Water tower at Piedras Blancas Light Station carries a secret

The 50-foot-tall replica of a historical structure houses communications equipment

ktanner@thetribunenews.comDecember 15, 2013 

A baker's dozen Cuesta College students from Steve Hendricks' environmental biology lab concludes a visit to Piedras Blancas Light Station on Nov. 1 with a tour led by docent Carole Adams and a stop by the newly completed 50-foot-tall replica water tower. Tribune photo by Kathe Tanner

KATHE TANNER Buy Photo

There’s a new “old” tower at the Piedras Blancas Light Station north of Cambria. Like the taller, older lighthouse, the 50-foot-tall replica water tower will continue the lighthouse tradition of providing safety communications, just as the 74-foot lighthouse tower itself has helped guide mariners since 1875.

Completion of the tower is a big step in restoring the light station to its early 20th century appearance.

The new water tower is as utilitarian as the lighthouse tower is stately. The water tower may look historic, but its pair of new plastic water tanks will contain cutting-edge communications equipment sending radio signals that pass through the fiberglass containers.

“What I think is so terrific is that lighthouses were built for safety and communication, and that is what the replica water tower is all about,” said Carole Adams, a lighthouse volunteer coordinator.

The tower will help emergency crews, such as the CHP, Sheriff’s Office, Caltrans, State Parks, Cal Fire, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service, stay in touch.

Funding for the tower came from the state of California, including CHP funds, and the Bureau of Land Management, part of the U.S. Department of Interior. The BLM runs the light station. The CHP contributed to help improve emergency communications along a corridor where cell towers are few and far between.

For decades, some of those services ran through antennas mounted in full view atop the lighthouse tower — electronic sore thumbs sticking into the spectacular ocean views.

In 2003, the BLM moved the antennas off the lighthouse itself, but they still were in view on a functional, if undistinguished, metal radio tower and vault.

“It was always intended to be a temporary installation,” former BLM lightkeeper John Bogacki said. “And I’m so impressed with what (BLM park manager) Jim (Boucher) has done. He took a feature that was originally there, the water tower, and was able to incorporate a historic feature and adapt it to a radio vault. You’d be hard-pressed to tell it from the real thing.”

Once the communications equipment is moved to the replica water tower, the metal tower, which doesn’t fit the historic era being portrayed in the restoration of the light station, will be removed.

Water for the station is now stored in a 10,000-gallon tank that’s hidden in another structure.

The original water tower was completed in 1908 as part of a rain-shed water system that stored rainwater for later use. Rainwater from a concrete pad was collected in a tank and then pumped into the tower. The tanks were elevated to provide pressure for indoor toilets, which were added to the keeper’s dwelling in 1909.

“To think a structure like that was built in 1908 without the benefit of modern equipment is boggling,” Adams said. “All construction supplies were delivered to San Simeon and freighted to the light station, which is even more boggling.”

The tower and rain-shed system served light station residents through 1935, when the station started using water from a surface spring north of the station.

The reconstructed water tower uses 75-year-old redwood that was part of a water tower at Lighthouse Ranch in Arcata, also managed by BLM. The Arcata tower was dismantled in 2012.

Much of the preliminary jigsaw-puzzle-like assembly was done in the Paso Robles construction yard of contractor Dan Murphy, who led the project.

Among other participants in the project were structural engineer Bruce Elster of Shoreline Engineering of Morro Bay, Boucher and Piedras Blancas volunteers, including David Cooper.
Boucher and other BLM staffers spent Sunday dismantling another wooden water tank, this one in Gaviota. That tank will be installed at Piedras Blancas where three other water tanks used to be behind the keeper’s dwelling.

The lighthouse, which once stood 110 feet tall, was topped by watch and lantern rooms.

They were removed in 1949 because of damage from a magnitude-4.8 earthquake at the end of 1948.

BLM and the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association, a nonprofit, hope to reconstruct the lighthouse to its historical appearance as soon as funding from grants and donations becomes available.

For details about the Piedras Blancas Light Station, including tour information, go to piedrasblancas.org or www.piedrasblancas.gov.

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