Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Punta Gorda

– Once a Proud Light Station – Virtually Burned to the Ground

By Timothy Harrison


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In April of 1970 the Bureau of Land Management ...

If it were still intact today, California’s once beautiful Punta Gorda Light Station could have been the site of a magnificent, although remote, lighthouse bed and breakfast with an interpretive museum that would have provided the visitor with the history of the lighthouse and the rugged coastline where lighthouse keepers once served in hardship, but faithfully, for the benefit of others. But, it was not meant to be.

By most lighthouse standards, the Punta Gorda Lighthouse had a short life span as a staffed station: only 39 years. Built in 1912, by 1951 the light station, in one of the most rugged lighthouse locations on the west coast, had been de-staffed and abandoned to the elements. Access to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse was so difficult that, even in its last years of operation, horses were still used to get supplies and mail from the nearest town, the small community of Petrolia, California.

The fog signal building at Punta Gorda Light Station was completed in 1911 and began sounding its signal on June 22nd of that year. The lens was finally installed in the tower in January of the following year and was lighted for the first time on January 15, 1912.

The Punta Gorda Light Station originally consisted of 22 acres in one of the few areas along this part of the state where there was enough room between the high bluffs and the sea to construct the buildings that would serve as the light station. Because of various conditions, there was absolutely no place to build a dock, so supplies had to be landed by boat at quite a distance from the site and then dragged down the beach by horse drawn sleds or wagons.

The concrete light tower itself was short by many lighthouse standards, only 27 feet tall, but it sat high on the bluff. Three beautiful keeper’s homes were constructed, all of the same basic design to those being constructed at the time at Point Cabrillo Lighthouse in Mendocino, California. Also built at the same time, were, as mentioned previously, the wooden fog signal building and a blacksmith/tool shed building, a concrete oil house, and some storage sheds.

Although the construction of the Punta Gorda Lighthouse was a major project in itself, maintaining it was just as difficult, if not more so, and because of its remote location, some of the early keepers called it the “Alcatraz of Lighthouses.” Ralph Shanks Jr. and Janetta Thompson Shanks in their book Lighthouses and Lifeboats of the Redwood Coast wrote, “Sea conditions and offshore rocks ruled out any effective supply operation by lighthouse tender. Most supplies had to come overland, through the little town of Petrolia. There are two routes between Punta Gorda and Petrolia. One is a long, overland trail up and down high, rugged mountains. The other route is by way of the beach and the Mattole River, a distance of eleven miles. The beach route had two advantages; it was a shorter trip and during good weather the horse or mule drawn wagon could make the journey. However, during the winter months, with common wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour , the beach route would often be impossible so the keepers would ride a horse to town for fresh provisions, carrying back only what would fit in the saddlebags.”

The light station had at least three horses at any given time. One of the last horses and the one with the longest tenure to serve at Punta Gorda Lighthouse was a steady steed name “Old Bill,” who was very gentle but often had a mind of his own, and was not keen on walking through any type of water or puddles.

When World War II came, the light station finally received some modernization, thanks mainly to the Coast Guard Beach Patrol station with barracks that were built at the mouth of the Mattole River to guard the shore to the north. The Coast Guard built a road along the foot of the bluffs, and the station received a jeep and a bulldozer tractor capable of pulling a large sled loaded with supplies. But winter storms often closed the road, and once again, the only way to reach town and get supplies was to saddle up the horse. Although electricity had finally reached the remote station, it was unreliable and the back-up generators saw constant use.

Other than the horses, as with many remote light stations, Punta Gorda had its share of other animals. There were cows, goats, and chickens, all raised for food. In the early years the keepers even grew their own hay for the cows and horses to supplement feed shipments. And of course there were the other family companions such as dogs and cats.

Ed Neumeier, a newspaper reporter who visited the Punta Gorda Lighthouse just as it was about to close up said that the trip just to get to the lighthouse was an adventure unto itself. After the 11 mile journey from the community of Petrolia that took close to two hours, using all kinds of transportation - car, horse, jeep, and lots of walking to get to the lighthouse - he wrote, “And you come around another small point and the station is in sight, a pretty sight out of this wilderness, a sort of Shangra-La . . .”

Samuel “Hank” Mostovoy (10/10/1907-7/15/1988) was the last head keeper or OIC (Officer in Charge), as it was called by then, of the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. As well as the assistant keepers who lived at the lighthouse, Hank Mostovoy lived there with his wife Audrey and his daughter Donna Mostovoy Clark, and her children Richard “Dick,” and Ron Clark. The two boys recalled that life was good at the lighthouse, especially with all the spacious freedom they had as their play area.

Out to Pasture

But time caught up with the Punta Gorda Lighthouse Station. It was an expensive light station to maintain, especially at its remote location. And with newer modern aids to navigation, and the fact that the lighthouse was no longer needed by the big ships, meant the end for the lighthouse. Samuel “Hank” Mostovoy, who took extreme pride in the station, was its last head keeper, or OIC (Officer in Charge) as the Coast Guard referred to it, was there right up until the very last day when the lighthouse was replaced by a lighted whistle buoy in the water off-shore from the lighthouse. Amazingly, when the Coast Guard closed the Punta Gorda Light Station in February of 1951, Old Bill, the lighthouse horse, was still there.

