The Journal of San Diego History
October 1955, Volume 1, Number 4
This issue is sponsored in honor of Suzanne Ledeboer

By Robert Adamson
Lieutenant Commander, U. S. Coast Guard

A passenger aboard ship bound for San Diego today may relax, knowing there is small chance of his vessel becoming lost or running aground. Entering the channel and harbor, either at night or in thick fog, has been simplified greatly by the efficient light and sound signals which are maintained by the U. S. Coast Guard at Pt. Loma and Ballast Point.

As our modern vessel with elaborate electronics equipment approaches Pt. Loma from seaward, the skipper listens to the reassuring ping of his fathometer automatically giving warning as the ocean bottom shelves upward toward the coast. A clammy shroud of fog may reduce the visibility, but the ship’s progress, though slowed, is not stopped. Frequent bearings are taken on Pt. Loma’s radio-beacon, using the ship’s radio direction finder; approaching closer, the braying of the diaphone type fog signal is board, and by a simple method of comparing the times when radiobeacon and fog signals are received, the ship’s distance from the point is determined. On a clear night the revolving, 200,000-candlepower beams of Pt. Loma Light Station give their flashing white warning to a distance of 15 miles.

After rounding Pt. Loma, Ballast Point Light Station is picked up, with its fixed green, 1700-candlepower light; it is visible for a maximum of I I miles. Here too, a diaphone signal is used during fog conditions. And of course by now, our vessel has the advantage of the numerous buoys, smaller lights, day markers and ranges which make up San Diego’s fine system of aids to navigation, installed and maintained by the Coast Guard. Capt. Loren H. Seeger, USCG, heads the San Diego Group, which includes the Air Station at Lindbergh Field, an 83-foot patrol boat, and the two light stations. Chief Engineman Douglas R. Withers has served as Officerin-charge of Pt. Loma for three and a half years. At Ballast Point Chief Boatswain’s Mate R. F. Franke is practically a native, having been there since 1930.

An approach to our coast over a century ago was quite a different matter, to be carried out with extreme caution and no certainty of a safe arrival. Although we have no local record of ship-wreckers, with their false .lights leading unsuspecting ships onto the beach for plunder, there was little here to actually help the skipper in his pilotage. Consequently it was a welcome addition when Pt. Loma Light was first lighted on November 15, 1855; on a clear night, its light would allow a comparatively safe approach. Our skipper of the early days, aboard a sailing vessel, would feel his way slowly, or even stand off until the weather improved. We can imagine him standing on the quarterdeck, sniffing at the wind and listening carefully for any sounds ashore, with the sails above him flapping now and then in the light breeze. He cautions his lookouts again, and checks the dead reckoning run from the last fix, which was too long ago for comfort. In the eery silence of the fog, the leadsman’s voice drones on as he keeps reaching for the bottom with his “fathometer” of those days, a messy job, and not too accurate or fast enough. If the skipper’s navigation has been good and he is lucky enough to be passing Pt. Loma in a low-lying fog bank, he may hear several loud reports warning him away from the rocks. This is Capt. Robert D. Israel, the light keeper, who has sighted masts above the fog, and is firing his shotgun as a makeshift, but effective signal.

Ballast Point light was not established until August 1, 1890. As traffic increased, more and more aids were installed, but even in 1890 most of our present advantages were a thing of the future.

It is interesting to note that in spite of our scientific advancement, both light stations still use the same lenses which were installed in 1890 and 1891. In those days the French were the undisputed leaders in manufacturing precision lenses, which were ground slowly, carefully, and with great skill. The best known manufacturer in Paris was Henri Le Paute, who furnished the Pt. Loma lenses, but there were others as proficient, such as Saulter-LeMonnier & Co., who gave Ballast Point its lens. Each lens-panel at Pt. Loma contains a center “bulls-eye” which is designed to draw and focus maximum light from the illuminant at the exact center of the lamp. Originally, wicks were used, with crude types of fluid such as sperm, olive, coconut, and lard oil, but these were all eventually superseded by kerosene, and finally electricity. The wick type burner used three gallons of oil a night to produce a 60,000-candlepower beam. The change-over to incandescent oil vapor in 1911 gave double the light for only one gallon. The present 500 watt electric filament, installed in 1926, results in 200,000 candlepower. However, remember that in all these years only the illuminant was changed, with the original lamp remaining. It is truly a fine piece of equipment which can endure the years unblemished, and apparently remain in service indefinitely. Unfortunately, theoretical efficiency was actually lost by improving the illuminant, since the lenses were ground to focus and draw maximum light from a three inch diameter wick, which gave 85% efficiency., With the smaller oil-vapor mantle, efficiency dropped to 50%, and the electric filament results in only 35%; the light source, however, is far more powerful today. Some of the local mariners claim that the modern system does not give the same soft, clear light that the old wick type did. But of course electricity is much more reliable and requires little maintenance. Certainly the light keepers can appreciate the longer periods between times for cleaning the lenses, as compared to the daily chore formerly necessitated by the messier oil fumes.

The original Pt. Loma light was in use for thirty-six years, until the present one, 88 feet above the sea, on its white, skeleton tower, was lighted on the evening of March 30, 1891. The old structure is now a reservation under control of the National Parks Service, with Mr. Donald M. Robinson as Superintendent, and affords many visitors an interesting view of life from the days of early California.