You’ve Likely Never Seen This Cape Lighthouse Before

The lighthouse today at Point Montara in California, this is courtesy of the Carol Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress.

Cape Cod is filled with interesting stories and legends throughout its history. There are places named for long gone citizens, and towns named for far away places. It is common knowledge that most of the towns on the Cape are considered sister cities of places across the Atlantic Ocean in England where many original settlers came from. Barnstable, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and others have twins across the pond. However did you know that in a roundabout way Cape Cod has another sister city? This one lies not across the ocean but across the United States.

Twenty miles south of San Francisco, California lies the town of Montara. With a population of just under 3,000 it is a relatively quiet town filled with open spaces and pristine beaches. So which Cape Cod town is its sister? That would be Wellfleet, located more than 3,200 miles away, clear on the other coast. What these two towns share is not a person, or people, who settled it, but an inanimate object. Montara and Wellfleet have both been home to the same lighthouse.

Today Montara is the resting place of Point Montara Lighthouse. The beacon was erected in 1928 replacing the skeleton tower built in 1912. The thirty-foot tower stands beside a hostel which welcomes thousands of visitors yearly. The story is not that uncommon from those of the nearly 1,000 lighthouses which have at one time or another graced the coasts of the United States and its islands. That is until one discovers the other half of the story of Point Montara.

In 1838 a lighthouse station was established at Mayo Beach, a spot named for the Mayo family which had helped to settle Wellfleet in the mid-17th century. It would be useful in helping guide the growing fishing fleet into the harbor from Cape Cod Bay. It was one of a cluster of lighthouses throughout the state of Massachusetts proposed at roughly the same time. Other stations established at that time were the Three Sisters Lighthouses in Eastham, Ned’s Point in Mattapoisett, and Wing’s Neck in Pocasset.

The beacon at Mayo Beach would be the second built in Wellfleet with the first on Billingsgate Island having been built in 1822. This new structure would be short and wooden. Along with the keeper’s house which was built below sea level, and thus constantly flooding, the site was a disaster. Despite the less than stellar conditions Mayo Beach Light and its keeper’s house would remain relatively unchanged for more than forty years.

The lighthouse and keeper’s house would be totally rebuilt in 1881 with a cast iron tower and adequate house replacing the lackluster previous incarnation. This lighthouse would remain active for over forty years before being decommissioned in 1922. Articles in local newspapers at the time talked of bids being accepted for the purchase of the lighthouse and other buildings on the property. The bidding was won by Captain Harry Capron and the lighthouse was dismantled.

The keeper’s house which still stands on Mayo Beach today as a private home.

For decades the belief was that Mayo Beach Lighthouse had been disposed of. However that was far from reality. In 2008 Colleen MacNeney, whose parents Bob and Sandra Shanklin had photographed every lighthouse in the country, was working on digitally archiving photographs from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office when she came across a strangely captioned old photo. The photo was dated 1927 and was captioned: “This tower formerly used at Mayo Beach, 2d District.” The location of said lighthouse? Yerba Buena, California which is more commonly known as San Francisco.

Mayo Beach Lighthouse had been shipped from Wellfleet to the West Coast and reassembled. Today the lighthouse still stands as Point Montara Lighthouse. It is coupled with the redesigned keeper’s house which now stands as a 50-bed youth hostel, visited by thousands of people yearly.

Though a little over a century ago there were two lighthouses located within five miles of each other in Wellfleet today there is very little left as reminders of the past. The keeper’s house on Kendrick Avenue where Mayo Beach Lighthouse once stood still remains as a private home. Billingsgate Lighthouse, along with the island on which it stood no longer exists. Couple this with the famed Chequesset Inn which once stood a half mile from Mayo Beach and Wellfleet has more than its share of lost history.

By Christopher Setterlund

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