By James Mills
One of the most inflexible American demands at the end of the Mexican War, and one but reluctantly conceded, was the addition of San Diego and its harbor to the cession of less important parts of the Southwest. The new owners allowed little time to elapse before making efforts to capitalize upon the prized acquisition; the most obvious needs for development were aids to navigation, and there the work began – with a lighthouse, and then a dike to keep the river’s mud from silting up the port.
Just three years after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the San Diego Herald was delivered of its first issue, that of May 29, 1851, which announced that:
“The officers of the U. S. Coast Survey are now actively engaged in the survey. of this harbor, preparatory to the selection of a site for the Government lighthouse at this point.”
George Davidson, later head of the U. S. Coast Survey, was listed by the Herald as chief astronomer, and his name was graced with “Esq., in contrast to the lesser minions of the survey party.
A remark in Smythe’s History of San Diego1 to the effect that work was begun in 1851 when the site was selected, is the probable source of the oft-repeated error which puts the initiation of construction of the lighthouse in that year. A result has been the similarly recurring statement that the building took five years of steady labor to construct. Smythe states merely that the choice of a site was the first step in the establishment of the station, and that that was effected in 1851. It is unfortunate that this item of misinterpretation has been so widely propagated when specific, correct intelligence was available.
In the Herald for April 8, 1854, the following appears: “In a few days Mr. McManus will commence putting up the Light House at San Diego.” And by August 15 the project had advanced enough to warrant further journalistic coverage:
“The Light-house now in the course of erection on Point Loma will when completed make the 8th and last to be erected on the Coast of California and Oregon. These buildings were contracted for in Washington. by Messrs. Gibbon and Kelley of this City. W. J. Timanus (McManus) Esq.’ who ably represents these gentlemen has furnished us with the following dimensions of the building which will be of sandstone and bricks, the former to be found in abundance on Ballast Point and Point Loma, the latter with cement, lime, and lumber are now being landed on Ballast Point, by the schooner Vaquero . . . The lanterns and lenses are coming direct from Paris whence they have been ordered and will be of the latest improvement . . .”
Among the dimensions given by Mr. McManus is thirty-three feet for the height of the tower from its base, giving a total elevation of 433 feet. This figure is at variance with the 422 feet given for the site by the survey of 18512. Many later sources give 462 feet, the correct altitude of the site according to the bench mark, as the elevation of the tower. The government figure, repeated in light lists and elsewhere, for the focal plane is 510 feet, which made it America’s loftiest continental, light, as the following official statement further witnesses:
“The station was re-established on its present site in 1891, because prior to that time it was the highest light in the United States, its focal plane being 462 feet (sic) above the sea and was in consequence often obscured by high fog while the rest of the coast line was distinctly visible . . .”3
For many, since the relocation of the Point Loma Light, the 422-foot-high plane of the Cape Mendocino light has reserved for it the distinction so long claimed for San Diego. Although the old beacon retired as undefeated continental champion of the United States, its long term reputation as the highest in the world had long since been outdated by a number of foreign structures, especially by some in colonial areas.
A number of worthy people have received credit for the preservation of the old tower, but surely no one is more justly deserving of it than Brevet Major Hartman Bache of the United States Topographical Engineers, who inspected the building before its completion.
The builders appear to have felt that in so remote a spot some liberties could be taken with specifications; Major Bache’s arrival brought about a resounding disillusionment. A letter from him to Captain Edmund L. F. Hardcastle,4 Secretary of the Light-House Board in Washington, told of the deficiences.5 The tower, which was two coures of bricks short, he had reconstructed to proper measurements. The cistern, which was less than half as big as he thought it should be, would not hold water until he demanded the addition of a brick and cement bottom to it. He found the bricks of the tower to be of such poor quality that some had wasted away to a depth of two inches in a few months. This fact has caused some speculation as to the possibility that Mr. McManus or Harvey C. Ladd, the stonemason, might have shuffled some of the old mud bricks of Fort Guijarros into the schooner Vaquero’s presumably less friable load. Those that had weathered away Major Bache required to be replaced, along with the pointing, which had disappeared on the weather side of the whole structure. Another of the Major’s actions for which we should be grateful was his insistence upon plastering the brick tower, without which it never could have lasted.
One statement from the same letter has caused some misunderstanding as the classification of the light. It is this:
“I should call your attention to the fact that, in the expectation this light would be a first order light, a keeper and two assistant keepers have been appointed for it .
