Restoring a beacon of the past: Point San Luis Lighthouse

Volunteers with the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers are closing in on an important goal: They want visitors to the historic site to be transported 120 years back in time to when the light station was first commissioned.

“Everything beyond the picket fence will be as authentic as we can make it with modern safety standards,” said Andrew Merriam, one of the volunteers in charge of the renovation.

The work is being financed by nearly $1.2 million in state grants. But the real energy behind the restoration comes from the dozens of volunteers who have thus far put in 61,000 hours of donated time sanding, chipping paint and meticulously restoring the lighthouse to the way it looked in 1890.

Construction of the light station began in 1888. It was equipped with a rotating light and foghorn to aid navigation along the coast.

Until now, most of the effort has concentrated on the head light keeper’s residence, which also housed the light tower itself. That restoration is more than three-quarters complete.

Now, the effort is shifting to re-creating outbuildings and other ancillary features of the site, such as a barn, a privy and even chicken coops and vegetable gardens.

“They had to be very self-sufficient back then,” Merriam said. “This was considered a hardship posting.”

The lighthouse is a national landmark and all restoration work must meet exacting historical standards based on period photographs and documents.

Considerable progress has also been made in increasing public access to the site. The narrow and winding road to the lighthouse has been paved and equipped with turnouts.

Docent-led hikes regularly visit the light station, and the Lighthouse Keepers group has also purchased three vans that are used to shuttle visitors between Avila Beach and the lighthouse. The volunteer group hopes that eventually 20,000 to 30,000 people per year will visit.

Gone are the days when the lighthouse was a neglected, out-of-the-way historical relic, said Stew Jenkins, president of the Lighthouse Keepers association.

“These are exciting times for the lighthouse,” he said. “It’s the last of its kind.”

Several other lighthouses were built on the West Coast using the same model. But the Point San Luis station is the only one remaining, Jenkins said.

The lighthouse is one of the county’s least visible historic resources. Tucked behind its namesake Point San Luis and surrounded by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. land, the light station is only readily visible to passing boats.

The Port San Luis Harbor District took possession of the 27-acre site in 1992. The Lighthouse Keepers group is in charge of the restoration, said Steve McGrath, harbor manager.

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