A Fixed White Light: The Old Point Loma Lighthouse of San Diego Bay

Lighthouse head keeper Robert Israel stands on the rocks, his family in the tower above. | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

I followed Cabrillo National Monument historian Robert Munson up the narrow spiral staircase of the old Point Loma Lighthouse. Twenty-three steps later, we were in a cramped space known as the "watchroom." It was really no more than the top of the stairs, dressed with a window and a step ladder leading to the lantern room above. When I looked up, I could see the ground crystal prisms of the massive Fresnel 3rd order lens (which Robert lovingly called a "half-ton piece of jewelry") of the lantern. But the real treat was the view out of the low window in front of me. Stretching out before my eyes was an expansive swath of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, glittering blue in the bright sunlight.

For thirty-six years in the 1800s, a lighthouse keeper sat watch in this little enclosed space night after night. He or she made sure the light stayed lit, and looked out for ships on the horizon as his/her family slept in two little bedrooms below. When it was clear, there were stars to look at, and ships to chart. But enveloped in the thick fog that eventually led to its disuse, this "watchroom" must have felt like the most isolated, claustrophobic spot in the world, like a life raft in a storm at sea.

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California had only been a state for 20 days on September 28, 1850. On that day, a world away in Washington D.C., congress appropriated $90,000 to build lighthouses along the newly acquired Western seaboard. There was an urgent need for lighthouses along the Pacific Coast, which had become increasingly trafficked as a result of the 1848 gold rush. Ship captains often had to rely on outdated maps and charts to guide their way into port, which caused numerous wrecks and economically damaging delays. In 1851, the U.S. Coast Survey traveled up the coast in a cutter named the Ewing. Nine spots for lighthouses were chosen, including Point Loma in the San Diego Bay. Only eight lighthouses actually were built. These lighthouses were at Alcatraz, Fort Point, Faralones, Point Pinos, Point Conception, Point Loma, Humboldt, and Cape Disappointment.

In many ways, the Point Loma Lighthouse seemed doomed from the very start. Its high elevation (at 422-feet above sea level, it was the highest lighthouse in the country) and isolated location ten miles from old town San Diego, meant that transporting building materials was difficult. It also didn't help that in 1853, the ship Oriole, loaded with lighthouse supplies for the West, wrecked off the coast of Baltimore. Its cargo was a total loss.

The federal government gave suspiciously obtained contracts to Francis A. Gibbons and Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore to build all eight lighthouses on the West Coast. Soon after work began on Point Loma in 1854, it was discovered that the lighthouse had been built with insufficient materials, including tiles from the ruins of an old Spanish fort, and poor quality bricks and mortar. For a time, the only thing on the construction site was a "little stack of bricks," the San Diego Herald reported in November 1854. The town of San Diego was growing impatient with delays, knowing that without a quality lighthouse, their commercial potential could not be met. One letter to the editor of the San Diego Herald in the same issue read:

Construction resumed in August 1855. By October, the office of the Light-house Board was able to release a "Notice to Mariners" announcing the completion of the lighthouse:

The almost $30,000 lighthouse was built in the "New England style," as were all the original West Coast lighthouses. Its body was unpainted, while both its tin roof and tower were painted red. Oil (rapeseed, lard, or kerosene) fueled the lamp, while the Fresnel lens intensified the light. The keeper and his family occupied the lighthouse itself, which featured a basement, ground floor parlor, an all-purpose room, and two cramped bedrooms mid-way up the tower. The assistant keeper would eventually get his own quarters in an adjacent building. The first keeper at Point Loma was James P. Keating. His assistant was George B. Tolman. Most lighthouse keepers were former sailors who were eager to have families and live more settled lives.

