John Vonderlin: 1868: We want a lighthouse!

Story by and from John Vonderlin

Email John ([email protected])

Hi June,

Now this is what I call a hard hitting editorial. This was published just a week after the shipwreck of the Hellespont, that cost eleven lives. One of your readers sent me an email asking about the process of lighthouse location selection. I opined it was like the process of traffic light placement today. Money being found if their is public demand, which is often driven by spectacular or frequent accidents at the site. I think this article supports that opinion. This article was in the November 30, 1868 issue of “The Daily Alta.” and was entitled, “Let Us Have Light.” The Pigeon Point Lighthouse was built just a couple of years later. Enjoy. John

P.S. I’ve attached a short bio excerpt from Wikipedia, of Professor Bache, and his picture,quite an interesting and accomplished man. The Congressional Library documents from his survey of this part of the Coastside are probably still available, possibly online. I’ll check. That would be real interesting to compare to today.

LET US HAVE LIGHT. The public of California have been waiting for eighteen years to have their Government provide one lighthouse for the ninety miles of coast lying south of the Golden Gate. The vessels which, during that time, have been dashed to pieces upon that ill fated shore, could hardly be connted upon one’s fingers. The lives which have been lost amount to many scores, and all for want of a lighthouse. Last week the ship Hellespont went ashore between Pigeon Point and New Year’s Point, eleven lives lost out of sixteen — total loss of ship and cargo. Two years ago the Coya went ashore between those two points— twenty- six lives lost — three saved— total loss of vessel and cargo. The year before, the ship Sir John Franklin, 1,000 tons register, went ashore at the same place— Captain and eleven seaman drowned — total loss of ship and cargo. A little earlier the Carrier Pigeon had been dashed to pieces against the same shore, leaving nothing behind but her name to designate the point where she terminated her career; and so on at the rate of about one wreck a year, as far back as we can remember. Now, this is not the case where sunken reefs, difficult to guard against, have caused the disaster. There are two bold headlands, as if made by nature for the express purpose of being sites for lighthouses. One of them, New Year’s Point, projocts out into the ocean a mile or more beyond the general coast line, and all of solid rock, standing thirty feet above high water. Moreover, this being a conspicuous point, and about in the line of all vessels arriving at San Francisco from all ports of the Atlantic Ocean, from all Europe, all the United States except Oregon, all Australia and the Indian Ocean, every vessel expects and tries to make New Year’s Point as its first land on the eastern shore of the Pacific and in clear weather it does this in perfect safety; but in foggy weather, or in the darkness of night, it dashes “stem on,” and sinks in the yeasty waves. There has never been a light there, and from present appearances there never will be. The ship-owner who is about to send his vessel past this combined Scylla and Charybdis oannot afford it: the marine insurance companies cannot practically combine to share the expense, although they could afford to take risks from Europe or the Eastern States to San Francisco at one half the present rates if there were good lights on those two points; and so nothing is done, that is nothing that results in a light. There have been on the part of Government officials an abundance of talk, an abundance of observations, reports, recommendations, but no light. Sixteen years ago Professor Bache (Alexander Bache) made most elaborate and voluminous reports upon the fitness of these two points for light-house sites, all of which were nicely printed and illustrated and bound up and paid for, and then packed away in the Congressional Library. The volumes are covered with dust; the Professor himself has died and gone to join the shades of those wrecked mariners whose sad fate would have been avoided had his teachings been heeded; and still the light-house at New Year’s Point is only a thing talked about. Will it be said that Senator Cole got a Congressional appropriation of $90,000 last spring, to build a light-house at New Year’s Point? and will men suppose that therefore there is to be a light there? Nay, nay. There shall be more inquiries, more reports, more paper, more ink, more tape, but no more light. The Lighthouse Board will draw their salaries, as before; the Lighthouse Engineer will draw his, the District Attorney will touch his fee if there chances to be a reference to him for a legal opinion, but that will be all; and yet there has been time enough to build the lighthouse since the appropriation was made. If this had been a matter of private business instead of official red-tape, the house would have been built, and the Hellespont and her crew would have been saved; or if  the building of a permanent lighthouse must await the last possible scientific investigation touching all material of wood, of iron, of brick, of stone— touching wind currents and water currents, touching the decoupling effects of air and of water, of rain water and sea water, and the latter, as affected by the score of decomposed human bodies with which the annual wrecks gratuitously varies the experiment for the official or scientific inquirers- let us at least have a light of some sort and at once a light which can be seen by the sailor, although, perchance, it shall be of some unrecognised “order of Fresnel” give one ot the ‘ redwood men” of the vicinity $50 to cut down three trees, tall as the masts  of Millton’s ” High Admiral.” Get a Pigeon point whaleman to make out of them a tripod, and erect the same upon New Year’s Point, and upon its top to put crude beacon light of some sort. (the whale oil and sea lion oil of the place will furnish the material) Then hire one of those sailors to “shin up” one of the legs of this tripod and light this wide lantern of a dark and stormy night, and you will have done something practical; also, you shall have left 89 of the 90 thousand dollars appropriated, to be snarled and squabbled for, and still the scientific inquiries can go on, relieved, partially at least, of the unpleasant accompaniement of the death shrieksof drowning mariners.

n 1843, on the death of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, Bache was appointed superintendent of the United States coast survey. He convinced the United States Congress of the value of this work and by means of the liberal aid it granted, he completed the mapping out of the whole coast by a skillful division of labor and the erection of numerous observing stations. In addition, magnetic and meteorological data was collected.

 Besides being the second Superintendent of the Coast Survey, he was also President of the National Academy of Scviences.



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