Catch 22’s bedevil lighthouse rehab

TROUBLED IN TRINIDAD The Memorial Lighthouse could tumble down the bluff if nothing is done. Matt Filar | Union

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

TRINIDAD – Trinidad is pursuing an emergency permit to stabilize the Memorial Lighthouse against ongoing landslides, but the way ahead is piled high with difficulty.

“We may now be in a position where there are no options left on the table,” Geosciences Chief Gary Simpson of SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists, Eureka, said last week. He gave a geology lecture at Humboldt State University.     

Severe time constraints are complicating a baker’s dozen of technical, geophysical, political and policy dilemmas surrounding three mitigation actions: Reinforcing the lighthouse in its existing location adjoining Edwards and Trinity streets; relocating it to a more stable site; or rebuilding it, perhaps of lighter material like fiberglass, and moving it to a new location.

No alternative sites have been identified, however. And there is no money and little time before the rainy season starts to pursue any of the three approaches, developed by SHN.

Numerous Catch-22s form a singular conjuncture:

• The emergency permit application must be limited to the minimal, least intrusive repair work.

• The “minimum necessary” is not defined because there are major drawbacks to all of the presumptive solutions, so there is no predicate at the moment for the permit application. Language will have to be crafted by SHN in partnership with the Trinidad city planner and manager.   

• The Coastal Commission says whatever is done under an emergency permit cannot be permitted on a permanent basis.

• Any attempt to move the estimated 40-ton lighthouse as little as 20 feet – sliding it over on giant rollers – risks breaking up the concrete superstructure and one-foot thick walls.

• Each of several reinforcement actions would rupture culturally sensitive soil and jeopardize priceless archaeological materials sacred to Native Americans, who want the lighthouse removed for good. Some support preservation elsewhere, however.

• Permitting, zoning, deed, boundary and title issues bedevil the chances for saving the edifice.

• Court action may be necessary in connection with the deeds, to resolve ambiguities, according to City Councilmember Jim Baker. Yet time is of the essence on all fronts with the rainy season about to set in, making potential landslides bigger and more likely.

Cost is another obstacle. Even onsite reinforcement with underpinning for short-term stabilization might run upwards of $70,000 to $100,000.

Alternatively, the expense might be at least $100,000 or reach $150,000 if the lighthouse were moved 20 feet east and positioned where the maritime bell now sits.      “If you were going to move it anywhere else,” says Simpson, “you’re going to have to build a new replica.”

There are no estimates of what reconstruction might cost.

The all-volunteer Trinidad Civic Club, owner of the 45 by 50 foot lighthouse plot, has no fiscal resources to hire contractors or rebuild the replica lighthouse elsewhere in the community.

Fundraising takes time, too; $11,525 has been collected to date, $5,000 of it from the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce.

The coastal bluff where the lighthouse has sat since 1949 is permanently and intrinsically unstable, as is the entire quake-prone California littoral. No preservation measure will last forever because Trinidad sits on an active fault zone.

Preliminary to, or concurrent with, the application for an emergency permit, Melissa Kraemer of the Coastal Commission suggested that more geologic studies are needed. Simpson concurred that a bluff retreat analysis is in order.

Whatever the near-term corrective action – reinforce, relocate or rebuild – “there’s a lot of disturbance no matter what you do,” says SHN retired regional manager Roland Johnson. He is acting as a consultant to the Civic Club.

Speaking at an omnibus club meeting last week in the Town Hall, Johnson noted the unpredictable impact of remediation. If the edifice broke  up in place, it would present a safety hazard even if it didn’t topple over the steep slope down to the harbor.

Demolition would be highly intrusive as well, in view of the need for heavy equipment access.

Furthermore, Johnson said, “We don’t know if [the lighthouse] is steel-reinforced or the strength of the concrete; so there are a lot of uncertainties with moving the lighthouse even a short distance laterally.”

Despite the many objections, SHN underscores that the structure should be reinforced or moved before winter rainy season begins around mid-October. The head of the landslide is in the parking area adjacent to Edwards Street, the main thoroughfare to the Trinidad harbor and pier.

Some 45 feet of marine terrace sediments straddle bedrock known as the Franciscan mélange (heterogeneous rocks), what Simpson calls the “classic raisin pudding.”

The mélange is oozing out to the beach at the foot of the slope and it has been “pulling the carpet out from underneath since the 1960s,” resulting in the pull at the edge of the slope where the lighthouse sits.



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