Today in Transportation History – 1957: The Light Goes Out at Ponta dos Capelinhos

After more than a half-century of service for vessels sailing through that region of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos on the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores ceased operations altogether. This lighthouse, specifically located on the peninsula of Ponta dos Capelinhos and Costa Nau at the western tip of the Azorean island of Faial, was shut down following the start of a fierce volcanic eruption on the island.

The 66-foot (20-meter)-tall stone tower had been built in response to pleas from sailors, local residents, and others for a lighthouse in that vicinity of the Azores. These pleas grew in intensity by the latter half of the 19th century as the number of local shipwrecks and other maritime incidents – well-documented as far back as 1678 – only increased as more vessels made their way through the area.

This widespread demand for a navigational aid gained additional momentum during the 1880s when the Geographic Society of Portugal formally promoted the construction of a lighthouse at Ponta dos Capelinhos and Costa Nau. Another notably strong and outspoken champion for building the lighthouse was José de Almeida de Ávila, who served as civil governor of the District of Horta (at the time the governmental subdivision of Faial and several other western islands of the Azores).

Construction on the Lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos finally began in April 1894. The lighthouse was completed and officially inaugurated in July 1903, and it remained in service until being hammered by fallout from the eruption of the nearby Capelinhos volcano starting in September 1957.

“The rocks expelled by the volcano fell on the buildings of the lighthouse of Capelhinos, puncturing the tile and pavements and breaking glass, sanitary wares and some furniture,” noted Frederico de Menezes Avelino Machado, directing engineer of public works, in a November 7 report to the Portuguese institute General Directorate of National Buildings and Monuments. “The lighthouse had to be closed during the eruption and the personnel evacuated.”

Ultimately, this temporary suspension of operations at the lighthouse became permanent as of November 29. Notwithstanding its inactive status, the Lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelhinos remains an iconic symbol of that section of the Azores. A visitor center on the grounds made its debut in 2008, and the lighthouse is now open for tours.

For more information on the Lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lighthouse_of_Ponta_dos_Capelinhos.

Additional information on this lighthouse and others in the Azores is available at https://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/lighthouse/azo.htm.

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