“A one-and-a-half story building with a low tower rising from its center” the phrase occurs frequently through the early Sailing Directions as descriptive of California’s first lighthouses — and there is strong evidence that all of those lighthouses of a century ago were of almost identical construction. There were, of course, minor variations; the more ornate decoration of Santa Barbara Light, its cone-roofed lantern with diagonal astragals, and the dormer windows at Point Pinos — possibly a latter addition – are cases in point.
Shown on the opposite page is, top left, California’s first lighthouse at Alcatraz Island on San Francisco Bay; it was built in 1854 and lasted until 1609, when it was replaced by a modem tower. At its right is Point Pinos, near Monterey; first lighted in the autumn of 1854, it is still in active commission. Center left and right are Old Point Loma, in use from 1855 to 1891, and Santa Barbara Light, 1856 to 1935. The light at Point Conception, some 40 miles west of the city of Santa Barbara, was built on top of the point, in 1856. Like the original Point Loma Light, it proved to be too high, and in 1881 was re-located on the plateau just to the left of center of the bottom sketch.
Lighthouse lenses throughout the world, as well as ships’ running-lights, aviation beacons, and other signalling apparatus, date back to Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), French scientist. His lenses first were used at Corduan, France, in 1823.
Long after Captain Israel’s trusty shotgun fog-signal, a big bell was installed at Ballast Point. In 1928 it was replaced by a diaphone — and frequently, on foggy nights, irate citizens of Coronado’s “Gold Coast” would telephone indignantly to the lighthouse, demanding that it be shut off. The siren at Pt. Loma went into service in 1913 and was replaced by a diaphone 20 years later.
Although Count Rumford (1754-1814) devised the principle of the multiple wick burner, it was a Captain Doty who invented the first one to use kerosene successfully in lighthouses. The basic principle of the central-draft, tubular-wick burner was that of Aime Argand (1755-1803) and lighthouse lamps were made with from one to five concentric wicks.
Modern conveniences came late to the present Pt. Loma Light Station. Kerosene lamps were used in the keepers’ quarters until 1933, and coal for cooking and heating was not replaced by butane until 1946.