Shining the light at Trinidad

In 1949, the Trinidad Civic Club built a replica lighthouse near the original as a memorial to those lost at sea.

From their village on the bluffs above the Pacific, Yurok Indians likely watched Portuguese explorer Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño's galleon as it sailed south along the Northern California coast in early November 1595.

On a mission to explore the coastline from Washington to California, Cermeño noted a small and barely visible rock-filled bay in his log, but did not drop anchor or go ashore. He is believed to be the first European to see Trinidad Bay.

If you go

With its easy access and beautiful location, many visitors believe the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse is the original, and certainly if you seek an up-close look without much effort, it's the lighthouse for you. But if you don't mind an uphill walk, you can get a distant look at the original on a trail nearby.

From Highway 101 in California, take the exit for Main Street/Westhaven Drive near Trinidad and go west on Main Street until it ends. Turn left onto Trinity Street and proceed until it ends at Edwards Street, where you will find the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse.

The original lighthouse is on the headland. Continue a short distance west on Edwards Street to a parking area near a road where you can hike up to the Coast Guard station and a lighthouse viewing platform.

Ships occasionally continued to bypass this intimidating harbor for nearly 180 years, until 1775, when Spanish captains Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra anchored their two ships and went ashore. For a couple of days there was peaceful trading with the Yuroks, and on June 11, "Trinity Sunday" in the Roman Catholic faith, Heceta's men and two Franciscan fathers claimed the area for Spain by placing a cross on the high point of the headlands, and naming the region "la Santisima Trinidad."

The Spanish government planned a settlement there but never got around to it. The bay became little more than a place to shelter British, Russian and Spanish ships when heavy winds would blow in summer. In winter, the winds were even stronger and much too treacherous to risk anchorage in the shallow bay.

By 1850, gold prospectors were moving north toward Oregon up the Northern California coast. Gold was found inland, and San Francisco's Weekly News declared Trinidad Bay as the "new El Dorado."

"In another year," it said, "a new city will have arisen, where the unbroken solitude of ages has been scarcely disturbed."

Although there were some conflicts and a few killings on both sides, the Yuroks were overwhelmed, and rather than fight, many became poorly paid laborers.

The city arose, but the gold faded away. Within a few years, Trinidad's new fortune came from timber and fishing.

By 1871, the U.S. government had finally constructed a lighthouse on Trinidad Head to mark the harbor entrance. On Dec. 1, the flame inside the Fresnel lens was lit for the first time.

In 1898, a fog-warning bell was installed about 50 feet below the lighthouse on some large rocks. The 4,000-pound bell was periodically struck by a massive hammer powered by a clocklike mechanism attached to weights that dropped down over a cliff. The light keeper had to rewind the machinery every two hours.

In 1947, modern lighting replaced the Fresnel lens in the lighthouse and air horns replaced the bell. The Coast Guard donated both to the Trinidad Civic Club.

In June 1949, on donated land, the club dedicated a replica concrete lighthouse, installed the Fresnel lens and hung the fog bell nearby. Beginning in the 1970s, they installed the first marble plaque and began etching names in memory of those "Lost at Sea."

The original lighthouse was fully automated in 1974 and still is active. Coast Guard personnel remained on the site until just a few years ago.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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