Where to Find SoCal’s Historic Lighthouses | KCET
Where to Find SoCal’s Historic Lighthouses
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If there’s one navigational aid and safety precaution that never seems to go out of style, it’s the lighthouse.
Although they first began dotting our coastline in the 19th century, they’re just as important for protecting maritime traffic from wreckage now as they were back then.
Sure, lighthouse keepers no longer manually light candles in the night. But whether electric or solar-powered, incandescent or LED, we still need our rocky shores and busy harbors illuminated – perhaps now more than ever.
Here are the five beacons that have withstood weather, wind, waves and even wartime, too.
1. Point Fermin Lighthouse Historic Site and Museum, San Pedro
Constructed out of California redwood, Point Fermin Lighthouse is one of three remaining Stick-style Victorian lighthouses in the U.S., with its gabled roof, horizontal siding, and hand-carved porch railings. Built as the first navigational light in the San Pedro Bay, the Point Fermin Lighthouse used to be situated out there all by itself, in a vast expanse. Miraculously, it has been spared from development, and the original lighthouse – as well as the stables and a couple of original cisterns – still remain. But that doesn't mean the lighthouse hasn't changed over the years.
When it first opened in 1874, the Point Fermin Lighthouse was palatial, its Fresnel lens beaming the shore with candlelight, which was replaced in 1898 with a petroleum vapor incandescent lamp and in 1925 by an electric light. But the light hasn't actually been lit since the harbor was darkened in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombings, for fear of the light being a beacon for enemy ships. Instead, the giant, historic lens and lantern room at the top were removed and replaced with an unsightly square add-on – mockingly referred to by locals as the "chicken coop" – during World War II so it could be used as a Navy lookout tower (with experimental radar!) In 1927, the City of Los Angeles took over the stewardship of the lighthouse. And in 1974, the addition was removed and the lighthouse was restored to its original condition for its centennial.
Now, the restored Point Fermin Lighthouse is landmarked and operates as a museum and historic site. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, where you can see how the various lighthouse keepers lived – from the first (sisters Mary and Ella Smith) to the last (sisters Thelma and Juanita Austin) and everyone in between. A stone’s throw from Sunken City, Point Fermin is sinking, too. The old Coast Guard bunker near the edge of the cliff is now pretty much condemned, and fenced off. Fortunately, the landmark Point Fermin Lighthouse is far enough inland to not be in danger (yet). Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. The lighthouse is open for guided tours from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., every day except Mondays.
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2. Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, San Pedro
At the end of a breakwater that curves and stretches out for two miles from the shore of San Pedro, you’ll find a tiny black and white lighthouse. Known colloquially as Angel’s Gate Lighthouse – though officially the "Los Angeles Harbor Light" – it’s been automated since the 1970s, making a keeper obsolete. It may be unoccupied, but it’s fully operational – now with battery cells powered by solar panels (though electricity powered it when it first opened). The original 4th-order Fresnel lens (made in Paris by Barbier, Bernard, and Turenne) is on display at the Maritime Museum, also in San Pedro.
The structure was built upon a huge concrete block that once served as the foundation of a private residence that got washed away by a tsunami. Constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, Angel’s Gate was the first and only lighthouse of its kind – and despite its age, it remains in use as it’s in a critical position in L.A. Harbor to prevent shipwrecks. This active shipping harbor is filled with plenty of deep-sea vessels trying to navigate the rough waters. So, a foghorn still blasts, and a beacon flashes every 15 seconds. Its exterior was originally pure white, but its signature black vertical stripes were added for increased visibility during fog conditions.
Boat trip tickets are sold by the Cabrillo Beach Boosters (in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard) as a fundraiser for the upkeep of the lighthouse. In its 2012 restoration (just in time for its centennial), crews sandblasted the rust off the walls, repainted them, removed graffiti, and fixed the broken windows. The sea is so volatile out by that rock wall that hiking it out to the lighthouse is too dangerous of a trek – and therefore forbidden. And make no mistake – the Coast Guard is watching.
3. Point Vicente Lighthouse, Rancho Palos Verdes
The grounds may have the feeling of an abandoned military site, but the light at Point Vicente is still a working lighthouse – its beacon is essential to mariners in the Catalina Channel. It is a designated historic site, but it's also an active residential facility for U.S. Coast Guard personnel, who are housed in a few small Spanish tile-roofed barracks. The lighthouse itself stands 67 feet tall, though its cliffside location allows its light beam to rise 185 feet above ocean level. Installed in 1926 as a result of a public petition for it, the Point Vicente Lighthouse made the rocky waters of the Pacific Ocean far less treacherous for sea-faring vessels that often would otherwise become distressed and wreck.