Looking up the lighthouse's staircase. | Photo: Bill Gracey/Flickr/Creative Commons License

For the first decade and a half of the Point Loma Lighthouse's existence, the turnover rate was quite high. This is not surprising, for lighthouse keeping was a punishing and grueling job. According to Munson, the historian, both the keepers and assistants typically worked 84 hours per week. Room and board were free, as were basic food staples. Besides keeping watch every night, keepers and their families were expected to clean the light, trim the wick and ensure it did not go out, keep meteorological journals, and entertain intrigued visitors. Point Loma was a particularly harsh place to live. The winds were punishing and the fog was often so thick you could not see two feet in front of you. It was a two hour buggy ride into Old Town. Obtaining water and fresh fruits and vegetables was a constant struggle, as all were in short supply atop the Point.

The long buggy ride did not deter vacationing Californians, and the picturesque lighthouse became a popular day tripping site. W. Jeff Gatewood, editor of the San Diego Union, recalled his visit in 1869:

In 1871, a former soldier from Pennsylvania named Robert Israel became assistant keeper. He was appointed head keeper in 1873. Until 1891, he would live at the lighthouse with his wife Maria, the daughter of an old San Diego family, and their growing brood. While the children rowed to San Diego to go to school during the week, Maria took on the duties of assistant keeper, formally holding the job from 1873 to 1876. Surprisingly, this was not uncommon.

From 1828 to 1905, according to Munson, 122 women were appointed head keeper at various lighthouses in America. Twice that number were assistant keepers. A reporter, who visited the Israels in 1874, reported that "they pass the long hours of the night, watching alternately the light of the huge lantern" (LA Times, June 29, 1986 Treasures San Diego's Shining Light for 20 years). Impressively, Maria had time to produce expert handiwork as well. Three of her creations -- two seashell frames and a hand painted salt shaker are still on display in the lighthouse parlor. Perhaps, she made these creations under the light of the lamp in the "watchroom" on slow nights.

In 1887, the lighthouse was showing wear and tear, its exterior walls eroding due to strong, salty winds. The building was painted with whitewash to protect it from the elements. Two years later, the "fixed white light" was reconfigured to "fixed white varied by flashes, alternately red and white, with one minute intervals between them," according to the book "Lighthouses of San Diego." But strong winds and outdated light patterns were the least of the lighthouse's problems. The high elevation of the light, and the low, dense fogs that frequently rolled over the ocean meant the light was often too high to be seen by passing ships. As early as 1881, this problem was recognized and a new, lower site was chosen 400 feet below on the Point Loma shore. In 1891, the "New Point Loma Lighthouse" was finally completed, along with other navigational aids, including the Ballast Point Light Station. The old lighthouse was decommissioned and the Israels moved out of the home that they had loved for twenty years. The city of San Diego mourned along with them:

Partiers at the abandoned lighthouse. | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

The old lighthouse soon fell into disrepair due to vandalism and neglect. One Ballast Point resident remembered, according to "Lighthouses of San Diego," "the windows were knocked out... everything they could take away was taken away... it was a shame... everything was stolen off." It became a wild spot, where youths and day trippers would come to take in the beautiful scenery and party in relative seclusion.

In 1904, the Army opened Fort Rosencrantz on Point Loma. The lighthouse was probably saved from demolition when a presidential proclamation declared half an acre of the Point, including the lighthouse, Cabrillo National Monument, in honor of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Later, the lighthouse was restored and maintained by the Army. It was used as married enlisted quarters. From 1921 to 1934, Mrs. H.E. Cook, known as "old one eye" and the wife of an Army sergeant, lived in the lighthouse and ran a small concession stand there for the National Park Service. During World War II, the lighthouse was painted a drab green as camouflage. At different times during the war it was a signal station, sleeping quarters, storage, and Army and Navy HQ. Many soldiers were stationed at Fort Rosencrantz, where they served as lookouts and first defense against potential enemies lurking in the Pacific. Many times, suspected enemy craft turned out to simply be dolphins or whales!

Today, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is run by the National Park Service. It has been painstakingly restored. Wonderful, informative tours are now available. And every night the light of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse shines out over the Pacific, an ornamental star in the California sky.

Special thanks to Robert Munson and Cabrillo National Monument

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