Why I Love Ventura #6: The Anacapa Lighthouse & Arch Rock

Anacapa Island, 12 miles off the coast and visible from Ventura, is a chain of three small islands connected by reefs that are visible at low tide. Together, they are 4 1/2 miles long and a little over half a mile at the widest point...

The eight Chananel Islands were discovered by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, and in 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar De Portola named Anacapa "Las Mesitas" (Little Tables). Later, Capt. George Vancouver renamed them "Anacapa" from the Chumash word, "Eneeapha", which means "island of deception", or "mirage".

On December 2, 1853, a foggy night, the side-wheel steamer Winfield Scott ran aground on Anacapa, jolting its passengers awake. En route to Panama from San Francisco, the ship's passengers included individuals who had struck it rich during the gold rush. Although everyone made it safely to shore in the ship’s lifeboats, the atmosphere immediately following the wreck was frenzied as, “every one was for himself, with no thought of anything but saving his life and his (gold) dust.” The Winfield Scott was a total loss and its remains still lie submerged just north of the island.

The notoriety of the grounding prompted President Franklin Pierce to issue an executive order reserving Anacapa for lighthouse purposes. The U.S. Coast Survey visited the island in 1854 and concluded that although the island’s position at the eastern entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel was a natural choice for a lighthouse, “it is inconceivable for a lighthouse to be constructed on this mass of volcanic rock - perpendicular on every face, with an ascent inaccessible by any natural means." The painter James Whistler was part of the survey team and produced an etching showing the profile of the eastern end of the island.

In 1874, a lighthouse was established at Point Hueneme (prounounced why-NEE-mee), the nearest point on the mainland. As shipping in the Santa Barbara Channel increased, the Lighthouse Board eventually decided to place a light on Anacapa, but limited the expense of building a station on the inaccessible island, building an unmanned acetylene lens lantern on a 50-foot skeletal tower. In addition to the low-maintenance light, which required servicing just twice a year, a whistling buoy was anchored 5/8ths of a mile off the east end of the island.

On February 28, 1921, the steamer Liebre grounded on the east end of Anacapa, directly under the light. As approximately 9/10ths of all ships trading up and down the Pacific Coast passed inside the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel, the American Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots petitioned for a proper signal on Anacapa. Funds for what would be the last major light station to be built on the west coast were finally allocated in the late 1920s.

The construction of the station was carried out in two phases, beginning in the spring of 1930. A landing dock, a hoisting crane, and roads were added first, then work began on the various station buildings. A 39-foot, cylindrical tower and fog signal were built near the highest point on the eastern end of the island. Four Spanish style, white stucco houses with red tile roofs were provided for the keepers and their families.

In March of 1956, the Coast Guard personnel on the island consisted of three couples (each had one of the residences) and five bachelors (who occupied the fourth dwelling). Lois Boylan, wife of Officer-in-Charge Larry Boylan, claimed that life on the island wasn't as lonely as one might think. The three Coast Guard wives "would gab over the phone just like the girls on the mainland" even though they lived close enough to lean out their windows and talk. Living in isolation also seemed to have a health benefit, as neither of the two Boylan children had been sick one day since moving to the island.

In 1938, under the direction of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands had been designated the "Channel Islands National Monument". In 1980, Congress designated five of the eight Channel Islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands as Channel Islands National Park. Visitors to Anacapa Island can see the lighthouse, fog signal building, one of the original keeper's dwellings, the water storage building, the powerhouse, and the third-order Fresnel lens, which was removed from the tower in 1989 and placed on display in the Anacapa Island Visitor Center, formerly the station's service building.

James W. Baker served on Anacapa Island for almost a year and a half starting in February of 1956. After an absence of more than 40 years, he returned to the island with his wife in 2001 to view the old station. Baker's admiration and affection for the Fresnel lens are evidenced in the following lines he composed after his visit: "The multifaceted crystal lenses, bound in polished brass, are still among man’s most beautiful creations. A static display of a lighthouse lens in a museum, however, is similar to viewing an animal in a zoo. Once removed from its natural habitat it’s never quite the same. I get chills remembering foggy nights when the sweep of the powerful light flashed through the mist, illuminating a small part of the sky."

The island welcomes backpackers and overnight hike-in campers, as long as they are registered with the Park Service and transported by an authorized boating company. Besides hiking, the island offers diving, snorkeling, and kayaking.

At the easternmost point of Anacapa Island is Arch Rock. A natural arch rising 40 feet above the surface of the ocean, it has been carved by the wind and waves. Eventually, it will disappear as it succumbs to the further effects of these forces. On clear days, it can be seen from the mainland. In 1999, some friends of mine took me out on their boat around Anacapa. The top of the arch looks like it has been painted white, but it's actually seagull poop. That afternoon, we saw seals, dolphins, and Humpback whales. I was surprised at how blue the ocean was on the far side of the island. In our part of the California coast, the water is usually dark green, but the other side of the island looked like the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. We anchored at Frenchy's cove for some onboard lunch and then headed back to the mainland.

When I was a child, there was a story that a couple and their daughter lived on the island. The tale went on to say that the wife died, leaving the man and his daughter alone to tend the lighthouse. I thought it was terribly romantic, and even as an adult, as I gazed out my living room window at night to see the flashes of light from the lighthouse in the distance, I always imagined them still living there. I had to admit that when I learned the truth I was disappointed. Actually, there are three people currently living on the island, all park rangers.