Point Sur Light Station, Big Sur

Point Sur Light Station, Big Sur

by | Oct 8, 2021

Point Sur Light Station is situated on a prominent volcanic rock just offshore from the Big Sur coast, and connected to the mainland by a sandy tombolo, about 60 miles (97 km) northwest of San Simeon and 20 miles (32 km) south of Monterey, California. Historically the point was an isolated erosion-resistant sea stack and water swept completely around the rock. The Point Sur area is dominated by a geological assemblage of rocks known as the Franciscan Formation. The formation consists of a mélange of rocks deposited in a marine environment and subsequently altered by tectonic activity. The geology of the point consists of metavolcanic rocks from this Franciscan assemblage. Greenstone is Point Sur’s most prevalent rock, but altered gabbro outcrops are on the north side of the point and some sandstone is scattered around. The steep relief is a result of the resistance to erosion of both greenstone and gabbro. Rocks exposed along the beach are predominately medium-grained sandstones interbedded with shales. Point Sur is 361 feet (110 m) high and visible at sea for 10 miles (16 km). In 1542, an Iberian maritime explore Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo described the rock as a “moro” meaning nose, snout, or prow. In 1603, Sebastián Vizcaíno was tasked with mapping the California coastline and the resulting map labeled the rock as a point that appears as an island. In 1769, explorer Miguel Costansó, a member of the Portolá expedition, named the point ‘Morro de la Trompa’ because it looked like a rock in the shape of a trumpet. In 1793, the British explorer Captain George Vancouver described Point Sur as a small high, rocky lump of land nearly half a mile from the shore. In 1851, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey named the rock Point Sur after El Sur, the name of the surrounding Mexican land grant.

Before the arrival of Europeans, early Native Americans occupied the Big Sur coast for thousands of years. The Esselen people, or their ancestors, may have been the first people to live along this coast and likely were concentrated in this area when the Rumsen Ohlone, also known as the Costanoan people, expanded southward 2500 years ago. At the time of European contact, the Esselen lived in the Upper Carmel River Valley, the drainages of the Big Sur and Little Sur Rivers, and throughout the Santa Lucia Mountains. Point Sur was in either Esselen or Costanoan territory. In 1834, Mexican Governor José Figueroa granted Rancho El Sur a parcel of 8,949 acres (3,622 ha) on the Big Sur coast to Juan Bautista Alvarado, the future governor of California. In 1840, Alvarado transferred the title of this parcel to his uncle by marriage, the Yankee emigrant John Rogers Cooper. He and his family were a part of a growing number of pioneer settlers in the Big Sur region beginning in this period, using the ranch land primarily for cattle grazing. Cooper never actually lived at the ranch, but various family members and ranch workers continuously occupied it from 1840 onward. In the 1850s, Cooper was smuggling goods and landing at the mouth of Big Sur River to avoid the heavy customs charges levied by the Americans at Monterey. When Mexico ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that the land grants would be honored. But California passed the Land Act of 1851, which required grantees to provide legal proof of their title. Cooper filed a claim for Rancho El Sur with the Public Land Commission in 1852, and in 1866, he received the legal land patent after years of litigation. That same year, Cooper granted a right of way to the federal government for the construction of a lighthouse.

Point Sur has been a hazard to ships since California was first settled, and after 1849, increased shipping traffic during the California Gold Rush caused many wrecks. By the 1860s, the need to locate a lighthouse at Point Sur had been identified. In 1874, the U.S. Lighthouse Board saw the need for a lighthouse at Point Sur for the safety of vessels bound for or leaving San Francisco, and no navigational aids between the lighthouse at Pigeon Point and the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas, a distance of over 120 miles (193 km). Several shipwrecks occurred just off Point Sur, most notably the SS Ventura in 1875, and in 1886, funding for the light station was appropriated and construction began. Twenty five men were employed to construct a light tower and adjacent buildings on the point. They first built a road from the mainland to the rock and blasted a trail to the peak. The top of the rock was dynamited and leveled and an incline railway was constructed on the east side of the rock, as well as a landing on the rock’s south side. Local sandstone was quarried for the lighthouse tower and fog signal buildings. The unique architectural style of these buildings was called Richardson Romanesque and was used primarily for commercial and civic buildings in the midwest and east coast. The light station was completed on August 1, 1889. Living conditions at the isolated station remained primitive and there was no electricity, refrigeration, or indoor plumbing for the four keepers and their families. The light station was eventually connected to Monterey by a long and often dangerous wagon road. The lightkeepers received goods and bulk supplies by boat roughly every four months, but to get them ashore, the supplies were transferred to skiffs and floated to land in barrels. Highway 1 was completed in 1937, connecting Big Sur with Monterey to the north and San Luis Obispo to the south. The light was fully automated in 1972, and today is part of Point Sur State Historic Park with the offshore part of Point Sur State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Sur here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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