A tour of the Piedras Blancas Light Station
An expert and his carefully instructed volunteers will be cleaning elements of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens in early December (weather permitting).
It’s the first of several steps toward improved maintenance and protection for the historic First Order Fresnel lens that used to sit atop the lighthouse tower.
Jim Woodward of The Lighthouse Consultant LLC from Green Valley, Arizona, is an experienced lampist, lens mechanic and consultant. He’s been working with Piedras volunteers and several nonprofits to make sure the job is done correctly.
Earlier this year, Woodward prepared for the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association a detailed 10-page report on the condition of the lens and the building that houses it, detailing what should be done. He also gave a presentation about the lens at a community meeting in April.
For job one, the lens-cleaning effort, Woodward is to provide “detailed instructions, supervision and the benefit of years of experience,” according Zale Schuster, a member of the association’s Lens Working Group and the association. He has been the project’s manager.
It’s a painstakingly tricky job.
The plan is to use a “man lift” to “reach the exterior surfaces of the 20-foot lens,” Schuster said in an email interview.
A 6-foot ladder will provide access to the interior of the lens. Woodward will clean the upper catadioptric prisms, the sections that tilt inward and are the most challenging to clean. Volunteers, under Jim’s supervision, will assist with the more easily accessed lenses and prisms.
Catadioptric describes an optical system that involves both reflecting and refracting light.
In the project, safety of the lens and the workers is a primary concern, Schuster said. “To avoid damage to the lens, no jewelry or belt buckles will be worn. Hard hats and nitrile gloves will be worn by those inside the enclosure.”
He explained that, other than having hired Woodward, “this is purely a volunteer effort funded by the light station association,” which formed the Lens Working Group to help maintain the 145-year-old historical artifact and improve the viewing experience for the public.
The goal, he said, is to protect the lens and maintain it as closely as possible to its original condition.
Schuster added that all projects considered by the working group “will be coordinated and overseen by the Cambria Lions Club.”
Next on the working group’s to-do list could be repairs to the unique glass enclosure that displays the lens adjacent to the Veterans Memorial Building and Pinedorado Grounds on Main Street.
So how did a lighthouse lens wind up about 13 miles south of the tower on which it originally sat?
First, a little history of the lens itself is in order.
According to various sources, including www.cambriahistory.org, the first order Fresnel lens for the Piedras Blancas Light Station was manufactured by Henri-Lapaute of Paris, France, and was first shown on Feb. 15, 1875.
The website states that the lens “consisted of 16 sides with eight flash (bull’s eye) panels occupying every other side. Each flash panel included a plano-convex lens in the center with dioptric and catadioptric prisms above and below it.”
How did it work? The website described the process: “Each flash panel concentrated the light falling on it from the inside into a circular beam so that eight beams of light emanated from the lens like spokes of a wheel.
“As the lens revolved, the beams went around and when one of the beams struck a ship at sea, an observer on that ship would see a brief but bright flash of light. The panels in between the flash panels contained horizontal prisms which focused the light into a very broad but less intense beam. Since the lens made one revolution every two minutes, the observer on a ship would see a bright flash every fifteen seconds and, in between the flashes, a fixed white light of lesser intensity. This characteristic is referred to as ‘fixed and flashing’ or ‘fixed varied by flash.’”
Although reports, stories and legends vary, there apparently was an earthquake on Dec. 31, 1948. The next year, the Coast Guard determined that the tower could no longer safely support the lantern room, and so removed it, the lens, the ornate railing and upper portion of the tower.
The website continued, “Before the Coast Guard was able to make a decision about what to do with the components from the site, four members of the Cambria Lions Club — Byron (Bing) Boisen, Eddie Shaug, Guy Bond and Roland Houtz — obtained permission to remove the lens and clockwork mechanism.
“Since the Coast Guard was unable to give or sell the lens to the Lions, they arranged to loan it to them and the lens was reassembled on a concrete pad at the Pinedorado Grounds on Main Street in Cambria’s west village.”
That’s where it stayed for decades.
Then in 1990, Norman Francis, Jr., son of the last Lighthouse Service head keeper at Piedras Blancas, launched an effort to restore and better protect the lens.
The Coast Guard cleaned and restored the lens at the Monterey station. Retired machinist Alex Lazrevich refurbished the clockwork drive and other pieces in his garage. Friends of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Lens, led by Bob Lane, built the new lantern room which has housed the lens and clockwork since 1996.
Now the lens and its modern lantern room need attention, according to Woodward, and he, the Lions Club, Piedras Blancas Light Station Association and its Lens Working Group and other volunteers are determined to make that happen.