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Point Conception/Western Gate
updated: Jan 13, 2013, 9:15 AM

By William Etling

The Point Conception Coast

The Chumash Indians revere it as the door into eternity, the jumping-off place to the afterlife.

For mariners it is a place of fear, a tempestuous, treacherous, fearsome, white-capped corner. The great white shark haunts these waters, and has killed divers here. The surfers who brave the towering, icy-blue walls of glass, and the windsurfers who revel in the blasts of ripping wind, play in a watery valley of the shadow of death.

This is Point Conception; a mysterious, fog-shrouded, surf-torn promontory jutting into the Pacific, marking the northern entry to the Santa Barbara Channel. Atop the lonely, jagged black rocks that disappear into the wild roiling foam, framed by water and sky, haunted by the eerie cry of seagulls and the moan of the foghorn, shines the Point Conception Light, a bright beacon to mariners since 1856.

Hundreds of creaky, rotting wooden steps lead from the bluff down to the lighthouse. First built on the bluff, it had to be moved to the rocks below to get under the persistent fog. Inside is a cozy paneled living area, abandoned when automation replaced the lighthouse keeper with clockwork. The rich wood hues give way to the stark iron steps of a spiral staircase, leading to the light above.

The original lens, still intact but retired, is a marvel. You can stand upright inside it, surrounded by hundreds of individually crafted prisms which throw sixteen piercing beams of light, like spokes from a wheel, miles into the darkness. Built in France in 1855, it is a twin to lights ringing the oceans of the world. Even the Great Lakes have versions of this Fresnel lens, whose welcome beams have saved countless sailors from death.

Offshore, the whales move in slow motion through the water, spouting white plumes high in the air. Dolphins pass in ethereal pods evidenced by sudden, shiny fins, slicing the water in graceful arcs.

This is a haunted land, marked by pieces of the past. Chinese laborers lived in makeshift camps here when they built the railroad up the coast, leaving coins, buttons, bits of opium pipes. Arrowheads and bowls are still found on the beach. Unknown fossils spill out of the crumbling sandstone that rings the pounding Pacific's shore. Seals cavort on the desolate beaches, alongside the bleached bones of their friends.

A few miles north, the gaunt tower of Space Launch Complex Six stands like a specter in the fog. It was built to launch the space shuttle into orbit. The viewing area for the TV cameras, housing for the astronauts and their families in renovated Coast Guard structures, and a podium for President Reagan had all been mapped out, when the Challenger exploded.

A stone's throw away from this space-age skyscraper is Solstice Cave, a sacred Chumash site where shamans tracked the seasons, as a beam of sunlight pierced their painted cavern.

Juan Cabrillo was blown back toward home here on his expedition of 1543. Sebastian Vizcaino named it "Punta de la Limpia Concepcion," Point of the Immaculate Conception, in 1602.

At Honda Point, rusting iron appears from the waves at low tide. On September 8, 1923, in the worst peacetime naval disaster of all time, nine destroyers missed their turn and ran onto the rocks near here, killing 23 sailors. Only a miraculously calm ocean spared hundreds more from certain death in the dark, freezing water.

Cows crash through the tangled sagebrush in the rocky canyons of gnarled scrub oak. Huge rattlesnakes caution the unwary with their castanet vibrato in the thick underbrush. A lonely coyote trots warily over the sun-dried hills.

The tumbledown houses of former lighthouse keepers and coast guard families decay in the moving, salty mist, like a New England village lost in time.

At night, the stars gleam like insanely bright eyes from a knowing primeval darkness, onto the ghosts of the passing human parade.

And in the gathering fog, the light's bright beam peers into infinity.

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John Wiley captures views of Point Conception's tortured shore. [pics] (01/14/13)
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Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 363024 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 10:19 AM

Thanks for this!


 COMMENT 363026 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 10:22 AM

That was great!


 COMMENT 363029 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 10:26 AM

What a wonderful excerpt!


 COMMENT 363047 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 11:57 AM

What a treat, thanks. Awesome pics. Sad to see the lighthouse in somewhat disaray today. Maybe a community work party is in order.


 COMMENT 363051 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 12:17 PM

Those look like batteries in the photo from the living room. I bet they didn't have direct power but used generators to recharge the batteries. What an interesting historical peek. Thanks for sharing.


 COMMENT 363058 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 01:01 PM

As a pair of photographers and lighthouse nuts, my guy and I would LOVE to visit this one. Sure wish tours were offered!


