Lighting the way: Legacy of historic Rubicon Point lighthouse shines on
Much like Lake Tahoe, human behavior continues to threaten the historic lighthouse perched atop Rubicon Point along the lake’s southwest shore.
The structure, which resembles an old outhouse resting on an exposed cliff about 150 feet above the lake in the famed D.L. Bliss State Park, is one of four original lighthouses constructed at the lake in the early 20th century thanks to the sort of advocacy work now common throughout the Tahoe Basin.
At the time it held the title of the world’s highest lighthouse, a distinction it has since lost. Though its light was darkened many years ago, the wooden structure has withstood the elements for more than 100 years thanks to multiple rehabilitation projects.
But limited resources, time, Mother Nature and its isolated location along one of the most picturesque stretches of shoreline all challenge the lighthouse’s continued existence. Then there is the human element.
“It is a tragic story,” commented Bill Lindemann, who served as the interpretive specialist in California State Parks’ Sierra District for decades before retiring in 2016. “It’s a very insubstantial building. It was never designed to do anything other than hold up a big lightbulb. It was never designed to last a very long time … and vandalism doesn’t help it much.”
The historic lighthouse at Rubicon Point was born out of organized advocacy work in the early 1900s. The Lake Tahoe Protective Association formed in response to a proposal to cut the rim of Lake Tahoe at the Truckee River. The proposal was floated by the Truckee River General Electric Company in 1912 as a means to keep water flowing out of Tahoe even when the lake level dipped too low.
As a 1914 report authored by the Protective Association notes, the project was designed to “get more water for power and irrigation purposes than the lake would naturally furnish.”
The proposal roiled property owners and those who professed to “love this beautiful lake.” In response, they formed the Protective Association and listed a board of 15 directors. Though the fight to stop the rim project was a top priority — and an expensive one that necessitated generous giving by property owners and Protective Association members — the organization did not limit its energy, according to the 1914 report. The Protective Association fought the dumping of sewage in the lake, opposed illegal fishing, protested development, and advocated for better roads and government resources to protect the lake.
The Protective Association also advocated for safety improvements on the lake. That same year the report was authored, the Protective Association asked the government to install buoys and piles at dangerous parts of the lake, as well as establish four light houses to be used in the summer. The group recruited Capt. Ernest Pomin, who at the time was perhaps the most experienced navigator on the lake, to help lobby the newly created U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses.
The Protective Association had another ally on this front: Rep. John Edward Raker (D-California). Raker, whose district included the Tahoe area, worked to help secure funding for the safety improvements, according to the 1914 Protective Association report.
The Congressman “assured us that the bill carrying the appropriation to place the lights and buoys at Lake Tahoe would be passed at the December session, and the dangerous places on Lake Tahoe marked by buoys and piles, and the four light houses established.”
Despite that assurance, the funding wasn’t allocated for another two years, according to an informational kiosk in D.L. Bliss State Park.
Construction of the lighthouse commenced in 1919 under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses, which itself fell under the umbrella of the fledgling Department of Commerce.
Construction was no easy task. The chosen location sat on a rocky cliff high above the lake. Access via land from Emerald Bay required traveling multiple miles uphill.
At the time of its construction, the Rubicon Point Lighthouse carried a $900 price tag, according to the informational kiosk. Adjusted for inflation, the cost in 2020 would be $13,775. The acetylene-powered light was visible from 7 miles away.
The useful life of the lighthouse was short lived. Two years after its construction the lighthouse was abandoned.
At the request of the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company — a scenic rail line that ran from Truckee to Lake Tahoe — and other Tahoe mariners, a new lighthouse was built at what is now Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, about 4 miles north of Rubicon Point.
As Lindemann, who conducted extensive research on the lighthouse and other historical structures in the Sierra District, noted, the lighthouse at Rubicon Point was not exactly easy to operate.
“The Bliss light was decommissioned because of the difficulty accessing it,” Lindemann said.
“Sugar Pine was much easier to reach.”
The light required fuel, which at the time was transported via the S.S. Tahoe, which transported people to a resort in Emerald Bay.
The ship would dock in the bay and heavy fuel tanks would be unloaded onto a wagon. The wagon, pulled via mule, would travel more than 3 miles uphill toward Rubicon Point. The tanks were then taken down hill toward the lighthouse at the cliff’s edge.
“At some point in time I think it just became too much work and by that time the commerce on the lake started to change,” Lindemann said.
This was several decades into the tourist-driven vision of Duane L. Bliss — a wealthy businessman who owned the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company, which requested the lighthouse be moved to Sugar Pine.
As a 2019 story published by the Sierra Sun noted, Bliss had made his fortunate in the timber industry at the time of the silver boom in the Sierra Nevada. When the mines went bust, Bliss started contemplating new business opportunities. He decided on tourism.
Little is known about the lighthouse after it was officially decommissioned in 1921. Eight years later, the Bliss family donated 744 acres — including the lighthouse site — to the California State Parks System. The donated land now constitutes D.L. Bliss State Park.
