By Winifred Davidson
A century ago United States authority on the West Coast was new. Our historic landmark, Point Loma, the tip of which is the terrain first sighted by navigators entering San Diego harbor from South and West, was considered a natural site for a beacon of the sea. But not long after the “Old Spanish” Light began to function it was found to be somewhat less than adequate. It towered too high: fogs obscured its beams.
The Spanish era in California was all but forgotten, and the Mexican era was recently over and done with, when the lamp in our White Tower, No. 355, of the 12th U. S. Lighthouse District, was first lighted. All national beacons and warning buoys had just been transferred from the 5th Auditor of the Treasury (“General Superintendent of Lights”) to the Lighthouse Board. This consisted of Army and Navy officers and some civilians, with the Secretary of the Treasury ex-officio president. Pay checks received at No. 355 were Treasury vouchers.
An early Spanish beacon on Point Loma has been described as set up and annually tended whenever our Spanish-speaking colonists at the Royal Presidio of San Diego and at nearby Mission San Diego de Alcala expected the supply ship in from San Blas. This seasonal fixture was simply a candle in a metal frame which swung from a pole thrust into the rocky beach near the anchorage – La Punta de los Guijarros. We call the place Ballast Point.
At least one other stake light was projected for Point Loma in Spanish times. An order of Governor Jose Joaquin Arrillaga, dated July 3, 1806, provided for a beacon placed on or near the Castillo de los Guijarros, (Fortress), scene of the then recent battle between Spanish San Diegans and Yankee smugglers aboard the Lelia Byrd. Whether or not the order was fulfilled shows up in no record available at present to the San Diego History Center.
A day-late-for-the-fair item about the exciting news that was the first lighting of No. 355 came out in the San Diego Herald Nov. 17, 1855:
We understand that orders have been received by Capt. James Keating, keeper of the lighthouse on Pt. Loma, to light up on Nov. 15 …
San Diegans watching on Presidio Hill two evenings earlier had actually seen that first official flash across darkening Loma and the level stretch we came to call Dutch Flats and Old Town. Jokesters long treasured that choice example of local journalism.
Though the light was a disappointment to seamen heading into port here in fog and thick weather, keepers, keepers’ helpers and their families long continued to enjoy their small pay checks and other benefits. Tenure of the last official keeper, Capt. Robert D. Israel (an Army veteran of the Mexican War), began the morning of the birth of his son Henry, who was twenty-one when the White Tower first went dark.
The late Mrs. Emma Minter Robinson had first-hand information about the Israels’ stay at the Lighthouse, 1871 to 1892. Mrs. Israel was Dona Maria Arcadia Alipas de Israel, half-sister of Serafina Minter, Emma’s mother. They were daughters of Donna Juana de Dios (Juanita) Machado de Alipas y Wrightington, most popular midwife and godmother in San Diego County. When Serafina died, leaving five young children who were “dispersed among relatives,” Emma thought herself the luckiest. She went to live with Aunt Arcadia, and grew up with lively boy cousins at the Light.
“What had I for playthings? The nicest in the world. Pretty shells, colored stones, kelp babies. It seems to me that I remember every day of my young life there,” she told the late Maude Frary’s history group.
Twenty years ago the Lighthouse, having been painstakingly restored under direction of Col. John R. White, superintendent of Sequoia and Cabrillo National Parks, was formally dedicated. Dr. Joao Antonio de Bianchi, Portuguese minister to the United States, eloquently praised its importance as Cabrillo National Monument. Some of the success of this restoration was due to the faithful memory of Emma Minter Robinson: general architecture, room arrangement – particularly the little, windowless room on the second floor landing, long walled up. The space between landing and outer wall was so narrow that no one suspected a room there. Opening this secret room where keepers’ helpers bunked when off duty was a triumph for the restorers.
That good memory was again called upon to help in a decision as to furniture and hangings appropriate for the building. A committee had met and seriously considered New England or early Spanish-Mexican austerities. Mahogany or fumed oak?
“There were home-made bed frames,” explained Emma to a committee member, days after the meeting had broken up in unhappy indecision. “It would be considered pretty rough carpentering, I suppose. But we were all comfortable. I do not remember comfortable chairs. There were these rough benches. Calico curtains across a corner protected our everyday clothes. Our best things were in chests. The dining table downstairs was of the same kind of rough boards.”
Mr. and Mrs. Clifton Rock lived at the Lighthouse during the early years following its restoration. Their rooms were furnished tastefully. They reminded one of a nice down-New-England-way home.