Pt. Arena is 14 miles north of Gualala along the coast highway. It’s more set back from the coast. You can see the school I’ll be teaching at in the red oval.
The Native Americans who occupied this area were the Bokeya Pomo. Their village, Pda’hau, was near the mouth of the Garcia River which flows into the Pacific Ocean between Point Arena and Manchester State Beach. Like other California Indians, the Bokeya were primarily self-sufficient, drawing from plentiful resources of the ocean, rivers, forests, and coastal shelf.
In 1542, Spaniards named the headland Cabo de Fortunas (Cape of Fortune). It was renamed Punta Delgado (“narrow point”) in 1775. Later the area was called Punta Barra de Arena (“sandbar point”) and finally Point Arena (“sand point”). Point Arena itself is a narrow peninsula jutting around 1/2 mile (800 m) into the Pacific Ocean.
The first wharf was built in 1866 and made Point Arena the “busiest town between San Francisco and Eureka,” and served as the main Mendocino coast shipping port for agricultural products. The mill produced 200,000 board feet of redwood lumber a day. (I wish we had built pueblos instead of cutting all that redwood forest!) As more and more timber was shipped south, the region became known for its dangerous coastline for ships. With increasing shipwrecks, the U.S government issued an order in 1866 for a lighthouse to be constructed. The first lighthouse was built with 600,000 bricks, created locally and brought in from San Francisco; it was 22 feet wide, 100 feet tall, and the base walls were 6 feet thick. The cost was $120,000. The light from the lighthouse could be seen plainly for 19 miles at sea.
Much of Point Arena, including its original lighthouse, was leveled in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After the earthquake, Point Arena – including its lighthouse – was rapidly rebuilt and became home for ranch hands, foresters, and fishermen.
The new lighthouse began operation in 1908, about 18 months after the quake. It stands 115 feet tall, and features Fresnel Lens, over six feet in diameter and weighing more than six tons. The lens is made up of 666 hand-ground glass prisms, all focused toward three sets of double bullseyes which give Point Arena Lighthouse a unique “light signature” of two flashes every six seconds. How about that! The optics, worth $3.5 million, are set in a solid brass framework, and were built in France.
In 1927, fire destroyed most of the town’s structures. At the time, lumber mills and ranches were going out of business as more tourists were arriving. Buildings that served the old economy (hotels for mill workers, blacksmith shops, saloons) were built to serve the new economy (such as gas stations and a movie theater). Most of the buildings in today’s downtown were constructed in 1927 and 1928, giving downtown Point Arena a timeless appearance.
In January 1983, huge storm waves destroyed the pier and fish house and severely damaged a historic boat house and cafe. In 1987, a 322 feet long steel and concrete pier with a boat hoist replaced the original.
Point Arena incorporated on July 3, 1908 in the midst of a controversy over whether Point Arena would sell alcohol or go “dry.” The town had 14 liquor licenses and wanted to protect them in case Mendocino County went dry. By becoming a city, Point Arena could issue its own liquor licenses. Now that’s an impetus for becoming a city that’s new on me! An independent spirit prompted Point Arena to go its own way and twice rebuild itself in less than thirty years remains.
Today, residents of Point Arena continue to value the rural character that comes from being located among the open fields and spectacular vistas along the Pacific Ocean. A history of the city says, “Residents of the City take pride in the fact that the community is self-contained and can meet its own needs without reliance on big outside corporations.” I hope that remains the case!
With its wharf, monumental lighthouse and abundant natural beauty, Point Arena is a place that draws visitors. For its citizens, Point Arena is more than a wide place in the road. It is a unique place with unique flavor inhabited by unique people.