Point Montara Lighthouse is located in the coastal community of Montara, about 18 miles (29 km) south-southwest of San Francisco and 7 miles (11 km) northwest of Half Moon Bay, California. The name ‘Montara’ is a corruption of ‘Montoro’ that was initially used in 1867 by the California Geological Survey. In 1869, the U.S. Coast Survey referred to the area with its current name. The name is thought to be a misspelling of several Spanish words that describe mountains and forests, such as montuoso, montaraz, and montaña. Ancient Native Americans first settled along the California coast during the end of the Last Glacial Period, about 11,700 years ago. About 5,000 years ago, the Ohlones people are thought to have arrived in the area and at the time of European contact, several Ohlones tribes controlled territories along the San Mateo coast and adjacent mountains. For example, the Chiguan inhabited the Montara area, the Cotegen were at Half Moon Bay, the Oljon at San Gregorio, and the Quiroste inhabited the Pescadero, Butano, and Año Nuevo regions. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed his ship north along the coastline in 1542, and the first overland expedition by the Spanish to explore Alta California was in 1769 under the command of Gaspar de Portolá. Spanish Franciscan missions were established that raised cattle, and wheat, corn, and beans were planted as income crops. After the Mexican revolution and independence in 1822, the new Mexican government granted large coastal properties to a few citizens. One of these was Rancho Corral de Tierra, a parcel of 7,766 acres (3,143 ha) given in 1839 by Governor Pro-Tem Manuel Jimeno to Francisco Guerrero y Palomares. In the early 1900s, the community of Montara was founded by Harr Wagner, a San Francisco publisher, who wanted to establish an artist colony on the coast that would be supported by the new Ocean Shore Railroad. The railroad was built along the Pacific coastline between San Francisco and Tunitas Glen, which is south of Half Moon Bay, and operated from 1905 until 1921. Most of the former land grant is now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The California coastline has been treacherous to oceangoing navigators for all its recorded history mostly due to dense fog which is a common weather phenomenon along the entire coast. The frequency of fog and low-lying stratus clouds is due to ocean moisture and the strong temperature gradient from land to sea. Moisture evaporated from the ocean surface over hundreds, even thousands of miles of the open Pacific is carried to California by the prevailing westerly winds. This water vapor contributes to the development of a warm humid marine layer near the ocean surface. The California Current is a south-flowing ocean current that forces additional cooling by creating a strong coastal upwelling of cold deep water with temperatures of 52–58 °F (11–14 °C) year-round. When the warm atmospheric marine layer encounters this cold upwelled water, it cools to its dewpoint creating fog over the ocean. A strong land-sea temperature gradient is set up in the summer when inland temperatures can reach temperatures of 100 °F (38 °C), and often higher. This warm air rises creating a low-pressure zone that draws the marine layer and its clouds onshore and inland through any gaps in the coastal mountains. San Francisco Bay was not recognized for 200 years partly because of the fog obscuring the entrance. In 1775, the Spanish packet San Carlos, under the command of Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, became the first ship to enter the bay. The settlement at San Francisco was established the following year and was visited thereafter by naval and supply ships from Spain and occasional visitors like Captain George Vancouver in the 1790s. When Mexico achieved its independence, California was allowed to trade freely with merchant ships from around the world. However, it was not until the discovery of gold in 1848, that very many ships came to call at San Francisco. The Gold Rush brought hundreds of ships, and between 1848 and 1869, more than 500,000 people were transported to San Francisco from the isthmus crossing at Panama, and many more came around Cape Horn aboard sailing ships. By the mid-1800s, almost 90 vessels had wrecked on the jagged rocks off Point Montara.
The first recorded ship to break up on this coast was the Isabelita Hyne, a clipper ship that went aground on Rancho Corral de Tierra in 1856. In 1862, the Peruvian schooner Elfina Kniper hit rocks while in fog at Pillar Point. In 1868, the side-wheeler Colorado grounded on a reef at Point Montara with U.S. mail and hundreds of passengers on board. The passengers and mail were rescued and wreckers salvaged the ship. In recognition of the event, the reef was named ‘Colorado Reef’. Four years later in 1872, the British sailing ship Aculeo went aground on the same reef after being lost for more than three days in dense fog. The ship was bound for San Francisco from Liverpool with a load of steel wire and coal. In 1873, U.S. Congress authorized funds for a fog whistle at Montara Point and construction began in October 1874. The station included a two-story Victorian residence and a fog signal that could be heard for 15 miles (24 km). In 1900, the government installed a kerosene-fueled lens lantern on a post and the resulting red beam could be for 12 miles (19 km). Two years later, the original fog signal was pulled down and replaced by a one-and-a-half-story, wood-framed structure built atop a concrete foundation. Its design was typical of other fog-signal buildings of the period. In 1912, the lens lantern on a post was upgraded to a fourth-order Fresnel lens atop a white pyramidal skeletal iron tower. In 1919, the steam fog signals were torn out and replaced by a diaphone fog signal. The current tower was first erected in 1881 in Wellfleet, Massachusetts as the Mayo Beach Lighthouse. In 1925, the cast-iron tower was disassembled and moved, and in 1928 it was rebuilt as the Point Montara Light station. The tower is only 30 feet (9 m) high, which is very short by lighthouse standards, but in this situation is good for keeping the beam beneath the fog. In 1970, the lighthouse was automated. In 1975, the State of California developed a plan to transform a few vacant lighthouses into youth hostels, and the facility at Point Montara is now managed by Hostelling International USA. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Montara here: