Geology, the lighthouse, World War II and surfing history are all woven into the story of Lighthouse Point.
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, like San Lorenzo Point and Pleasure Point, have withstood the ocean’s erosive powers. Lighthouse Point, in fact, 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 has been subject to wave erosion over the years.
Port City Needs a Light
In the 1850s Santa Cruz was a bustling port city. Ships dropped anchor in the natural harbor offshore from the main beach, and loaded up with redwood, lime, leather, and plentiful agricultural products. Because of the need for a lighthouse to guide these ships, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the task in 1852. Unfortunately, the title to the land was not clear, a common problem in post-Mexican California of the 1850s, and the money was actually returned unused.
It was not until after the Civil War and following an 1867 ruling by the California Supreme Court that title issues were settled. The lighthouse was finally built in 1869, and this time Congress only allocated $10,000. When it was first lit on January 1st 1870 it was the 12th “Light” on the coast of California.
The Light is Moved
The original lighthouse location was close to the cliffs. In 1878, less than ten years after it was built, a letter was sent to the Lighthouse Board noting that three large caves (all over 50 feet long and fifty 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 landward. Thus from 1879 to 1948 the lighthouse was located on the north side of what is now West Cliff Drive. In the picture above the lighthouse is in its second location.
An important resource to the community, the lighthouse was also a home for the lighthouse keepers and their families. For the first 46 years the official keeper was first Adna Hecox and, upon his death, his daughter Laura Hecox. When she resigned in 1916, Arthur Anderson moved in with his family. All three keepers and their families were integral parts of the local community. Arthur Anderson retired in 1940 and was the last official lighthouse keeper. On July 1, 1939 the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for this and all of the nation’s lighthouses.
A Long Run Comes to an End
In 1941 the Coast Guard installed an automated beacon on top of a 26 foot, white, wooden tower. The beacon was about 20 feet north of the current Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The Coast Guard then officially decommissioned the Lighthouse. The light from the beacon was less than half as bright as that from the lighthouse (11,000 vs. 25,000 candle power units). By 1930 due to roads and railroads, Santa Cruz no longer had much shipping traffic and the installation of a weak light in 1941, really only good for local fisherman, reflected this reality.
Enter World War II
The lighthouse facilities became critical again during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nine Japanese submarines arrived on the west coast and began stalking merchant ships in an effort to scare Americans into believing the Japanese would attack the mainland. There were, in fact, several attacks on US ships along the California coast by Japanese subs in late December, 1941; one was off Carmel on December 20th. In total, two ships were sunk, and two more were damaged. Six seamen were killed. The Japanese subs left shortly thereafter. The US then began to doubt whether the Japanese would attack the mainland.
That thinking changed abruptly however, when a Japanese sub attacked the Ellwood oil field in Santa Barbara in late February. This attack, actually on the mainland, spurred the US government into prolonged commitment to protect the California Coast. By Easter, two hundred soldiers from the 54th Artillery Regiment, an all-black unit, were stationed in Santa Cruz and housed on the Lighthouse property and adjacent Lighthouse Field (then known as the old Phelan estate).
A Cultural Opportunity
The coming of 200 black soldiers to Santa Cruz was quite a change to a town whose previous black population had been 18. Apparently, “the town did not know what to do.” The reactions ranged from welcoming to blatantly prejudiced. On the welcoming side, the City offered USO shows, and the soldiers played baseball against the local high school. On the not-so welcoming side, the City fathers tried to make parts of the town off limits to soldiers of the 54th. The local military chaplain, incensed, threatened to boycott “the whole damn town” and local businesses ultimately squelched their inner racism. After the war, several men from the 54th settled in Santa Cruz, many here on the Westside in the “The Circles” neighborhood off of Woodrow Avenue.
19 Years: No Lighthouse
Post-WWII the lighthouse was not serving a particular purpose for the Coast Guard, and they had it demolished in 1948. From this time until 1967 Santa Cruz had no lighthouse, just a beacon with a light so weak local fisherman complained it could not be distinguished from the car headlights on West Cliff Drive. In fact, a petition drive to the Coast Guard in 1959 did result in a 1962 upgrade to a 300 millimeter lens with 80,000 candle power units— a huge improvement.
Out of Sadness: A 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. He went body surfing and never returned. His body was found floating motionless in the water. Mark’s parents, Chuck and Esther Abbott, amazingly, were able to turn their grief at losing a child into something positive for the community.
With the support of the City Council, the community and a $20,000 life insurance payout, they built the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The new Lighthouse, complete with a rotating light, was opened and dedicated in November, 1967. The new lighthouse honored Mark, but the Abbotts made sure it 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.”
Surfing Takes Its Place
The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, and indeed the whole Lighthouse Point area, has grown to be a very special nexus of expression for the Santa Cruz Surfing Community. In 1986, due to the efforts of local surfers, members of the Surfrider Foundation, and the Santa Cruz Longboard Union, the world’s first museum dedicated solely to surfing was created and housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. It was originally a satellite of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. It contains a collection of photos, surf boards and memorabilia that come largely from the local community. Local volunteers also did the historical research for the exhibits.
The spirit of honoring the past, both surfing and otherwise, can also be seen here in several plaques and monuments. A large brick monument in front of the Lighthouse tells the story of the three Hawaiian Princes who were likely the first to surf in Santa Cruz, back in 1885. They were on holiday from their training at Matthews Hall Military Academy in San Mateo.
Another plaque at the base of the flag pole further dedicates the Lighthouse to all young souls who have perished before their time. Yet another plaque, located on the west side of the Lighthouse by the benches near the sidewalk, commemorates the work and dedication of the soldiers of the 54th Coast Artillery Regiment stationed here during World War II. This plaque was unveiled and dedicated in 2009.
Erosion: Always in Play
If you walk out in front of the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, just beyond the rails in front of the danger sign, you will see the brick remains of the original lighthouse built in 1869. In 1980 the last remaining vestige of one of the caves that undermined the original lighthouse was plugged with concrete, as it threatened to undermine the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The plug, unfortunately, 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. 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. It is quite deep and extends almost to the lighthouse.
- Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz. Frank Perry. 2002 OtterB Books. Available at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and Natural Bridges State Beach Visitor Center.
- Local Historian Frank Perry’s Website
- Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Located at Lighthouse Point, it is open Wednesday-Monday 10 am to 5 pm (July 4-Labor Day) and Thursday-Monday 12-4 pm the rest of the year.
- Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Located at 1305 East Cliff Drive, it is open Wednesday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm during summer (Memorial Day-Labor Day), and Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm the rest of the year. Call (831) 420-6115 for more information.
- Lighthouse Friends.
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. Frank A. Perry. Santa Cruz, California: Otter B Books; 2002.
- Living With the Changing California Coast. Gary B. Griggs, Kiki Patsch, 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.