In the final days before closing up the lighthouse for good, Mostovoy talked about Old Bill, saying “He’s pulled many a wagon and buggy to the nearby town of Petrolia in his day. For 20 years he was the only transportation in and out of here.” In 1943 Old Bill was joined by Tom and Jerry, who were purchased from the U.S. Army for $165.00 each. But Tom and Jerry were not as cooperative as Old Bill. One time, the two steeds sent a couple of Coast Guardsmen to the hospital after overturning the buckboard on the cliff road. Mostovoy went on to say, “Old Bill’s just as independent as they make ’em. He’s a senior citizen of the community of Petrolia. You just take him up to the head of the road, turn him loose, and he’ll go right back to the lighthouse.” One time when a young newly assigned Coastie arrived at Petrolia, they loaded his gear onto Old Bill. As the horse disappeared, the young Guardsman thought he’d never see his gear again. But Old Bill showed up at the lighthouse with the gear, ready to be unloaded and given some hay to munch on.

Mostovoy recalled the time when Commander H. F. Stolfi, Chief of Aids to Navigation if the 12th Coast Guard District, had arrived. Commander Stolfi had never been on a horse before, but he boarded Old Bill and with brief case in hand, tucked under his arm, away the two of them went, and in due time they arrived at the lighthouse. Old Bill had been gentle with him.

When it was announced that Punta Gorda was to be closed for good, new homes were for found for Tom and Jerry. But Old Bill stayed until the bitter end when he left the lighthouse for the last time and went to a new home in nearby Ferndale where he spent his final days grazing to his heart’s content in the open pastures south of Humboldt Bay.

The Punta Gorda Light Station, with its numerous buildings, was then abandoned to the elements, and the lighthouse station and its property was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Much like a ghost town of the old west, the Punta Gorda Light Station sat silent, void of human life: no more sounds of human work, no more laughter, and no more family dinners with the aroma of a fresh baked pie or a pot of stew coming from the keepers’ homes. There were no more sounds of dogs barking, no more horses, even the fog horns went silent, replaced by a whistling buoy that was positioned offshore.

The Shanks probably described it best in their book when they wrote the following: “The facility thus stood intact but abandoned. Occasional hikers and sheepherders visited the place. The three spacious dwellings still gave a genteel, turn-of-the century feeling to the place. Their peaked, red roofs, fine brick fireplaces, and pleasant porches gave the white, two-story houses a reputation as the loveliest old homes along the southern Humboldt coast. White picket fences and wildflowers surrounded the houses. The old fog signal building was equally picturesque. It looked much like an old, one-room schoolhouse. However, in place of a bell on top, a rooftop platform held a pair of trumpet-like fog horns, now mute. Hikers stumbling upon the station considered it one of the surprising treasures of coastal California.”

The Unwarranted Destruction

Those who are old enough to remember, or those who have studied modern history, are keenly aware of the tumultuous countercultural movement of the 1960s. Somehow a group of young people, who some called hippies, were looking for an alternative life style and found their way to the abandoned and remote Punta Gorda Light Station, and they took up residence in the abandoned buildings. Reports indicated that they actually started to clean up the place and started making long overdue repairs.

However, the BLM was not happy about this, stating that people could get injured or even killed living in the abandoned structures, and if that should happen, the federal government could be held liable. The BLM asked the local Sheriff to evict the unwanted squatters. The Sheriff’s office complied and the young people left, only to return later. Again, the Sherriff’s deputies chased the unlawful residents off the property. But by this time some of the higher-up bureaucrats at the BLM decided that it would be in the government’s best interest to burn the buildings down, claiming the abandoned structures had become a nuisance and a potential liability. John Lannz, the district manager of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Ukiah, was quoted in a San Francisco Examiner newspaper story as saying, “We had to get them out before someone got hurt, we couldn’t be responsible for them.”

Then, over the objections of many maritime historians, some locals, and even some of the employees of the BLM, the decision was made final; the buildings would be destroyed. And in the first week of April in 1970, every wooden structure at the once majestic Punta Gorda Light Station was set on fire and burned to the ground. The historic buildings were wiped off the face of the earth. The ruins were then bulldozed into the basements and covered up. Later, BLM officials admitted that their decision had probably been a mistake.

Today the lonely tower with an empty lantern and the shell of the concrete oil house are all that remain of the once majestic Punta Gorda Light Station. The lighthouse property is now within the boundaries of the 42,000 plus acres of the coastal wilderness of the King Range National Conservation Area, and it can only be reached by a 3½ mile hike from a parking lot. However, this hike can only be done safely at low tide.

Look closely at all the accompanying photos with this story and let your mind drift back in time and imagine what it was like to know the lighthouse keepers and their families and what life must have been like while living at the once proud Punta Gorda Lighthouse Station. Would you like to have lived as they once did at the Punta Gorda Lighthouse?

To read this story in its entirety along with all the photos, please click here.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2016 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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