Some have misconstrued the meaning of this into a basis for belief that there was once a first order light here, but that lessening importance occasioned a decline in prestige. The term “order,” in reference to lights, means only the focal length of the lens, and not the rank or seniority of the station. The intention of the Major, as may be determined from his references to the third order lens being installed, was to draw attention to an error which had overstaffed the lighthouse by one man. Davidson’s Directory of the Pacific Coast of the U. S. for 1858 (?) lists Point Loma as “. . . a fixed white light of the third order of Fresnel and should be visible … at a distance of 31 miles.”
Hartman Bache’s corrections were not the only causes for delay in the completion of the light. Other earlier delays were topped by the loss of the bark Oriole on the Columbia River bar. She was laden with materials for five lighthouses at the time, including Point Loma. Her destruction caused reports in the East that Pacific Coast construction would cost four times what it would on the Atlantic.
When the lens arrived in the schooner General Pierce, with the men who installed it, Messrs. Smith and Franklin, the August 11, 1855, Herald explained that some two or three months would be required for installation because of the delays in the erection of the building. It was a good guess; the light was first displayed at sunset of November 15, 1855.
For the next thirty-six years it guided mariners home from the sea. One change was made when increased traffic made improvements desirable, and the fixed white light was replaced by a revolving red-and-white one, actuated by weights which fell down the center of the stair well.
Life on a twenty-four hour shift basis must have been a leisured existence. The first keeper, Capt. James Keating, found time to operate the first shipyard on the bay during his years of service. The Loma, the first vessel ever built here, he launched in 1857, “in due and ancient form,” as the Herald for August 13 of that year relates.
Some years later the sons of the last keeper, Capt. Robert D. Israel, conceived a money-making scheme that earned them a permanent place in local tradition. They received $5 every time they flew a red table-cloth from the lighthouse flag-pole, to signal the arrival of a ship *off shore and the need for a pilot. When whales were seen they displayed a white one, in return for favors from the fishermen.
Poor soil and the necessity for the hauling in of supplementary water in 50-gallon barrels during dry spells permitted little agricultural activity on the part of the personnel. They did raise potatoes regularly where the Bennington cemetery now lies.6
Captain Israel stayed on for the last twenty-one years of the active life of the old light (at $1,000 per annum until 1881, after that at $800) and was transferred with the function to the lower light March 23, 1891; however, his criticism of the new rainwater catchments and cistern was forth right if not diplomatic, and his career as a light-keeper ended in January of 1892.
In the forty years of neglect which followed, occasional notice of the decaying building was taken but little was accomplished, perhaps fortunately, for one plan called for its destruction and replacement by a colossal statue of Cabrillo to be over a hundred feet higher than the lighthouse itself. The establishment of the Cabrillo National Monument by President Wilson in 1913 had little immediate effect. Not until 1931 did rescue appear in the proper Western form of the United States Cavalry. Capt. Fenton S. Jacobs of the 11th Cavalry, then stationed at Fort Rosecrans, aroused to action by starry-eyed citizens who wanted to raze the “eyesore,” enlisted public interest in restoration and encouraged his troopers to spend off hours in repairing, patching, and painting. The Ninth Corps Area Headquarters made funds available then for further preventive maintenance, and the poor old tower’s nakedness was covered.
In 1934 Public Works Administration funds were secured for the complete renovation of the little lighthouse, which was accomplished under the supervision of the National Park Service.
1. Page 701
2. Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey Showing the Progress of That Work During the Year Ending November 1851, p. 515.
3. San Diego Union, November 18, 1934.
4. Captain Hardcastle, later General Hardcastle, U. S. Topographical Engineers, had been a member of the Mexican-American Boundary Commission here.
5. Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of Finances for the Year Ending November 1855, p. 410.
6. San Diego Tribune, February 21, 1939.
The story-book lighthouse-keeper — traditionally Old Cap’n Peabody, with his white goatee and peg-leg — is rapidly joining the cigar-store Indian in the realm of vanished Americana. When the Lighthouse Service of the Department of Commerce was absorbed by the Coast Guard in 1939, all of the keepers who desired to do so were inducted into the service; those who did not enter the Coast Guard remained in civilian status. One by one they have retired, and today there remains, in the Eleventh Coast Guard District, only one civilian; he is Keeper George S. Ward, of the Point Hueneme Light Station in Ventura County.
Last civilian keeper at Pt. Loma was James Dudley, who transferred into the Coast Guard, as did Assistant Keeper Milford Johnson; who later became Officer in Charge; both now are retired. R. F. Franke, in charge at Ballast Point, originally was civilian keeper there.