A D.C. socialite, the Gold Rush, shipping lines, San Francisco, Crescent City and Battery Point Lighthouse intertwine in history to reveal something about our NorCal origins.
With gold on his mind, D.C. socialite Theophilus Magruder completed the treacherous journey to Oregon in 1845. Confident he could emulate his parent’s wealth and status (they had been friends with President James Madison) on the opposite coast, Magruder and his companion James Marshall spent months searching for gold to no avail. The pair soon went their separate ways.
The split proved more lucrative for Marshall. While building a sawmill at Sutter’s Fort in 1848, he discovered gold flakes on the American River. Marshall’s finding prompted the famous California Gold Rush of 1849. A monument at the spot of Marshall’s discovery can still be seen today. Magruder did not find any gold like his friend, but Marshall’s breakthrough would impact his life too.
Gold Rush Harbors
In the wake of the Gold Rush, people from far and wide flocked to burgeoning California cities hoping to strike it rich. Booming San Francisco required continual replenishment of building materials to support its rapid expansion. Ships carrying lumber harvested from redwoods along the Northern California and Oregon coasts provided a steady source. The only problem – getting ships safely in and out of coastal harbors.
In 1852, Congress, committed to economic expansion in the west, signed a contract to construct eight lighthouses along the coast. Now defunct Alcatraz Island lighthouse located at the site of the famous prison counted among them. It was another year before Crescent City, California was laid out in small, coastal Del Norte County.
Crescent City’s Expansion
Beginning in 1853, Crescent City harbor served as an important economic hub. Laborers on its docks worked tirelessly to load ancient redwood lumber on ships headed to San Francisco. Crescent City also served as the port of entry for Oregon’s flourishing gold mines.
Within a year of the city’s establishment, over 300 houses and hotels had been erected. The growing value of the port and its increasing traffic necessitated a lighthouse to safely guide ships in and out. So in 1855, Congress appropriated $15,000 for the construction of lighthouse on a tiny islet connected to Battery Point – an outlet named after the three salvaged cannons adorning it.
A light magnified by Battery Point Lighthouse’s fourth-order Fresnel lens shone for the first time on December 10th, 1856. On Christmas day the same year, none other than Theophilus Magruder arrived in Crescent City to become the first official keeper of Battery Point Light. His starting salary for the gig was $1,000 per year. Following a pay cut in 1859, Magruder resigned from his post, but continued to live and work in Crescent City until his death on New Years Eve 1886.
Although Magruder did not unearth the gold that triggered California’s Gold Rush, he ended up as an important kink in the chain. In his role as lighthouse keeper, he enabled numerous vessels to safely transport goods essential to California’s urban growth. Magruder’s connections intertwine to give us a glimpse into local, state and national history. Like so many other pioneers, his daring journey west helped solidify a legacy that pervades the California consciousness today.
Battery Point Lighthouse
Completed in 1856, Battery Point Lighthouse was actually finished ten days before Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse, which counted among the first eight lighthouses on the West coast contracted by Congress in 1852. Battery Point’s original fourth-order Fresnel lens produced light (from oil lamps), which could be spotted up to 14 miles away. The structure possesses features consistent with Cape Cod style including a pitched roof with end gables, one-and-a-half stories and little ornamentation. Although the lighthouse appears to sit on an island during high tide, it can actually be accessed by land during low tide via a narrow isthmus.
Through the years, the structure has faced potential abandonment and destruction as well as tsunami waves following a powerful Alaskan earthquake in 1964. Through it all, Battery Point Lighthouse continued to operate until 1965 when the Coast Guard decommissioned it. Years later in 1982, the light was reactivated to serve as a private aid to navigation. It remains in use today.
The lighthouse and its museum are open to the public for tours, which include a climb to the top of the tower.
To plan your visit, go to: http://www.delnortehistory.org/lighthouse/