ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIF. — For 150 years the lighthouse beacon here has alerted sailors to San Francisco's rocky, fog-shrouded coast. It beamed from the island when it housed a Civil War-era fort, a military prison, a maximum-security penitentiary and a national park.
Today, the public is free to roam the island's artillery batteries, prison cells and guardhouses -- virtually every building on the 22-acre island except its most recognizable structure, the towering lighthouse. The oldest on the West Coast, it has been under lock and key since 1854.
But that may change. The National Park Service is considering taking over five landmark Bay Area lighthouses from the U.S. Coast Guard and opening what aficionados call "American castles" to the public.
"Lighthouses punctuate our seascape," said Bob Trapani Jr., executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation. "They strike a lot of emotional chords in a broad group of people. The sound, the night at light, that twinkle of light; if you grow up with that memory, it doesn't go away. Lighthouses are part of a romantic era, from a simpler time."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Lighthouses: An article in Monday's California section described the Alcatraz Island Lighthouse as the oldest on the West Coast, dating from 1854. The Alcatraz Island Lighthouse station, which includes a lighthouse keepers' cottage, was the first on the West Coast, but the lighthouse itself has undergone reconstruction a few times, beginning in 1909.
All but one of the lighthouses, which would become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, were originally built in the mid-19th century. They are the last ones in California still maintained by the Coast Guard. The agency says it doesn't have the budget to properly maintain the aging structures, which require constant upkeep.
The park service has a mandate to preserve historic sites, though officials say they don't yet know how they'll come up with the millions of dollars needed to care for the lighthouses, some of which are falling apart.
Besides Alcatraz Island, the lighthouses are at Lime Point, Point Bonita, Point Diablo and Point Montara. Their addition will double the park service's inventory of lighthouses in California.
"These will be a huge burden on the park; we're not sure how we'll pay for the work required," said Paul Batlan, realty specialist with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area who has been evaluating the five sites. "We believe they are wonderful historic structures, but they are going to take a lot of work."
The recreation area, which extends from Half Moon Bay north to the Marin County Headlands, already manages more than 650 historic structures, one of the largest inventories in the park service. All five lighthouses are in varying degrees of disrepair, a result of neglect and the punishing effects of wind, rain and salt air.
"There wouldn't be a lighthouse in a place where the weather was calm and stable," said Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society in San Francisco. Gales estimated there are about 600 lighthouses remaining in the country, along with structures such as keepers' quarters and fog signal buildings.
Most lighthouses -- with their massive, glass-enclosed revolving lenses mounted on lofty towers -- have been replaced by breadbox-size navigational lights mounted on poles. Although foghorns remain in use, the twin steam boilers -- like the ones at Lime Point -- that produced the signature booming honk have been replaced by high-pitched, electronically triggered klaxons.
Modern ships and boats are usually equipped with sonar, satellite systems and other navigation devices, rendering lighthouses obsolete.
"We've been putting in the money we have to, to keep the lights running, the bare minimum to keep them going," said Coast Guard Lt. Steve Walters.
"Many of these structures are very old. In many cases they require an entire rebuild. Our civil engineering unit looked at one, and the rebuild cost was higher than $500,000."
Walters said the biggest cost of preparing the buildings for public access is cleaning up contaminants such as oil, diesel fuel, lead paint and even mercury. "To put them in the condition they ought to be would be in the several-hundred-thousand-dollar range and up. That's per lighthouse," Walters said.
The Point Bonita lighthouse, built in 1855 and moved in 1877 to its perch on an outcropping on the Marin Headlands, is accessible by a corroding suspension bridge that alone would cost more than $1 million to repair, according to Batlan. The bridge sways and buckles, and the park allows only two people to cross at a time. A 2006 analysis by the U.S. Transportation Department recommended the bridge be replaced in three years.
"It's a constant battle," Pat Reischl, the park's maintenance chief, said of efforts to keep ahead of deterioration. "Four out of the five visitors I come across want to go in the lighthouse. We want them to see it, but we need to make sure they are safe and to preserve the building."
The Point Bonita lighthouse is open to the public only three days a week.
At Alcatraz, the 84-foot octagonal tower looming over former military and prison buildings has never been open to the public, except for a special three-hour tour three years ago. Visitors waited in line for more than an hour, said Alcatraz ranger John Cantwell. "People love this place, and why not?"
The park service is still studying how best to take visitors up the lighthouse's narrow staircase to the tiny glassed-in lens.
"Not everyone will be able to climb the stairs or be comfortable in the tight quarters," Cantwell said. "But we'd really like to show people this piece of history."