Why Isn't the Lighthouse Closer to the Shore?
Point Pinos Lighthouse is situated almost a quarter-mile inland instead of directly on the beach. The added elevation of the inland slope makes the light visible farther out to sea than it would have been at a lower elevation. One disadvantage of this location was that many pine trees had to be removed from the point for the light to be seen to the north and northeast. (View from the lantern room in image to the right.)
How do you say the name of the lighthouse?
It's pronounced "PEE-nos" and spelled PINOS (without a tilde over the letter N). Sometimes you'll see it spelled incorrectly as piños (with a tilde) or hear people pronounce in peen-YOS. Both are incorrect. Pinos is the Spanish word for "pine tree," but there is no such word as piños.
What's with the "continuously operating" part?
Point Pinos is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the West Coast of the United States. It has rarely been turned off since it was first lit in 1855 — a span of over 160 years!
For the record, the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was built just 8 months before Point Pinos. The Alcatraz lighthouse was taken down in 1908 to make way for a taller tower built in 1909 that would be seen above the new prison being built. In contrast, Point Pinos is still in its original building and active to this day using its original Fresnel lens. That makes it the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
Does the lighthouse still work today?
Yes. Unlike many old lighthouses, Point Pinos is still an active "aid to navigation," meaning it is a real, working lighthouse that mariners and ship captains still use. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is maintained by the US Coast Guard, just like all active lighthouses and navigational aids.
With GPS available, do we still need lighthouses?
Not all ships and boats have GPS (satellite positioning) receivers, and even the ones that do need a backup in case it fails. Many boats rely on the lighthouse for navigation.
Does anyone still live here?
Not anymore. The lighthouse was continuously occupied from 1855 until the last keeper left in 1960. Coast Guard Station Monterey sent men for duty to turn on the light and care for the fog signal and grounds until 1975 when the lighthouse was fully automated.
What Is a Fresnel lens, anyway?
A Fresnel lens is what makes a lighthouse work. Without it, a lighthouse — any lighthouse — is just a small light shining in the darkness. To make the light visible from 10–20 miles out to sea, it must be focused into a narrow beam, somewhat like a laser. The lens was invented by French physicist and mathematician Augustin Jean Fresnel (say "fruh-NELL"), and it uses several curved glass lenses that focus the light from an open flame (and later, light bulbs) into a strong beam that cuts through thick fog. The first Fresnel lens was used in 1823 in the Codouan Lighthouse in France. Before long, nearly all lighthouses around the world used Fresnel lenses.