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Mile Rocks, A Historical Perspective

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  • Mile Rocks, A Historical Perspective

    Anyone who has strolled out to Lands End on the western edge of San Francisco or sailed out the gate either cruising or racing is familiar with the large white cylinder
    1 mile west of the Golden Gate. But it's history is rich, and the tales of its past and the
    notorious waters it occupies run deep. Gary Kamiya produced a nice piece on just that for the Sf Chronicle a couple weeks ago, if you missed it
    , It Lives HERE

    Point Lobos, facing the Golden Gate at the extreme northwestern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, is the most spectacular site in the city. It is also the deadliest. At the bottom of the imposing cliffs that mark the entrance to the bay, a shelf of submerged or barely visible black rocks extends half a mile out into the channel. The two rocks farthest offshore, the larger of them only 40 feet long and 30 feet wide, are called Mile Rocks.

    Mile Rocks today are marked by a squat, utilitarian tower that houses an automated light and serves as an emergency helicopter pad. But for 60 years, those rocks were graced by one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world - a structure as dramatic as the great strait it faced.

    The rocks off Point Lobos, and the submerged shelf a mile to the east off Fort Point, have been responsible for the loss of many of the more than 360 ships lost in or just outside San Francisco Bay.

    Some of the wrecks are still visible at low tide from the Lands End trail and its lookout promenade. The engine of the oil tanker Lyman Stewart, which went down in 1922, can be seen from the trail, as can the sternpost of the Ohioan, which sank in 1936 after running aground near Seal Rock.

    Seeking safeguards

    Since the Gold Rush days, the rocks at the southern entrance of the Golden Gate were recognized as being extremely dangerous. There was a fog bell at the old Fort Point lighthouse, but the configuration of the shoreline meant that it often could not be heard at Mile Rocks.

    In 1889, the officials who headed the civilian organization that became known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which operated almost all American lighthouses until it merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, moored a large buoy near Mile Rocks.

    The buoy worked for a short time, but when winter came, the powerful ebb tides that flow out the Golden Gate dragged it underwater. Engineers tried everything they knew to keep it afloat, but failed. In 1890, they reported that Mile Rocks "must always be a menace to navigation as long as they exist."

    So matters stood until February 1901, when the passenger steamer City of Rio de Janeiro tried to enter the Golden Gate in heavy fog. The 370-foot liner, built in 1878 before watertight bulkheads were introduced, struck the Fort Point Ledge and sank in just eight minutes, coming to rest at the bottom of the bay, 320 feet down.

    Of the 210 passengers, only 82 were saved, many by Italian American fishermen working in the area. Bodies washed up near Fort Point for several years. It was the worst shipwreck in the city's history.

    The disaster spurred the Lighthouse Board to take action. It recommended that a light and fog signal be placed well seaward of Fort Point, on Mile Rocks. Congress appropriated funds, and a contractor named James McMahon sailed out to the rocks on a schooner with a crew of skilled workers.

    But when the workers saw their job site - a jagged black rock, barely above sea level, with waves crashing over it - they refused to leave the ship. Undaunted, McMahon went down to the Embarcadero, known as the City Front, and recruited a bunch of experienced sailors.

    To get onto the rock, the old salts had to leap from a small boat at the top of a swell onto the slippery, barnacle-encrusted rock and then avoid being swept off. The sure-footed sailors were used to going aloft in storms, but they frequently found themselves in the water.

    Completing lighthouse

    They persevered. Over the next year, often in conditions so rough that they could work a only few hours a day, they blasted and leveled the rock and installed huge steel plates to hold a concrete base for the lighthouse tower.

    As the cylinder rose, they rigged up two booms equipped with Jacob's ladders, which they climbed up to work on the tower. By 1906, they had completed an 85-foot lighthouse shaped like a wedding cake, equipped with a powerful Fresnel lens made up of hundreds of hand-ground glass prisms and a compressed-air fog whistle. It was one of the great feats of engineering in U.S. history.

    The Mile Rocks Lighthouse was a "sea-swept lighthouse," the most dramatic of all lighthouse types. In his book "Guardians of the Golden Gate: Lighthouses and Lifeboat Stations of San Francisco Bay," Ralph Shanks called the Mile Rocks Lighthouse "one of the greatest sea-swept rock lighthouses in the nation," rivaled only by the St. George Reef lighthouse in Crescent City (Del Norte County), Minot's Ledge lighthouse in Massachusetts and Tillamook Rock lighthouse in Oregon.

    Automated station

    The Mile Rocks lighthouse was only half a mile from shore, but it was so difficult to access that it felt incredibly remote. It was a "stag" station, too small to allow families, which meant that the keepers, mostly married men, had to come up with creative ways to stay in touch with their families. One keeper's wife would walk the dog at Lands End every evening with a flashlight, which she used to signal her husband that she was thinking of him.

    The extraordinary lighthouse, which is immortalized in one of Lucien Labaudt's superb 1936-1937 murals at the Beach Chalet, guarded the Golden Gate until 1965, when the Coast Guard decided to replace with a cheaper automated light station.

    A San Francisco supervisor and a historical preservation group tried to save it, but their efforts failed and the elegant, tapering structure was dismantled. All that remains is the muscular base of the tower, still implacably anchored to Mile Rock and pounded by ceaseless waves - a haunting evocation of one of the city's most unforgettable buildings.

    Editor's note

    Every corner in San Francisco has a story to tell. Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya's Portals of the Past tells one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco's extraordinary history - from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond.

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  • #2
    Great info!


    • #3
      Nice!! Now why is it a heliport?


      • #4
        Maybe a transfer station?


        • #5
          Iye startedd sainge oute their notte lone after theye remodeledd it. Ite alwayse isse a welcome site onne the waye nine.