t’s 6:00 A.M. and lighthouse keeper Jim Kin- brell hands us two steaming mugs of coffee. It is lighthouse keeper’s coffee, he tells us— strong coffee, as pitch black as the predawn. We step outside and instantly the dewdrops gather on our clothes and hair. The light- house is close by. Four beams cut through the mist from the lantern room, home to the impossibly beautiful lens with its 97 individual prisms. It is a golden Fabergé egg in a giant glass nest.
As we stand and watch enchanted in the misty morn, it is easy to understand why so many people are drawn to America’s lighthouses. There are perhaps 600 lighthouses in the U.S., some 70 of them on the West Coast. Though almost all active lights are automated and most keepers retired, many lighthouses have found new missions as museums, youth hostels and hotels. There are even lights available for long-term rental. Most are easily accessible by car and many in spectacular locations. They make an ideal theme for a road trip. Our journey for this article took us more than 2,100 km from San Francisco to Puget Sound north of Seattle.
Jim Kinbrell has been the custodian of Point Cabrillo Light Station since 2001. During that time he has over-
San Francisco to Puget Sound north of Seattle
seen the renovation of the station’s buildings and its launch as a bed and breakfast.“I just took my first vaca- tion in six years,” says Jim, a youthful and enthusiastic 62-year-old.“I plan to stay here a long time. I want to see all the other structures done so that we have the most complete lighthouse station in the U.S.”
Work to build Point Cabrillo began in 1908, just two years after the San Francisco earthquake. It was built to protect ships carrying housing timber from nearby forests to the devastated city. Jim explains how a century later four restorers spent four months returning the 1909 keeper’s house dining room to its original glory. They used blown-down Douglas fir and counted the rings to ensure the wood was within three years of the correct age. The room (where each morning a sumptuous breakfast is served to guests) is the pride of the light station.
Beauty and Isolation Heceta Head Lighthouse is said to be the most photo- graphed lighthouse on the Pacific Coast. It is easy to see why. Perched on a headland north of the town of Flor- ence, Oregon, it boasts a powerful first-order lens visible up to 40 km out to sea. Only the curvature of the earth limits the light. But its beauty is matched by isolation. In early years supplies came by ship. Goods would be pushed into the water then dragged up the cliff, as Heceta Head had no dock—and that only if the weather was suitable. The equally arduous alternative was a journey to the next town. Though it is only a short 15-minute drive to Florence now, light-keepers faced a five-to-seven hour trek before the coastal highway was built,.
Like Point Cabrillo, Heceta Head has been lovingly re- stored and offers bed and breakfast accommodation. The B&B is in the stunning 1893 Queen Anne-style assistant light-keeper’s house. (Sadly, the head light-keeper’s house was sold for $10 in 1940, then torn down for lumber.) The sturdy Douglas fir beams of the remaining structure barely stir, even in the strongest winds.
“They built these houses to last,” says Jack Armer, the lighthouse’s avuncular caretaker and carpenter. Armer specializes in carpentry from the 1800s and made the exquisitely wrought mahogany headboards in the bed- rooms. Each took two and a half weeks to carve. The U.S. Lighthouse Service brought in carpenters from as far away as Chicago to complete the original $80,000 com- plex, says Armer.
Most keepers were proud and conscientious. At least in the early years, pay was good—a solid lower middle-class wage. For some keepers, notably in California during the Gold Rush, the pay was excellent. But the notoriously strict U.S. Lighthouse Service expected much in return,