The original light was 1,000 watts and could be seen for 20 miles – that is, until it was dimmed during World War II for security purposes. When the lighthouse was relit to its full bright capacity after the war, the 360º beacon annoyed the residential communities of Palos Verdes, whose homeowners and motorists found themselves suddenly blinded by its glaring light prisms. In response, the insides of some of the inland-facing windows were painted to block out the bulk of the light (then a third-order Fresnel lens and an incandescent light bulb).
Some of it still managed to shine through, though, creating a ghostly apparition of a tall woman in a flowing gown ("The Lady of the Light"), who appeared to be pacing the tower's walkway. Some say she's the ghost of a heartbroken woman who fell to her death off the cliffs into the same sea that took her sailor lover, forever waiting to be reunited with him. You may have to wait to find out for yourself, though – because although Point Vicente is open monthly, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the second Saturday, the tower is currently closed for maintenance. You can, however, explore the grounds and the museum during the public open houses, at least until further notice. In the meantime, the historic third-order Fresnel lens of the Point Vicente Lighthouse (made in Paris in 1914 and installed at Point Vicente in 1926) has been relocated to Point Vicente Interpretive Center. On loan from the Coast Guard, it served the lighthouse for 93 years until being replaced by LED technology in February 2019.
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4. Anacapa Island Light Station, Channel Islands National Park
Even though Anacapa is the closest of the Channel Islands to the mainland (less than 15 miles from Oxnard), it can still sometimes create its own weather patterns. That’s probably how it earned its name, which loosely translates to mean "ever-changing." And until the Bureau of Lighthouses intervened, its rocky shore (including a jagged area known as "Cathedral Cove") unfortunately caused its share of shipwrecks – including that of the passenger steamship Winfield Scott in 1853. A primitive, unmanned beacon that was subsequently erected in 1912 proved to be grossly insufficient.
And so, Anacapa Island Light Station came to be, first lit by lighthouse keeper Frederick Cobb in 1932, the same year that a number of Spanish Revival structures were constructed as part of the station. In 1939, the Coast Guard took over for the Bureau of Lighthouses and, like all other light sources during World War II, had to extinguish the Anacapa Light for a while. The Navy took over the Coast Guard, and the isolated island was transformed into a Coastal Lookout Station until the war was over. In the 1960s, the 40-foot concrete lighthouse was automated; in 1989, an acrylic, solar-powered lens replaced the original third-order Fresnel lens from 1932. The latter is now on view at the Anacapa visitors' center on the island.
To hear its foghorn moan from its perch, you’ll need to take a boat to East Anacapa Island. Island Packers has regularly scheduled trips to East End Landing Cove throughout the summer on both weekdays and weekends, departing from Ventura or Oxnard. Just be aware that you’ll have to climb 150+ steps up the "cliff island" from Landing Cove to the lighthouse. It’s not open for tours – and its foghorn is so loud, you’re prohibited from even getting too close to it. On a foggy day out there, though, it becomes crystal clear why it’s so necessary.
5. Old Point Loma Lighthouse, San Diego
The San Diego harbor's historic first lighthouse can be found on the San Diego peninsula known as Point Loma, within the bounds of Cabrillo National Monument. First put into service in 1855, the two-story, Cape Cod-style lighthouse appears small and modest, more house than light. It's still a beacon, though, as it rises high above the city – in fact, the highest in the U.S. But it turned out to be too high up there, when low-hanging fog and clouds would too often obscure its light beams at 462 feet above sea level. In 1891, a lighthouse on the low tip of the Point replaced it.
As part of its decommissioning, its original Fresnel lens was removed – and went missing, never to be found again. To add insult to injury, the “Old” Point Loma Lighthouse was threatened with demolition in 1913. But it was still a popular attraction for tourists who loved the beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and the entire San Diego shoreline and the mountains in the distance. Thankfully, acquisition by the National Parks Service and a rehab completed in 1935 took Old Point Loma Lighthouse off the chopping block.
The lighthouse museum is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but the monument’s entrance station (where you must pay a fee) closes at 4:20 p.m. Your fee is valid for seven consecutive days of entry. However, there are just three days a year when the lighthouse tower is open to the public – and only from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Check the schedule online, and make sure you’re comfortable climbing a spiral staircase and a ladder. If not, there’s plenty to see otherwise – including next door, where a museum is housed in the former a living quarters of the assistant lighthouse keeper.
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