Humboldt Bay is the largest bay in California north of San Francisco. Two long thin spits separate the bay from the ocean, and a narrow opening between them provides the bay’s only entrance from the ocean. The town of Eureka was established along the shores of the northern portion of the bay in 1850, and just one year later Humboldt Bay was chosen to receive one of the first eight lighthouses commissioned for the west coast.
The actual site selected for the light was a parcel of land on the spit just north of the bay’s entrance, where it could serve both as a harbor light and a seacoast light. The contract for the first west coast lighthouses was awarded to Gibbons and Kelly, and most of them were constructed using a design by Ammi B. Young that called for a one-and-a-half-story dwelling built around a central tower. While other similarly designed lighthouses were built atop high bluffs or hills, where a tall tower was not necessary, the Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was built on the beach. Old photographs of the lighthouse show a distinct circular ring at a height where the lantern room was placed on similar lighthouses, lending to speculation that at some point the tower of the Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was extended to increase its range. The Humboldt Bay Lighthouse was also unique in that trapezoidal panes were used in the lantern room, rather than the typical square panes.
On the evening of December 20th, 1856, keeper J. Johnson climbed the winding stairs from the dwelling to the lantern room and lit the lamp in the fourth-order Fresnel lens for the first time, making the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse the last of the original eight west coast lights to become operational. Due to problems with contractors and difficulty in transporting supplies to the site, a couple of the second group of eight lighthouses commissioned for the west coast were actually completed before the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse.
Johnson reliably performed his duty for just over three years before his death on February 25, 1859. His wife, Sarah E. Johnson, took over the job of keeper, and remained at the station until 1863.
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