Obsessed with Light!

Pigeon Point Fresnel Lens

Of all my miniature projects, the Real Good Toys New England Lighthouse is the oldest. I bought this kit sometime before 2000 and have been planning and collecting for it since. Part of the magic of miniatures for me is the planning; understanding not only what structure I am making is, but also who might live there, what time period it is from, what the backstory of the resident is. I determined this piece would be the retirement home for a ship’s captain, no longer living life on the high seas, but now enjoying a quieter, simpler life as the keeper of the lighthouse.

This lighthouse project holds a special place in my heart because it reminds me of one of my favorite spots on the central California coast. Pigeon Point Lighthouse, named for the famous shipwreck the Carrier Pigeon, which stuck the rocks and sank in 1853, was completed in November 1872. I first went there with my 6th grade class. We stayed overnight in the hostel, explored the tidepools for abalone shells, and told ghost stories of a haunted lighthouse while sipping hot chocolates. Since then, the lighthouse has become a sacred place for me, one of solace and renewal. Now, just a short 30-minute drive from my home, I visit there when I feel I need to be refreshed, and my creativity often surges shortly thereafter.

So, for this project, I imagined making the lighthouse kit look like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, but it certainly can’t be to scale, or be realistic, as the real lighthouse is very tall and slender (one of the tallest in the United States at 115 feet tall), and no one ever lived inside it. But, the exterior will reflect the lighthouse light deck and bracing beneath, and be painted in the same color scheme. One perfect way to honor the actual lighthouse is with the light itself. Pigeon Point was fitted with a 1st Order Fresnel lens in 1872, which was originally lit with a five-wick lard oil lamp. The Fresnel lens stands 16 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter, is comprised of 1,008 individual hand-polished prisms totaling 2,000 pounds in weight. The original lens would slowly rotate, sending 24 beams of light to the horizon that would guide sailors down the coast and away from the dangerous rocks. It was the lighthouse keeper’s job to carry oil to the lamp, and “wind” the mechanism that allowed the lens to rotate (a pulley system similar to the chain on a mechanical Grandfather clock). Sadly, in 2001, a piece of the bracing and bricks fell from the top of the lighthouse to the ground, prompting closure of the lighthouse to tourists, and removal of the lens, which now sits fully assembled in the fog signal building nearby. In July 2021, California provided an $18 million provision to restore the lighthouse, which will include reinstalling the original lens to its proper home.

Fresnel Lens at Pigeon Point

The lighthouse kit I purchased did come with a “lens” to put over a blinking light to simulate the lighthouse lamp, but honestly, it fails to impress. The sole purpose of the lighthouse is to guide sailors with its light, so having a simple glass jar as a lens is not up to my standards or expectations for this special project. Instead, I found a company called Harbour Lights that has made scale models of the Fresnel lenses. There have been a total of 7 generations of Fresnel lenses (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3 ½, 4th, 5th, 6th), all decreasing in overall size as the focal length and polishing methods were refined. The models are not to any specific scale, so though the 1st Order lens should be the largest, it is smaller than some of the following lenses, and too small for 1:12 scale. The models are from the early 2000’s, so the only place I have been able to source them is on eBay.

My goal is to purchase a couple lenses and see which one fits the best and looks most like the Pigeon Point lamp. The 1st Order I have now is a bit undersized, but it is the most correct looking. The 2nd and 3rd Orders are bigger, and similar enough that one of them may work. I will obtain all three, then decide which will fit in my lighthouse the best. I have also purchased the Light House Beacon from Cir-kit Concepts in G scale (1:12 scale) to act as the light inside. A rotating beam would be more correct, but this light will at least simulate the lighthouse without being a just blinking hobby light.

As an aside, before 2011 there was an annual festival at Pigeon Point Lighthouse around November 15th every year. That evening, they would invite everyone to see the original lamp lit, casting 24 beams of light in every direction. The original lamp would make a complete rotation every 4 minutes, causing a beam of light to pass a ship sailing by every 10 seconds, which they could then use to determine their position. In 1972, the lighthouse was fitted with a single-beam LED lamp by the Coast Guard, which is still in use today, but on this one night a year, the original lamp was lit. It truly was a magical sight to behold.

My plans are also to build a small addition onto the front of the lighthouse to simulate the office and oil storage room of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The Keeper’s House kit available from Real Good Toys is not the correct shape, so I will create something that matches the look of Pigeon Point. Check back, there is much more to come!

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