The Lighthouse at Año Nuevo Island: Shipwrecks and Sea Lions

Abandoned lighthouse-keeper's house on Año Nuevo Island in Santa Cruz County, California, November, 2005. Photo: Jef Poskanzer CC BY 2.0
Abandoned lighthouse-keeper’s house on Año Nuevo Island in San Mateo County, California, November, 2005. Photo: Jef Poskanzer

It’s usually a fair bet that where there is a lighthouse, there is a history of shipwrecks. The area around Point Año Nuevo along California’s Highway 1 between San Francisco and Santa Cruz is no exception. The wreck of the Coya in 1866 claimed the lives of all but three of the 30-member crew and led to the installation of a steam fog whistle on Año Nuevo Island six years later (it is visible from the beach covered in elephant seals). That same year, the first light went on at the new Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

Ano Nuevo Light Station when in operation, some time before 1948. Photo: United States Coast Guard Historian, public domain
Ano Nuevo Light Station when in operation, sometime before 1948. Photo: Unknown federal employee

A High Price for an Ocean View

The first settlers on the island, who were to operate and maintain the whistle, paid a heavy price for their waterfront vista. In 1883, the lighthouse keeper, Henry Colburn, along with his assistant and two neighbor boys, drowned in the large surf while rowing out to the island. Even with keepers like Colburn risking their lives to lead captains and their crews to safe passage, large ships continued to crash between Pigeon Point and Point Año Nuevo. Finally, in 1890, a light was installed on the island.

Año Nuevo lighthouse in 1872. Photo: United States Coast Guard Historian, public domain
Año Nuevo Island tank house with light at top, unknown date (prior to the construction of the light tower in 1913). Photo: Unknown federal employee

The keepers had to monitor the new light 24 hours a day and constantly scan the horizon in search of approaching fog. Perhaps the most difficult part of life on the island, though, was dealing with the sea lions that regularly overran the gardens and occasionally even the house.

Make Way for Pinnipeds

In 1948, the last keeper and his family moved off the island and was replaced by a marker buoy with an automatic light, sound, and radar reflector. Ten years later, the California Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the Año Nuevo State Reserve, including the island, which was classified as a scientific preserve. In the early ‘60s, after visitors to the island damaged the existing structures and deterred sea lions and elephant seals from returning to the island, the preserve was closed to the public.

The lighthouse and surrounding buildings on Año Nuevo Island in 2009. All the dots and textured areas that you might think is seaweed, are actually seals. Photo: © Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project .http://www.Californiacoastline.org
The lighthouse and surrounding buildings on Año Nuevo Island in 2009. All of the dots and textured areas that you might think are seaweed are sea lions. Photo: Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project

Today, only researchers and designated personnel are allowed on the island, and just the three structures remain: The keeper’s dwelling (built in 1906), the fog signal building (front section built in 1881, back section in 1899), and the fuel storage building (built in 1908). Researchers use the fog signal building to store their equipment and as a respite from the howling winds. Not surprisingly, the dilapidated keeper’s house is still overrun by sea lions, the rightful owners of this rugged island.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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  1. Sources

    • Año Nuevo Island Light Station: Documentation of the Light Station Complex, Año Nuevo Island, Año Nuevo State Reserve, San Mateo County, California, by Matt C. Bischoff, June 2005.
    • Pigeon Point History. California Department of Parks and Recreation website.

Updated: October 12, 2016



About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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