Breaking down lighthouse history

Long assumed to have been built on Yerba Buena Island in the 1920s, lighthouse historians say they now have pictures that prove the aging cast-iron tower dates back at least until 1881, when it was originally perched on a scenic slice of Cape Cod coastline.

The discovery solves an 80-year-long mystery into the disappearance of the 30-foot-tall tower, which was decommissioned in 1922 and thought to have been dismantled and destroyed, said Bob Trapani, executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation.

“There’s absolutely no documentation of how it ended up out West,” Trapani said.

Jim Walker, chairman of the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, speculates that because it is metal, itcould have been disassembled bolt by bolt, with the pieces then transported by rail.

The finding was uncovered last year and reported in this month’s edition of Lighthouse Digest. Local coastline experts said they didn’t hear the news until a few days ago and are now considering updates to all historical literature on the Point Montara tower.

“It’s amazing news. As far as we knew, we had pictures of the lighthouse being built [at Yerba Buena],” said Chris Bauman, general manager of the Point Montara Lighthouse, which also serves as a 50-bed hostel.

Bauman said the new findings helped answer questions he’s had all along about the tower. Years ago, he’d seen a picture of a nearly identical lighthouse on a Vermont island on Lake Champlain. That lighthouse, which is two feet shorter than the Point Montara tower, was erected in 1881, the magazine said. Bauman suspects the Vermont lighthouse and the one that traveled from Cape Cod to Montara were manufactured at the same foundry north of Boston.

“It was extremely odd. They were like twins,” Bauman said.

A pair of Floridian researchers made the discovery. Bob and Sandra Shanklin, who have photographed every lighthouse in the U.S. during the last 17 years, did not notice the striking similarities until they began digitally archiving lighthouse photos last year.

“After reading the notation on the photo, front and back, I said ‘Oh my gosh! This is something no one knows about,’” Sandra Shanklin said.

The Shanklins said their daughter, Colleen MacNeney, linked the two towers after pulling information from the offices of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Archives in Washington, D.C. MacNeney says she discovered correspondence that proved the lighthouse had been moved by the Coast Guard from Massachusetts to Yerba Buena, and eventually to Point Montara.

“We still would like to know how it was transported,” Shanklin said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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