By Norma Engel
Ballast Point stretches out into the entrance of San Diego Bay like a huge thumb extending from the hand of Point Loma. It nestles in the quiet blue water midway between the ocean and the bay, and here the United States government established a lighthouse, in August of 1890.
The beauty of the spot was sometimes offset by the great amount of work which had to be done by just two keepers in their normal routine of duty. Their responsibility consisted of the care of ten lights — the station light and nine beacons — as well as two fog-signals, four gas- buoys, and the buildings, wharf, launch and road. In addition to this, the keepers stood watches of six hours on, six hours off. Runs were made up and down the bay two or three. times a week, as well as occasionally out into the ocean to re-light the “gas buoy” or the whistling-buoy. This was no small task in itself, as it was usually foul weather when a light went out, and it was necessary to get it going again as quickly as possible. The seals resented being outed from their “rocking-chair” position at the base of the buoy, and the keeper had to be quite an acrobat to jump from the launch to the buoy, find a firm footing on the wet metal, and then cling on with one hand while he relighted the buoy with the other.
At the station, the old fog-bell provided us young ones with some fun when we were in a reckless mood. The bell was run by clockwork which had to be re-wound approximately every hour; this seemed like a diabolical device to keep the men on their toes when fog settled down in the early morning hours. When the clockwork refused to function, it was necessary to ring the bell by hand; a huge clapper had to be swung against the side of the bell every minute. One of us would dare another to stick his head inside the bell while the rest would pull on the clapper. It was bad enough being on the outer side of the bell, but the one who was inside was never quite the same again. The old bell gave way to a fog horn in 1928. Its tone was not melodious and heartwarming as had been the bong of the bell; it bellowed forth into the night like the raucous cry of a monster ascending from the depths of the sea. The first time it blew we knew that we would no longer be lulled to sleep, but this was nothing to the reaction of the Coronadans, who were awakened that first foggy night by our new acquisition. The voices of the people continued to be heard in no uncertain terms; there were irate demands that the keeper turn off the signal, and I believe formal requests were made to the Superintendent of Lighthouses, to cage the “monster”. It was to no avail; progress was here.
An air of quiet excitement always prevailed at the “Point,” some of it because of unforeseen events, some because of things we always knew would happen and were fun to anticipate. On the regular schedule was the feud between my father and the fast moving ships, principally Navy destroyers and the coastwise steamers Harvard and Yale. In the early 1900’s there was much less ship traffic, but it was enough to frustrate more than one lighthouse keeper. When our family moved there, the front, side and back yards consisted primarily of cobblestones, smooth and round, but nevertheless cobblestones, dotted here and there with an ancient Spanish cannon-ball. (Incidentally, as youngsters we saw no historical value in the cannonballs, but they were lots of fun to roll along the sidewalks at each other’s feet. This came to a quick end when Dad saw us doing it. He had wondered what was making the sidewalks crack here and there.) Laboriously our family hauled out the rocks and brought in good soil, planted a lawn and vegetable garden and sat back to admire our handiwork. Then came the deluge! The feud between my Dad and the ships burst forth when three destroyers nonchalantly snorted past at a good clip. Normally their pace would have been of little consequence, but a combination of extreme high tide and the wake from the speeding destroyers changed our thriving garden into a salt marsh. In addition to that the water poured into the basement; what could float was floating, and what could sink had sunk. The barrel of butter was now more than adequately salted. The preserves had floundered off the shelves and were at the bottom, and the eggs were bobbing merrily about in the newly added brine. There was no telephone at that time by which a hurried complaint could be made, and much of the mutterings are better left unprinted. The Harvard and Yale seemed to delight in showing the passengers how quickly the run could be made from San Diego to San Francisco, and this included leaving the dock and going out the bay with a “bone in the teeth.” After correspondence, firm and consistent, speeds were reduced, the garden was restored, and a bulkhead was built to withstand further onslaughts.
There was the fun side of life here too. A day on the bay was a favorite pastime of many people. Cars were few and expensive, but a rowboat could usually be rented for a dollar or two a day; there were a few at the lighthouse for this purpose. Whenever a keeper rented a boat he made sure the persons could row, swim or float, and then warned them about the tides. Rarely did these daring souls need any help, but once in a while boats would float gently down the bay on the outgoing tide, its occupants singing happily in the cool westerly breeze, and probably deciding there was nothing to rowing a boat at all. Most of the boats would go back on the tidal change and take advantage of the incoming tide. There always had to be one, however — usually a courageous young Lochinvar who had taken his “gal” out onto the western sea — who failed to reckon with the tide. It was not unusual, on Saturday or Sunday nights, to hear the screams of women and accompanying shouts for help from the men. One Sunday night Dad went out with my brothers on such a rescue mission, and found just outside the “Point” a nice young man struggling desperately against the outgoing tide. He was losing ground steadily, but was still trying. Crouched in the stern of the boat was a thoroughly frightened young English lady, who at that moment had no longer any romantic inclinations toward this personable young man, and probably was wishing only for a cup of hot English tea. Mother warmed them with some tea — English or otherwise — and lodged them for the night. We always remembered this couple because, once out of the boat and to a point of safety, the young lady started talking rapidly and was still doing it the next day when we got them started home by land; the young man was discreetly silent.
There were many other things to bring fun and excitement into our lives — the rescue of the flyer and his crewman, when their DeHaviland plane plopped into the water just off the point — our sea-gull hospital, and the pet fur seal which gave us so much joy. There were the famous “Channel Swims,” and the floating city of the albacore fleet that used to anchor just inside the point. There was the catching of huge sharks with bacon for bait – and the time when Dad inadvertently ran the launch right over “Barnacle Bill,” the whale that used to make regular trips into the harbor. These, and so many other things, made life at the lighthouse a very good one for us all.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Norma Engel is the daughter of the late Herman Engel, veteran of the Navy and of the old Lighthouse Service, who was keeper at Ballast Point from 1914 to 1931.
On Aug. 5, 1960, a modernized light was installed on top of the fog-signal house (at extreme left) and old Ballast Point Lighthouse, a landmark since 1890, was torn down; also demolished to make room for more modern structures were the two Victorian cottages where the light-keepers and their families lived.