Legacy of Light: Oldest west coast light marks ‘The Rock’

Petty Officer 1st Class John Sherwood, Petty Officer 2nd Class Geoffrey Cote, and Fireman Harley Satara from Aids to Navigation Team San Francisco stand beside Alcatraz Lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Marcelino Ortiz.

Petty Officer 1st Class John Sherwood, Petty Officer 2nd Class Geoffrey Cote, and Fireman Harley Satara from Aids to Navigation Team San Francisco stand beside Alcatraz Lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Marcelino Ortiz.

Story by Walter Ham

The Alcatraz Lighthouse not only guides mariners through the San Francisco Bay but also welcomes tourists to the island that used to house America’s most notorious inmates.

Lit in 1854, the Alcatraz Light was the first of seven west coast lighthouses built during the California Gold Rush.

The original Alcatraz Light shined over the bay until it was damaged by an earthquake in 1906. It was replaced by the current 84-foot-tall light that shines from 214-feet above sea level, the highest point on the island known as “The Rock.”

Located 1 1/2 miles offshore, Alcatraz Island was first used for a fort and military prison before becoming the most famous and formidable federal penitentiary in the nation. The prison closed in 1963. Today, the National Park Service manages the island as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Alcatraz NPS Ranger John Cantwell said the lighthouse is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the 22-acre island.

“We get many lighthouse aficionados coming out to see the location of the first lighthouse on the west coast,” said Cantwell.

Cantwell said the scenic island has also been featured in 12 movies, among them the 1979 Clint Eastwood film “Escape from Alcatraz” and the 1996 Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage film “The Rock.”

NPS Spokesperson Shalini Gopie said approximately 1,750,000 tourists visit Alcatraz every year. Gopie added that there are many other attractions on the island, including guided tours and bird watching.

Members of Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) San Francisco keep the famous Bay Area light shining.

“Alcatraz Lighthouse is unique because it’s located in the center of San Francisco Bay, only accessible by boat,” said Chief Petty Officer Marcelino Ortiz, the officer-in-charge of the Yerba Buena Island, California-based ANT.

According to Ortiz, the view from the top of the 124-step spiral staircase is worth the hike.

“The lighthouse has a 360-degree view of San Francisco and its neighboring cities, views of Golden Gate Bridge, a famous prison and a great tourist attraction,” said Ortiz, who is from Queens, New York.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains more than 48,000 lighthouses, beacons and buoys that mark more than 25,000 miles of navigable waterways.

This system of coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways, known as the Marine Transportation System, facilitates more than $4.6 trillion in economic activity a year.

The Coast Guard recently released its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook to chart the way ahead for its MTS missions.

From the Point Reyes Light in Marin County to the Point Sur Light to the south in Monterey County, ANT San Francisco covers 569 Aids to Navigation, including 13 lighthouses, 35 buoys and 521 fixed ATON.

Ortiz says maintaining the Alcatraz Light and his team’s other buoys and beacons gives him a sense of satisfaction and pride in knowing that they help to keep mariners safe.

“At the end of the work day, leaving Alcatraz and observing the main light watching properly gives the crew and myself peace of mind,” said Ortiz.


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