Point Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Point Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

by | Dec 7, 2021

Point Piedras Blancas is a prominent headland and the site of a historical light station within the California Coastal National Monument, and surrounded by the Hearst San Simeon State Park, about 73 miles (117 km) south-southeast of Monterey and 6 miles (10 km) west-northwest of San Simeon, California. The name of the headland, meaning white rock, comes from the geological composition, particularly of the small white-colored offshore island. The headland consists of marine terrace deposits of the Pleistocene, with loosely consolidated, white to orangish-brown sandstone and conglomerate. The offshore island is a mélange consisting of metamorphosed volcanic rocks or greenstone. The island is likely covered by seabird guano which may accentuate the white rock. The headland is an excellent promontory for observing marine mammals and it was likely used by the Playa Salinan people for thousands of years before contact with Europeans. The Playa Salinan band was one of three divisions of the Salinan tribe of Central California. They had no formal government and lived in small groups, residing near the coast in the winter and spring months although they seldom fished, and moving inland during the late summer and fall to harvest nuts, berries, and other edible plants. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to explore the Big Sur coastline, and from his ship, sighted the white rock which was a distinctive navigational landmark, and named the headland Point Piedras Blancas. In 1769, Gaspar de Portola explored the coast on an overland expedition, and soon afterward, Spanish colonists began building presidios and Franciscan missions at San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, and Monterey. The settlement of San Simeon was founded in 1797. In 1821, following the Mexican War of Independence, Alta California came under Mexican governance and the missions were secularized.

In 1840, a Mexican land grant called Rancho de la Piedra Blanca of 48,806 acres (19,751 ha) was given by Governor Juan Alvarado to José de Jesús Pico. Pico used the land to graze long-horned Spanish cattle, but only visited the ranch house periodically throughout the year. In 1848, following the Mexican-American War and the cession of California to the United States, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that the land grants would be honored. In 1849, American settlers from the east came in droves during the California Gold Rush, and in 1850 California became the 31st state in the Union. Pico began selling off his land holdings in 1854. In 1864, Portuguese shore whalers under the command of Captain Joseph Clark arrived at San Simeon and built a whaling station and wharf which quickly grew into a substantial port for the export of lumber, farm produce, and cinnabar, an ore mined for its mercury. In 1865, a businessman from San Francisco named George Hearst, who made a fortune as a successful gold miner and later became a U.S. Senator, acquired 30,000 acres (12,141 ha) of Rancho Piedra Blanca. In 1878, Hearst built a new wharf, and the small community moved near the new wharf. Shore whaling continued on the point until the mid-1890s. It ceased for a short time, started up again in 1897, and continued until about 1908 when it ceased for good. The land owned by Hearst, and later by his son, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, eventually became the 270,000 acres (109,265 ha) Hearst Ranch. In 1953, the Hearst Corporation donated the William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, including the Hearst Pier, to San Luis Obispo County.

In 1866, Point Piedras Blancas was strategically reserved by the federal government, and in 1871, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided on Piedras Blancas for the site of a new lighthouse. The point was between the lighthouses at Point Conception, 96 miles (154 km) to the south-southeast, and Point Pinos, 76 miles (122 km) to the north-northwest, but at that time, coasting steamers traveled well offshore, and usually did not see Point Pinos Light. Without that sighting, the next light to the north was at Pigeon Point, about 218 miles (351 km) from Point Conception which was a long way without a navigational landmark. In 1872, funds were approved for a lighthouse, and in 1874, materials for the lighthouse tower were landed through the surf at the point, and a crew of around 30 began work on the ornate tower. The conical tower had an inside diameter of 24 feet (7.3 m) at the base and tapered to a diameter of just over 12 feet (3.7 m) at the parapet. A first-order Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris by the Henry-Lepaute Company, and containing eight flash panels, was installed atop the tower at 100 feet (30.5 m) and first illuminated on February 15, 1875. Construction funds were depleted before the facility was finished, partly because leveling the site proved to be more difficult due to the hardness of the rock. The fog signal and lightkeepers dwelling were not built until the following year, and during the first winter, the lightkeepers lived in the construction shanties. In 1876, a large two-story Victorian dwelling residence with 12 rooms was built about 50 feet (15 m) northeast of the tower, and housed three keepers and their families. The headland is in a seismically active area and on December 31, 1948, an earthquake centered 6 miles (9.7 km) off the point damaged the tower which resulted in the removal of the upper three floors including the fourth landing, watch room, and lantern. Missing the ornate upper floors, the truncated lighthouse now stands about 70 feet (21 m) tall. The lens was moved and is now on display in the nearby community of Cambria. In 1939, management of the facility was transferred from the U.S. Lighthouse Service to the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1975, the light was automated, the sound signal removed, and the light station was left unmanned. The lighthouse continues to serve as an aid to navigation and is now managed as a historic park and wildlife sanctuary by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Piedras Blancas Light Station Association is a non-profit partner that helps to raise funds for restoration and maintenance. Read more here and here. Explore more of Piedras Blancas and San Simeon 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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