The Cambrian

Cambria volunteers restore 147-year-old lighthouse lens to its sparkling former glory

Phil Adams, left, and Jim Woodward polish a prism inside the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens.
Phil Adams, left, and Jim Woodward polish a prism inside the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens.

When you clean a 147-year-old First Order Fresnel lighthouse lens, you don’t just grab the Windex and a rag and start to scrub.

As seven volunteers learned in Cambria last month from expert lampist Jim Woodward of Arizona, the cleaning procedure for such a historic, fragile and complicated artifact is precise and painstaking.

That’s especially true for the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens, which isn’t in the tower any more. It’s been housed for decades in a custom-built glass structure next to the Veterans Memorial Building on Main Street.

Cambria Lions Club and Friends of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Lens built that structure in 1996, with the instigation and dogged determination of member Bob Lane and Norman Frances Jr. (son of the last Lighthouse Service head keeper at Piedras).

The Lions have lovingly tended the lens and building ever since. But time and weather — especially dust, rust and by-the-sea humidity — take a toll, and it definitely was time to take other action to protect the lens.

Woodward is a lens mechanic and consultant, one of the only Coast-Guard approved lampists in the country.

Zale Schuster and other members of the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association commissioned Woodward’s detailed, 10-page report outlining what should be done to the lens and the building that protects it. He presented the report at a community meeting in April.

The project

The team spent approximately 220 hours on the project, with more than half spent actually cleaning the 20-foot-tall lens and its complex prisms, and the rest in planning and setup. Woodward spent an additional 16 hours or so, not counting his travel and overnight time.

The Piedras Blancas Light Station Association allocated $4,000 for the project, according to chairman David Cooper.

Volunteers Abel Martinez and Holly Gant clean the exterior cabinet of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse’s 147-year-old Fresnel lens, which has been on display in downtown Cambria since 1996. Carole Adams

Adams and husband Phil Adams were part of the lens-cleaning team that also included Tom Kennedy, Kennedy’s visitor “Siggy” from Switzerland, Holly Gant, Abel Martinez and Bob Dees, plus Woodward and project coordinator Zale Schuster.

Schuster “did an incredible job of planning and executing this badly needed cleaning of the lens,” Carole Adams said of the procedure that began in earnest on Dec. 6:

First, the team removed dust and chunks of debris that had settled on the prisms over the years, Adams said. Volunteers couldn’t wear anything like jewelry or belt buckles, which could scratch the glass, and they “wore masks to avoid breathing in loosened debris that fell like dirty snow.”

Working as teams, volunteers cleaned the prisms with blue shop towels dipped in a solution of distilled water and isopropyl alcohol, Adams said.

The prisms of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens sparkle after the first day of cleaning. Carole Adams

“The results were amazing,” Adams said. “The alcohol made the solution dry quickly, and the prisms sparkled like diamonds.”

Volunteers stood on scaffolding to get to the upper outside of the lens using a 6-foot ladder to access the inside, and stood on the floor to clean middle and lower sections of the lens.

Adams said team members took precautions to “avoid being burned by sunlight that came in through the lens … the same principle that focuses light into a beam at night works in the opposite direction during the daytime.

Some smoldering happened while they were cleaning, so they taped “sheets of paper to the exterior glass enclosure to try to avoid this problem.”

Those occurrences, she said, reminded them that when the lens was in place at the lighthouse, “the first thing the keepers did in the morning, after extinguishing the light, was to close the shades of the lantern.”

The cleaning process took two days, including wiping down the green painted surface of the cabinet and dusting the brass panels.

She said, “Working together as a team is always rewarding. As usual, teamwork and positive energy got the job done.”

However, they couldn’t “polish the brass because doing so would wear down the surface,” Adams said. “Even though keepers in the past spent a lot of time cleaning brass, today it is against Coast Guard procedures.”

Expert lampist Jim Woodward determines where a broken prism fits during cleaning of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens in Cambria. Carole Adams

The Coast Guard retains ownership of the lens and has been lending it to the Cambria Lions Club for decades. That loan was formalized in a 1996 contract that runs through 2021. The contract estimated the lens value then at $300,000, but that figure surely has increased since then.

From there to here

How did the lens get from the light station to its new home?

There apparently was an earthquake on Dec. 31, 1948, and the Coast Guard determined the lighthouse tower could no longer safely support the lantern room, which was removed.

Four Lions Club members got Coast Guard permission to move the lens and clockwork mechanism, and the guard loaned it to them. It was to be reassembled on a concrete pad at the Pinedorado Grounds next to the vets hall.

About 40 years later, Frances and Lane got involved, vowing to do more to protect the historic artifact.

What’s next?

Now that the lens is sparkling clean, the team has vowed to make sure it’s safe. The glass and metal structure that surrounds the lens likely needs considerable repairs and restoration.

More research, work, funding and community commitment are needed to determine how that can and should be done, with plenty of elbow grease to follow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned a fundraising drive for the cleaning project. No fundraising drive was held by the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association, which allocated $4,000 for the cleaning. Also, the spelling Norman Frances Jr.’s name has been corrected.

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