush of 1849 created a California boom with ships pouring into the bay not far from the inland gold mines near Sacramento. The increased traffic made the construction of Pacific Coast lighthouses a priority. Many shipwrecks occurred previous to the establishment of a lighthouse system so in 1849, the Coast Guard Survey dispatched a party to the Pacific Coast to determine sites for new lighthouses in California, Oregon, and Washington.

A crew began constructing the Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1853. It included a cottage and a two-story structure with a tower in the center. Painted white with black trim, it held a fixed third-order lens. The fifty-foot lighthouse only partially tackled the inherent problems of the bay area's persistent fog problems, however. A fog bell was added in 1856, but required a human attendant to stand and ring it by hand, hours upon hours. Later fog bells included clockwork mechanisms that automatically rang the bell at prescribed intervals. As the San Francisco grew, a fourth-order lens was installed with a flashing light, providing a defining characteristic to set it apart from the city lights. The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, cracked the tower and caused a chimney to fall. Obscured by the growth of a military prison, a taller lighthouse tower was built rather than fix the cracked structure. There had been a military presence on the island since the mid 1800's. By the turn of the century, the military prison on the island had grown to such an extent that it was obscuring the lighthouse. Work on a new lighthouse with an 84-foot tower began in 1909. Electricity powered the new structure's light and sirens.

When the U.S. government closed Alcatraz federal prison in 1963, the lighthouse was automated, lens removed and a reflecting light installed. On November 9, 1969, the island was occupied by Native Americans who claimed the island as part of an 1868 Sioux treaty. Full-scale colonization of the island began eleven days later. ("Discover Alcatraz" Self-Guiding Tour) The US government attempted to drive them off by cutting off power to the island, including the lighthouse. Lighted buoys were placed at either end of the island. Power was restored by the island's new residence, with the help of a generator smuggled to the island with the help of "several prominent San Franciscans concerned with maritime safety." (Shanks, p. 42)

During this period, a mysterious fire destroyed the keeper's house and warden's house. A boat was seen leaving the island shortly before the fire, leading some to believe the fire was the work of arsonists. With no water pumps on the island, there was no way to fight the fire. The Native American population gradually dwindled, due to government pressure and the hardships of living on the island. In June 1971, federal agents removed the few who remained. ("Discover Alcatraz" Self-Guiding Tour)

After the occupation, the government's General Services Administration began to raze the old fort and prison structures. The historic site was saved from the wrecking ball in 1972, when Alcatraz was made a part of the newly-formed Golden Gate National Recreational Area, and administered by the National Parks Service.

Today, a 200,000 candlepower optic shines from the 1909 tower. The island is a popular tourist attraction. The fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display in the island museum. Much of the island has been reclaimed by nature. Part of "Pelican Island" has been closed off as a nesting area for seabirds.

Bay area cruises to see Alcatraz:
Boat tour departs Fisherman's Wharf to see Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Angel Island State Park and Alcatraz.

San Francisco Bay daily dinner cruises and Saturday or Sunday Brunch cruise with Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, more!

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