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The 1866 Tragedy That Inspired the Pigeon Point Lighthouse

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An illustration of a 19th century shipwreck.
‘The Shipwreck’ as seen in ‘The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe, circa 1870.  (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London/ Artist Unknown/ The Print Collector/ Getty Images)


n Nov. 28, 1866, the Coya — an iron, 515-ton ship from Britain — finally approached the California coastline after months at sea. Bound for San Francisco, it carried 19 sailors and 10 passengers, along with a cargo of coal from Sydney.

The journey had begun with a foreboding omen. Twelve days after leaving Sydney Harbor, one of the ship’s crew, a man named Peter Johnson, fell overboard and drowned. No one could have known then that the same fate would meet all but three people on board. Twenty-six men, women and children were killed when the Coya crashed just 50 miles away from its final destination.

It was at Pigeon Point, 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay, that the Coya met its end. The ship had made good progress that day, bolstered by strong winds. Shortly after sunset, however, the vessel was engulfed by heavy fog, and the captain and crew were caught off-guard. The Coya struck a reef, and enormous waves repeatedly raised the ship and crashed it back down into the rock. One report from the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel noted that the Coya “almost immediately began to break up.” Panic and chaos erupted on board, where many of the ship’s crew and passengers had been resting below deck.

The Sentinel noted:

The fierce breakers passing over the ship carried away by twos and threes the unfortunate beings who, half naked and benumbed with cold, could find no means of saving themselves, or of reaching land through the unbroken line of angry surf that thundered in their ears, adding to the terror of the situation by its awful roar.

The dead included Captain H. Paige, his wife and young daughter, as well as the ship’s porter, cook, sailmaker, carpenter, steward and cabin boy. One couple aboard, passengers listed as Mr. and Mrs. Jeffreys, were killed along with their baby whom they tried to protect by wrapping the infant in Mrs. Jeffreys’ shawl.


The only three to survive the violent wreck were the chief mate Mr. Bairstow, a passenger named Mr. G. Byrnes and a young English seaman named Walter Cooper. Bairstow and Byrnes were wearing cork life belts, while Cooper endured by, in his own words, “clinging to a piece of timber with death’s grip.” Once on shore, the battered trio spent the night partially submerged in a hole they dug in the sand, in an attempt to stay warm.

For days after the tragedy, Bairstow and Byrnes stayed at the site of the wreck. Byrnes, who lost all of his possessions on the Coya, spent his time burying the bodies of his associates that washed up close enough to retrieve. He did this with the assistance of San Mateo County’s Justice of the Peace, a Mr. Knowles. Bairstow was too injured to assist.

The Coya was not the first ship wrecked on the reefs and rocks of this particular patch of the Pacific. Less than two years before the accident, the Sir John Franklin sank just a quarter-mile away, killing 12 out of the 20 crew on board. Pigeon Point itself was called Whale Point until 1853, when a Boston clipper ship named the Carrier Pigeon hit the rocks and sank there.

Something about the Coya disaster affected locals — and all of the Bay Area — differently, however. “The people of this region have shown all possible kindness to the shipwrecked men who have survived their perils,” the San Francisco Times reported on Nov. 30, 1866. “[They] have taken care of these poor fellows who are thus thrown out upon the world, penniless and strangers in a strange land.”

In that same article, the Times chastised so-called “wreckers” — opportunists who plundered disaster sites for valuables — and called on them to return items so they may be sent to families of the deceased. “We lay stress upon this suggestion in deference to the feelings of the unfortunate lost,” the paper said.


n Dec. 15, 1866 — one day after the funeral of Captain Paige, his wife and their daughter at San Francisco’s Trinity Church — the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel printed the findings of an inquest about the destruction of the Coya.

“The coast near New Year’s Point is a very dangerous one, on account of its peculiar location, climate and current,” the inquest’s jurors wrote in their final impassioned statement. “It seems to be very evident that it is the duty of the proper authorities to put a light on [the] Point.”

Three days later, The Sacramento Bee published a recommendation for “a light house in the neighborhood of the place where the Carrier Pigeon, the Sir John Franklin and the Coya were wrecked. We … urge it as one of great importance second to no want of our coast.”

Sadly, not even the horrors of the Coya were enough to get Pigeon Point its lighthouse. The final straw came two years later (almost to the day) when the Hellespont — a 750-ton oak vessel, also traveling from Australia to San Francisco and carrying coal — hit the rocks, split in half and sank. Eleven out of the 20 men on board were killed. The catastrophe revived the outrage around the Coya disaster anew.

This time, the San Mateo County Gazette published a passionate plea for a lighthouse from its editor, H.A. Scofield.

“The recent terrible wreck of the ship Hellespont, at Pigeon Point, which resulted in the loss of 11 of her crew, including Captain Soule, constitutes another appeal to the government at Washington for the establishment of a lighthouse at Pigeon Point,” Scofield wrote. “Pigeon Point is the most extensive promontory on the coast south of the Golden Gate, and the point seems especially adapted for a lighthouse. No other place on the Pacific Coast has proved so fatal to navigators as this locality.”

In 1869, plans for a Pigeon Point lighthouse finally got underway. It was lit for the first time on Nov. 15, 1872.

A drone view of a lighthouse on a rugged coastline.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse at the Station State Historic Park in Pescadero. Before its arrival, this section of coastline regularly sank ships. (Jane Tyska/ Digital First Media/ East Bay Times via Getty Images)

From 1871, starting while the landmark was still under construction, a fog signal — comprised only of a steam whistle — also directed ships away from the land. That stayed in use in tandem with the lighthouse until 1911, when the whistle was replaced by a siren. Variations on the siren could be heard until 1976.

At 115 feet tall, the Pigeon Point lighthouse remains one of the tallest in the United States. Today, it’s a tourist attraction, and the original lighthouse keeper’s housing is a hostel for adventurous travelers. Having been closed to the public since 2001 for safety reasons, a $16 million, two-year construction project to restore the lighthouse to its former glory is expected to start in the first half of 2024. Improvements have already begun on the surrounding buildings.

Keeping the lighthouse in pristine condition is a fitting way to honor the victims of Pigeon Point’s multiple shipwrecks, many of whom found their final resting place beneath the waters that the lighthouse overlooks.


As the San Francisco Times wrote in January, 1867:

Upon the top of the promontory to which the survivors … climbed, are the graves of those who were drowned from the Sir John Franklin, and now the bodies of … the Coya are added to that number. There they lie entombed … on that lofty cliff, and the waves which lifted them up on its bare rocks roar their eternal requiem below.

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