Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz, California, is surrounded by world class surf spots and amazing views. It’s named for the lighthouse built to commemorate a local boy who went surfing and never came back. The lighthouse is a museum of local surf history, and the whole area has grown to be a special nexus of expression for the Santa Cruz surfing community. So it seems fitting, even though unfortunate, that this gateway to the ocean’s beauty and power is threatened by the power of the ocean.
Lighthouse Point is composed of a particularly resistant part of the Purisima Formation. In general, the Purisima erodes fairly easily. For this reason, the ocean was able to cut landward and create the Monterey Bay. However, Lighthouse Point and a few other resistant headlands, including San Lorenzo Point and Pleasure Point, have withstood the ocean’s erosive force. Lighthouse Point actually protects Monterey Bay’s northern beaches from much of the wave energy they would otherwise get from the dominantly northwest waves. Even so, Lighthouse Point is not immune to wave erosion.
Original Lighthouse Had to be Moved
The original lighthouse was built in 1869, close to the edge of the cliff. In 1878, less than 10 years later, a letter was sent to the Lighthouse Board noting that three large caves (all over 50 feet long and 50 feet wide) penetrated the point, and the largest extended to within 12 feet of the lighthouse.
To preemptively save the lighthouse from potential catastrophic cliff erosion, the Lighthouse Board ordered it to be picked up and moved 300 feet inward. Thus, from 1879 to 1948, the lighthouse was located on the north side of what is now West Cliff Drive.
A Long Run Comes to an End
In 1939, the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for all of the nation’s lighthouses. Shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard installed an automated beacon on top of a white wooden tower and decommissioned Santa Cruz’s lighthouse. The beacon was about 20 feet north of the current Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The light from the beacon was less than half as bright as that from the lighthouse. Despite a vibrant shipping past, by 1930, due to roads and railroads, Santa Cruz no longer had much shipping traffic. Therefore, the beacon was bright enough to be seen only by local fishing boats.
The lighthouse facilities were used briefly during World War II to house 200 soldiers stationed there during the war. After WWII, however, the lighthouse was not serving a particular purpose for the Coast Guard, so it was demolished. From 1948 until 1967, Santa Cruz had no lighthouse. There was just a beacon with a light so weak that local fisherman complained it couldn’t be distinguished from the car headlights on West Cliff Drive.
The New Lighthouse
The beacon might still be the only light here today if not for the tragic death of a local boy named Mark Abbott. On a Sunday morning in February, 1965, Mark went to the beach with his friends, went body surfing, and never returned. Mark’s parents, Chuck and Esther Abbott, were able to turn their grief from losing a child into something positive for the community: a new lighthouse at Lighthouse Point. The Abbotts made sure that the lighthouse honored even more than their son. A bronze plaque inside the lighthouse reads:
“This lighthouse is further dedicated to all our youth whose lives, through fate or misadventure, are terminated before realizing their true potential. May their spirits find new dimension in the unknown horizons that await us all.”
Same Cave Problem
The brick remains of the original lighthouse built in 1869 lie just a few hundred feet toward the ocean from the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.
In 1980, one of the caves that undermined the original lighthouse was plugged with concrete because it threatened to undermine the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Unfortunately, the plug did more harm than good, because it deflected waves upward, increased erosion of the upper cliff, and exposed the brick foundation of the original lighthouse site. It eventually washed out in 2000.
During the El Niño storms of 1982–83, waves eroded the sea cliff to within 10 feet of the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. A new concrete retaining wall was built in the 1990s, and the walkways and fences in this area are constantly being moved landward. Two caves still remain: one just to left of lighthouse, facing south (the one that had the concrete plug) and another on the west side, facing southwest. That second one is quite deep and extends almost to the lighthouse.
Much of West Cliff Drive has been armored with rip rap (1– to 2–ton boulders placed in a group) and sea walls to try to prevent erosion from cutting back the coastline. Such protections at Lighthouse Point certainly conflict with its natural beauty and surf. But the caves are there and, at some point, hard decisions about additional armoring of Lighthouse Point versus saving the lighthouse will have to be made. Perhaps it could be moved back across West Cliff Drive?
- Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz, by Frank Perry. Otter B Books, 2002. Available at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and Natural Bridges State Beach Visitor Center.
- Santa Cruz historian Frank Perry’s website.
- Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Located at Lighthouse Point, the museum is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 am to 5 pm, July 4 through Labor Day and Thursday through Monday, 12 noon to 4 pm, the rest of the year.
- Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Located at 1305 East Cliff Drive, the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, during summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and Tuesday–Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, the rest of the year. Call 831.420.6115 for more information.
- Lighthouse Friends website.
- The Huge Boulders Along the Santa Cruz Shoreline: A Common Coastal Story. Mobile Ranger blog.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz, by Frank A. Perry. Otter B Books, 2002.
- Living with the Changing California Coast, by Gary B. Griggs, Kiki Patsch, and Lauret E. Savoy. University of California Press, 2005.
- Personal communication with Frank Perry, Historian, Santa Cruz County, February 2012.
- Personal communication with Gary Griggs, Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz, February 2012.