Santa Cruz Lighthouse is located on Point Santa Cruz, adjacent to Lighthouse Field State Beach in Lighthouse Point Park at the northern boundary of Monterey Bay, about 25 miles (40 km) north-northwest of Monterey and in Santa Cruz, California. Point Santa Cruz is a marine terrace that was eroded by waves and subsequently uplifted, one of at least five emergent marine terraces along the north coast of Monterey Bay, in a geologically complex region traversed by numerous faults that together comprise the crustal North American–Pacific tectonic plate boundary. Uplift of the terraces is mostly associated with the Loma Prieta fault and the San Andreas fault located 12-19 miles (20-30 km) inland, and to a lesser extent with the San Gregorio fault located 3-6 miles (5-10 km) offshore. The marine terraces were eroded primarily from Santa Cruz Mudstone, a hard medium-to-thick-bedded layer of organic mudstone of Late Miocene age. The durability and low solubility of the Santa Cruz Mudstone are primarily responsible for the excellent preservation of the marine terraces along this section of the coast. Immediately beneath the Santa Cruz Mudstone lies the very thick-bedded, friable Santa Margarita Sandstone, and under that is the sandy siltstone and mudstone of the Monterey Formation. During Pleistocene glacial periods, sea level is estimated to have dropped by 495 feet (150 m) placing ancient coastlines more than 3 miles (5 km) seaward of the present shoreline along the Santa Cruz coast. The tectonic uplift rate is about 0.04 inches (1 mm) per year and the sea-level changes associated with the transition from glacial to interglacial stages are inferred to have reached 1.2 inches (30 mm) per year. So the wavecut platforms were very likely to have eroded coincident with sea level incursions. The lowest marine terrace, represented by Point Santa Cruz, was carved by ocean waves about 80,000 years ago when the rock layer was lower and submerged. Since that time the sea level has fluctuated and the land has been uplifted, and today the terrace is covered by a thin layer of sand and gravel deposited by ancient waves.
In the 16th century, before the arrival of Europeans, over 10,000 Native Americans lived along the central California coast between Big Sur and the Golden Gate. These people consisted of approximately forty different bands of 100–250 members each, that were not considered part of a larger tribe. When the Spaniards and other explorers arrived, they attempted to classify these bands into one all-encompassing group and referred to them as ‘Costenos’, meaning ‘coastal people’, which eventually became ‘Costanoans’, and they were referred to by this name for hundreds of years until descendants chose to call themselves Ohlones. The Ohlone subsisted on the relatively abundant supply of natural plant and animal life of the coastal environment. Acorns were probably the most important plant food. Hunting, trapping, and in some cases, poisoning game were common pursuits for most adult males. Prey animals included deer, elk, bear, and antelope, with whale, sea lion, otter, and seal also being hunted on the coast. Smaller mammals were also occasionally eaten as well as many species of birds. The more important fish included steelhead trout, salmon, sturgeon, and lampreys. The most commonly eaten shellfish were mussels, abalone, clams, and oysters from the tidelands. There was an extensive trade network among the bands and with tribes farther east. One of the most important trade commodities was cinnabar for use as a pigment, but abalone shells, projectile points, obsidian, dogs, tobacco, hides, bows, baskets, salt, acorns, and fish were also important. The Spanish started their colonization of Central California in 1770 with the establishment of missions and presidios. The mission system was conceived so that no mission would be more than a day’s ride from another. La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz, or Mission Santa Cruz, was founded in 1791 near indigenous villages, which became the source of labor and converts for the Mission priests. It was named for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, adopting the name given to a nearby creek by the missionary priest Juan Crespi, who accompanied the explorer Gaspar de Portolá when he camped on the banks of the San Lorenzo River in 1769. As Mission Santa Cruz developed, the coastal terrace lands to the north as far as Point Año Nuevo became the mission’s main livestock grazing lands. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and secularized the missions and the mission lands were given to prominent families as land grants called ranchos.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, and the westernmost portion of the annexed Mexican territory of Alta California soon became the state of California. Santa Cruz was a busy port in the mid-1800s, with ships dropping anchor in the harbor to take on loads of redwood, lime, and various agricultural products. The U.S. Congress set aside funding to construct a lighthouse on Point Santa Cruz; however, years were spent trying to determine the rightful owner of the prized property since several different land grants overlapped here. In 1868, the government acquired 10 acres (4 ha) for a lighthouse reserve, and work finally started on the structure. The original lighthouse was a two-story wooden building with a lantern room housing a fifth-order Fresnel lens. In 1879, the lighthouse was moved 300 feet (91 m) inland because of shoreline erosion. In 1913, the original lens was replaced with a more powerful fourth-order lens made by L. Sautter. In 1917, the lighthouse was electrified and the original structure was deactivated and replaced with a simple wooden tower in 1941. The City of Santa Cruz signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to lease the inactive lighthouse and surrounding grounds for use as a park. However, fear was rapidly growing that the country would soon become involved in World War II, and the government decided to retain the strategic property. A caretaker was hired to live in the lighthouse, maintain the property, and keep an eye on the light. Nicholas Dowell, a foreman for the local electric company, was well suited for the job, and he moved into the lighthouse with his wife, daughter, and grandson. The Coast Guardsmen lived upstairs in the lighthouse and used the tower as a lookout. In 1942, the area surrounding the lighthouse, now known as Lighthouse Field, became home to the 54th Coast Artillery Regiment, an all-black unit assigned to protect the nearby coastline. In 1965, a surfer drowned near Point Santa Cruz and a commemorative brick lighthouse was built in 1967 to replace the wooden tower. Today, the lighthouse is a memorial, an operational aid to navigation, and home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum that overlooks the internationally renowned surfing hotspot called Steamer Lane. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Santa Cruz here: