Digest>Archives> July 2008

Memories Of A Lighthouse Lookout Station

By JoAnn Semones


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The first Ano Nuevo Lighthouse was installed in ...

During World War II, the beacons of nearly every lighthouse in America were extinguished to protect the nation’s borders from possible attack. The U.S. Coast Guard, which had assimilated the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939, established beach patrols and lookout stations at many of the sites. Scattered along the country’s coastal waters, these sentinels provided perfect early-warning systems.

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The 1916 skeleton tower shown here on the left ...

Both an "island" and a "point," Año Nuevo formed part of the lookout network along California shores. Año Nuevo Island is connected to the mainland by a sandbar at low tide. Año Nuevo Point is more accessible, at a higher elevation, and more stable. In 1872, when neighboring Pigeon Point Lighthouse was built, a fog signal station with a steam whistle was placed at Año Nuevo Point. A keepers’ dwelling was constructed at the southern end of Año Nuevo Island, with a wooden walkway running north to the fog signal station.

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Part of the Steele Brothers ranch with Año Nuevo ...

A lighthouse, of sorts, was erected at Año Nuevo Point in 1890. The light was merely a lens lantern mounted on a water tank building. Around 1906, a two-story duplex was built next to the original keepers’ dwelling. Ultimately, a skeleton tower with a Fresnel lens in the lantern room was constructed in 1916.

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Willard Al Brandisi, Mr. Booth with Seaman ...

Adjacent to Año Nuevo stood one of the Steele Brothers dairy operations. In the 1860s, Isaac C. Steele and his brothers had established eleven dairies in three counties. Until 1947, their enterprise was a dominant producer of cheese and butter, mostly for export to San Francisco.

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Built around 1906, the abandoned and decaying ...

Lookout Crew

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Seaman Art Smith is shown inside the Año Nuevo ...

From April to August of 1942, Seaman First Class Arthur Harris Smith, Jr. served at Año Nuevo as a member of a Coast Guard lookout crew. Smith, who had longed to join the Coast Guard since age 14, enlisted on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He declared, "Everyone was scared stiff."

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Seaman Art Smith and the horse, Dolly, head to ...

Upon his arrival at Año Nuevo, Smith was introduced to Bernice Steele Taylor, a Granddaughter of dairy rancher Isaac Steele. "It was just a week before my nineteenth birthday and she knew I was feeling a little homesick," Smith confessed, "so she baked me a cake."

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Año Nuevo's light tower, constructed in 1916, was ...

Members of Smith’s crew included First Class Boatswain’s Mate Wayne Perry from Los Angeles, Coxswain Elmo R. "Chris" Christianson from Yankton, South Dakota, and Seaman Leland W. Byers from Washington. Smith replaced a Seaman Scholls who was injured in a car accident after imbibing too much grog at a local saloon called the "Bucket of Blood." Smith commented, "It was a real tough gin mill."

The Coast Guard lookout shack was at the very tip of Año Nuevo Island. The post was manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. While one crew member was on liberty, the others each worked in shifts of four hours on, eight hours off.

The lookout crew had three primary duties: to detect and observe enemy vessels and airplanes operating in coastal waters; to transmit information on these craft to command headquarters; and to report attempts of landings by the enemy. "Using binoculars, we scanned the horizon for any lights, ships, or planes," Smith explained. "It all had to be reported by crank telephone to headquarters in San Francisco."

Once, a submarine was detected just south of Año Nuevo by a group of local fishermen. They thought they spotted a submarine periscope, reported it, and supposedly, the area was bombed. Rumors persisted for years that a German or Japanese sub lay in the water close to shore.

Not every day was filled with apprehension. On one occasion, an abandoned baby sea lion followed Smith into the lookout shack. The crew began feeding it. "Since the door was always open, the pup came and went as it pleased. We played with it, and even rode it around in a wheelbarrow," he grinned. "When it grew too big, we took it back to the beach."

On other occasions, Smith delivered groceries, mail, and supplies from nearby Pescadero to the island. Mrs. Taylor graciously offered the use of her horse and buggy. "I’d harness up old Dolly, drive her down to the beach, and unload the boxes into a dory to row out to the island," Smith recalled. "Then, I patted her on the bottom and she trotted back to the barn on her own."

Supplies for the keepers were delivered by the buoy-tender USS Lupine. Built as a mine planter for the Army in 1918, the Lupine was converted to a U.S. Lighthouse

Service tender and commissioned on April 14, 1927. The steam driven vessel was 172 feet long, 32 feet wide, and measured 1,130 tons. Art noted, "She operated out of San Francisco all along the California coast."

Just A Memory

When the Coast Guard needed additional men for active duty, Smith volunteered. He served as a Gunner’s Mate aboard LST-202. The vessel was 327 feet long, 53 feet wide, and carried 12 tanks and 600 troops. Known as "giant sea-going freight cars," LSTs were designed to support amphibious operations by carrying huge loads of military vehicles, cargo, and troops. Smith remarked, "I made all the Pacific invasions that General MacArthur did."

Combat in World War II came to an end on August 15, 1945. Better known as Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day), the nation celebrated the surrender of Japan. By then, Smith was stationed at Alameda, California. "I represented the Coast Guard by carrying the American flag in a parade in San Francisco," he beamed. "It was my second claim to fame."

In 1948, Año Nuevo’s fog signal and light tower were deactivated and replaced by a whistle buoy that continues to operate. Established as a state reserve in 1958, the area still contains vestiges of the Steele Brothers Dairy, including old barns and other historic buildings. Pieces of the light tower, which was toppled in 1976 by the Coast Guard, lay strewn about. The keepers’ residence stands in ruins, occupied now by a medley of sea birds and marine mammals. The lookout shack, where Art Smith and men like him kept watch, is just a memory.

This story appeared in the July 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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