Skip to main content

Hidden by history, a lighthouse is found

family’s diligent research turns up a New England beacon thought to have been torn down

family’s diligent research turns up a New England beacon thought to have been torn down

It was a discovery nearly lost in the pages of time.

Lighthouse aficionados on the East Coast might have thought the 19th century beacon that used to shine over Mayo’s Beach near Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod had been torn down and lost forever. But the discovery of one photo last year by a family in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., told a different story. It turns out the distinctive 30-foot light has been firmly ensconced at Point Montara on the San Mateo coast — about 25 miles south of San Francisco — since around 1928.

Read the other story in this package: Couple finds the ‘light’ of their lives

They may not be Indiana Jones, but Colleen MacNeney and her parents, Bob and Sandra Shanklin, have uncovered a lost chapter of lighthouse history. “It gives me goose bumps to know we discovered a historical fact that no one knew about,” says Sandra Shanklin, 69. “It’s so exciting to uncover something like this.”

The Shanklins have made it their business to photograph all the lighthouses in the United States — about 700, give or take. And over the last few years, they’ve digitized almost 8,000 antique photos of lighthouses, many from the archives of the Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. In April 2007, at the Coast Guard Historian’s office, MacNeney, 48, was helping her parents scan photographs when she found a black-and-white photo of the Point Montara lighthouse with a note on the bottom: “This tower formerly used at MayoBeach, 2d District.” It was dated 1928. They scanned the photo and thought nothing more of it until December, when the Shanklins called up the image on their computer for editing.

“We read the note at the bottom and thought this was an odd piece of information, never having heard of this lighthouse being re-used before,” says Sandra Shanklin.

MacNeney began searching for information about what is now formally known as Mayo’s Beach Lighthouse. At first, all the records were the same — a 30-foot conical cast iron tower, discontinued in 1922, sold at auction in 1923, torn down in 1939. While the description of the tower matched Point Montara, the dates were off, so MacNeney’s task was to find the missing link at the Coast Guard Historian’s office during her next visit to Washington in April.

“I remember searching through boxes and boxes and boxes, and I couldn’t find anything,” says MacNeney. “I finally came upon the box with the documents requesting the transfer of the Mayo’s Beach light to Point Montara, and even though it was very quiet in there I couldn’t help but react.”

The plans were dated May 5, 1928. There was no indication of how it traveled from one coast to the other, but there, was enough information to pique the interest of Lighthouse Digest, a monthly magazine that had funded some of the family’s research trips to Washington. When MacNeney’s story broke in the June issue, the family found themselves the center of nationwide coverage.

“It was just by chance we found this photo,” says Bob Shanklin, 83.

Tim Harrison, editor of Lighthouse Digest, says the family contacted him soon after they discovered the photo, but he asked them to hold off on the story until they did more research. “The biggest concern was keeping the secret from getting out until everything could be verified,” says Harrison. “We didn’t know what to expect once the story broke.”

Shortly after the magazine published the story, Harrison says the office was flooded with calls from CNN, Fox News and MSNBC asking permission to publish the article on their Web sites.

“A few days later it was the third most read story on the Fox News site,” says Harrison. “Within two hours of when it hit the Web sites we had almost 350 new subscriptions to the magazine.”

Harrison says that in his 20 years at Lighthouse Digest he has never heard a story quite like this. “We’ve had lighthouses move from South Carolina to Michigan and Ohio to Wisconsin, but never so far across the country,” he says. “This is an exciting rediscovery of history.”

Lighthouse historian Ralph Shanks in Petaluma, Calif., however, says this case of a lighthouse with a missing identity is nothing new. “Point Montara is an iron plate lighthouse that was built in a foundry, not made on site,” says Shanks. “It was probably sent to the location and constructed from there, making it very portable.”

Shanks says since the Lighthouse Service was known to be fiscally conservative, it would have been cheaper to transfer the lighthouse, probably by boat, than pay for the labor and materials to build a new one.

“I interviewed a lighthouse keeper who told a story about how he had ordered 12 pencils from the Lighthouse Service and got 13. A few days later they received a letter asking him to return the extra pencil,” says Shanks. “Also, by the 1920s, transportation with the advent of the steam engine was very good and also economical.”

Shanks began researching lighthouses in the 1970s and has written several books on West Coast lights, the most recent being “The U.S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard.”

MacNeney admits she will never be as passionate about lighthouses as her parents, but she enjoys the thrill of the chase when it comes to tracking down history. “I help maintain my parents’ lighthouse site, which always has new updates,” says MacNeney. “For me, I love being able to touch a photograph from the past, connect with it and have it be tangible. And then help preserve it for generations to come.”

Harrison says this discovery has proved to be a win-win situation for everyone involved. It’s made the public flock to Point Montara in droves, helped his magazine and, most importantly, helped make people aware of the importance of these historic structures. “One can probably learn all they need to know by studying America’s lighthouses,” says Harrison. “One of the first acts of this country was to establish the lighthouse service, because it was the only means of safe transportation for harbors. Often preserving historic structures is on the bottom of the list of priorities, but a story like this highlights how important they are to our history.”

For information, visit the Shanklins Web site at or