 COMMENT 363095P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 04:50 PM

I visited this lighthouse several times in the 1990s. On my first visit, some steps were deteriorating, but the last time I went there they had been replaced.


 COMMENT 363096P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 04:52 PM

Etling - do you know of an actual surf break adjacent to Pt. Conception? Just curious based on the story here.


 COMMENT 363124P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 07:08 PM

imagine going back up that hillside stairway, in the growing dark!


 COMMENT 363144P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:41 PM

Exceptionally good posting - thank you.


 COMMENT 363152 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 10:02 PM

Great piece of history you wouldn't likely find elsewhere but edhat! Perhaps you could print a couple for the Maritime Museum though. Neat stuff!


 COMMENT 363175 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 06:13 AM

thank you for this great piece. does anyone know if they still give lighthouse tours?


 COMMENT 363195 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 07:38 AM

Well back when the bixbys owned the land, one scion was in contact with the CG about restoring the lighthouse and keepers quarters. I fear, alas, that it never will be.

No surf at point C. Closest is government point, perkos, cojo, and t's to the north. The channel runs west/east so Point Concepcion is the "Western Gate". Remember when an LNG terminal was proposed for cojo bay?


 COMMENT 363200P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 07:49 AM

Thanks to OP for great composition. I have had the fortune of working in the area- and it is most definitely a very spiritual place.
Hope it stays that way.


 COMMENT 363202P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 07:59 AM

Thanks for an outstanding piece of writing, and interesting photos. Now I want to go, too!


 COMMENT 363214 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 08:57 AM

Thank you for a very informative article and some wonderful images. I understand that the light house sits on private land but is owned/operated by the Coast Guard. I am sure there are others as interested as I am to visit and photograph this fascinating site, perhaps one could start a petition drive to the Coast Guard to organize some tour for the public.


 RED CREEK agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 08:57 AM

Best article I've read about this specially historic area, complete with great pictures.

Growing up in Lompoc, we almost reverentially talked about the "graveyard" out there. We usually spoke about the ships, didn't know how even the Chumash saw it's potential for death and destruction. The area does have a harsh and wild feel due to the crazy winds.

Can't imagine living out there. Would like to visit though.


 COMMENT 363230 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 09:21 AM

I thought the lighthouse was off limits to the public


 COMMENT 363243P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 09:48 AM

It's a wonder that the light has survived so well for 156 years in that tempestuous environment. Must have been quite an exercise to get it there in the first place.


 COMMENT 363308 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 11:15 AM

Totally cool! Thanks for sharing!


 COMMENT 363321 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 11:53 AM

"Humqaq" The Raven comes...is Pt. Conception`s actual name, & yeah,it`s spiritual alright. In the old days, no Chumash went there except to pray & make offerings. If one looks down the cliff at the semi-circle,they will see a small pond jutting from the rocks [fresh water!] where souls would paint themselves for the journey to Similaksa...there are 2 sets of footprints in there[woman & child]. Very soon,we [Coastal Chumash]will be doing "ceremonies"[free] at Shalawa [Hammonds meadow] & there will be amazing teachings...will post here to give advance notice, if anyone`s interested?


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 11:56 AM

Wonderfully descriptive writing about a fascinating place. Thank you for taking us there. I join the others above in wistfully wishing we could visit...


 COMMENT 363466 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 05:39 PM

This is beautiful - have you put it in book form? Would be great coupled with some of John Wiley's photos that follow.


 COMMENT 363753 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 01:41 PM

@ 321 yes please let us know I would love to attend. Do you have to be a member of the Chumash tribe to attend?


 COMMENT 364161P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-16 03:22 PM

You can catch similarly great stories in Bill's book, "Sideways in Neverland," chronicling the people and places of the beautiful Central Coast. It's a must read for any local - find it on Amazon in paperback, hard cover, or for your Kindle.


 COMMENT 364834 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-18 10:28 AM

@753...Heck NO one does not need to be a tribe member to attend!!...that`s why I`m telling you guys on Edhat...because I want non-Natives to come & help us rebuild Shalawa, to participate in the ceremonies & help us re-balance the land again. I will post on Edhat in subject lines that pertain to what we`re doing so you will know when to attend...all are welcome.


 COMMENT 366054 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-22 09:38 AM

@ coyote... Great Thanks! I actually do have some apache in me but its pretty much impossible to prove. It's very unfortunate for people like me who do have some Native American in them but have no way of proving it (documents) and are thus left out from cultural ceremonies. I'm not looking for $ just a chance to learn more about my heritage.


37% of comments on this page were made by Edhat Community Members.



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