In the information void surrounding the lighthouse, speculation and theories have emerged. Several accounts — including one shared in a story that appeared in the July 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine — assert that the Rubicon Point lighthouse operated beyond 1921. And some even question whether it was originally intended to be a lighthouse.
Russ Rowlett, author of The Lighthouse Directory website and an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina, has a theory that the structure already existed at the time in 1916 when Congress passed the act appropriating funds for Tahoe’s lighthouses.
“The Rubicon Point Light was established soon after this act was passed and it was only active for a few years. This tells me the Lighthouse Bureau did not build it: they slapped a light on top of an existing structure,” Rowlett wrote in an email.
Lindemann disputed the notion that the structure existed beforehand.
He said documents from the time, including letters between the Lake Tahoe Protective Association and the federal government, show that the structure was built for the light.
Regardless, there is no denying that the historical record of the lighthouse is far from complete, especially in the decades between its decommissioning and its new-found attention toward the end of the 20th century.
“There’s just such scant historical information,” Lindemann said.
For example, it is unclear what happened to the actual light used at Rubicon Point.
“Nobody knows what happened to it,” Lindemann said.
Another mystery involved the destruction of an exterior wood frame that helped support he light. According to Lindemann, the U.S. Coast Guard removed the structure for still-unexplained reasons around 1990. It was replaced with a steel pole.
The historical record was dealt a blow after Lindemann’s retirement in 2016. Through a series of mishaps and miscommunication, his decades of research was lost — inadvertently thrown in the trash and erased.
“My research is gone unfortunately,” he said.
WOEFUL INTENT & RESTORATION
The decades following its abandonment were not kind to the lighthouse. Mother Nature had taken her toll — the lighthouse’s location exposes it to snowfall and sunshine in the winter, which led to many freeze-thaw cycles over the years. Then there was the human element.
Vandals had ripped the door off, carved messages inside and outside the building and caused other damage. It was plastered with graffiti. Most of the shingles on the roof were gone. It was unstable and unsafe thanks to dry rot in the wooden support posts holding up the structure.
Its condition landed the Rubicon Point lighthouse on Lighthouse Digest “Doomsday List,” a log of lighthouses in danger of being completely destroyed.
“It was in pretty deplorable condition,” Lindemann recalled.
By the late 1990s efforts were mobilizing to try and repair the lighthouse.
The nonprofit Tahoe Heritage Foundation helped raise approximately $25,000 for the project, according to Susan Fredericks, archivist for the Tahoe Heritage Foundation. Most of that money came from a single charitable donation.
Additional money came from California State Parks and the Sierra State Parks Foundation
Altogether, the money fueled a full-scale restoration of the structure that aimed to preserve as much of the original lighthouse as possible. A wood-penetrating epoxy was injected into the support beams to stabilize it.
“We wanted to retain as much of the historic fabric as possible so that was the method chosen,” Lindemann said.
The lighthouse was originally made from a specific type of sugar pine, which was unavailable on the market. This required the restoration team to go to an independent mill to have wood milled specially for the project. The work was completed in 2001.
“When it was done it was back to what we thought the original structure looked like,” Lindemann said.
A battery powered light was put in the lighthouse and Lindemann would illuminate the light on special occasions for about five years after the restoration. However, the practice was discontinued.
Over the years the same issues that previously plagued the lighthouse — what Lindemann described as a “woeful intent to do vandalism” — returned.
There was a substantial amount of graffiti. The door had been kicked in and removed, which exposed the inside to the elements.
“Fifteen years later the structure had been severely vandalized again,” Lindemann recalled.
A second rehabilitative project entered the planning stages in 2015. Work on the lighthouse was included with a larger project to reroute a segment of the Rubicon Trail in D.L. Bliss. As Tahoe Fund, a nonprofit that raises and donates money for environmental projects in the Tahoe Basin, noted at the time, a section of the trail was difficult to navigate because it was extremely steep.
“This steepness also causes major trail erosion that ends up harming the trail and depositing sediment into the Lake.”
Tahoe Fund identified the project as one of its priorities and in 2017 it awarded a $48,000 grant to California State Parks. The project was expected to cost a total of $92,500.
The lighthouse improvements focused on stabilizing the structure. Timber re-enforcement cross braces were placed on the inside walls to help prevent collapsing, according to Nathan Shasha of California State Parks. The doorsill was cleaned and sealed to protect against rot. And an iron metal frame was installed inside the door frame to prevent the door from being kicked in and a lock was placed on the door. Shasha said the work has been completed.
The project will help preserve the lighthouse for years to come, but it is still subjected to the vandalism and “woeful intent” of some park visitors. With limited resources and competing interests, maintaining and protecting the building remains a challenge.
With that in mind, it is increasingly critical for park visitors to do their part to ensure the lighthouse is around for future generations. Some hope that by sharing its history and increasing awareness, bad actors will be discouraged from vandalizing the historic lighthouse.
“Every little bit helps,” Lindemann said.
This article appears in the 2020 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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