As a result of the Mexican War of 1846-48, a large portion of the Pacific Coast of North America came into the hands of the United States. Soon thereafter, with the discovery of gold in California and the resultant upswing in ocean commerce along its shores, the need for reliable aids to coastal navigation became apparent.
On September 28, 1850, Congress appropriated $90,000 for the construction of lighthouses at strategic points along the coast and near the entrance to important harbors. This series of early lighthouses included lights on Alcatraz Island, Point Conception, Battery Point, Farallon Island, Point Pinos and Point Loma. Of these, the Point Loma light was the last to be finished.1
In 1851, a survey of San Diego harbor was made by the Coast Survey preparatory to the selection of the site for a future lighthouse. The site finally decided upon was located on the summit of Point Loma near the end, some ten miles from Old Town.
There has been some confusion as to Just when work on the Point Loma light began. As far as is known, no construction took place at the site until April, 1854, three years after the survey which determined the location.
The contractors for construction of the light were Messrs. Gibbon and Kelley of Washington, D.C., represented on the west coast by William J. Timanus, who supervised the construction.
The first materials for construction of the lighthouse came to San Diego from San Francisco in the schooner Vaquero, on April 7, 1854.2 The lantern and lens had to be ordered from Paris.
Some time around July or August of 1854, money appropriated for construction of the Point Loma light and other lights on the Pacific Coast ran out. Congress on August 8, 1854, appropriated an additional $59,434 to complete these lighthouses. Before November of the same year, Timanus had completed his phase of the construction. But the full job was still not completed—and San Diego was not too happy with the situation. An irate citizen wrote to the editor of the Herald:
We shall endeavor, during the ensuing winter, to make the first named of our delegation, informed of the fact that we have no mail communication whatsoever with any place; that mail steamers pass every week almost withinsight of our wharves, carrying mail to Oregon and less important places to the north of us; that we are in want of a port of entry . . . and among many other wants, a lantern, oil and keeper for our light (?) house.3
To this the editor replied:
We in San Diego may also ask for a “Lantern oil and keeper” for the little stack of bricks erected on the top of Point Loma.4
The “little stack of bricks” sat out on Point Loma, unused and apparently forgotten, for almost a year. Nothing more was done until the arrival of two men with the lantern, lens and other equipment on Friday morning, August 10, 1855. But, before construction could be resumed, extensive repairs were needed—the result of the contractor’s having used inferior materials.
By October, 1855, completion of the Point Loma lighthouse was in sight. After many delays, light number 355, of the Twelfth United States Lighthouse District, better known as the old Point Loma light, was lighted at sunset, November 15, 1855.
All of the early California lighthouses were similar, if not identical, in architecture. The description …”a one-and-a-half story building with a low tower rising from its center…” often appeared in the early sailing directions for the Pacific Coast. Today, as then, the structure of the old Point Loma lighthouse is small and snug. The two rooms in the basement were probably general storerooms. The south room on the first floor was the parlor, while the north room served as both a kitchen and dining room. This room opens out onto an extra room or addition built on the back of the house. This rear addition probably served as a larder and service room for the kitchen.
The small room on the second floor was probably used as a bunkroom for the keepers during their duty hours, while the two larger rooms served as bedrooms for their families. The light gallery in the tower is reached by a spiral staircase and ladder. For anyone over six feet in height, the lighthouse is indeed “snug.”
The navigator, on the deck of his ship, running at sea off Point Loma in the 1850’s and 1860’s, would have seen a far different light from the one visible today. His directory of the Pacific Coast would have described the characteristics of the Point Loma light as “…a fixed white light (actually, quite yellow from the whale oil consumed) of the third order of Fresnel5 and should be visible…at a distance of 31 miles.6
The lens in the tower probably had the appearance of a huge, round glass beehive, built in segments, and held together by strips of steel, or more likely brass.7 The lens and its oil-burning lamp did not revolve, but were fixed in place.
The lens system, composed of a series of highly polished horizontal glass rings, served to focus the light coming from the wick of the lamp into a horizontal pattern shaped like a huge flat disk. This light pattern, which might have appeared on foggy nights as a huge, luminous and fuzzy phonograph record, was directed to the horizon in all directions. Although this type of system was more efficient than the open multi-flames of the lighthouses of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it had its drawbacks. This fixed system dissipated its light in all directions at once. Hence, there was no point out at sea where the light appeared to be especially bright. Being fixed and constant, the light could be mistaken for some other light on shore, and errors in navigation could result.
In spite of these disadvantages, the old Point Loma light remained a “…fixed white light of the third order of Fresnel” until April 1, 1889, when its characteristics were changed “…to a fixed white (light), with alternate red and white flashes at intervals of one minute.”8
The old Point Loma light burned every night for almost thirty-six years. During these years the little lighthouse withstood at least one big blow and an earthquake, as well as numerous minor ravages of time and weather. A constant problem for the keepers was the maintenance of an adequate supply of water.
The old Point Loma light was visited periodically by lighthouse tenders. These ships, with San Francisco as their home port, sailed up and down the coast periodically stopping at the various lighthouses, bringing supplies and often lighthouse inspectors.
Once in a while the lighthouse keeper and his family would entertain visitors from town. People would come out to picnic and enjoy the view. It is told that there was a dance now and then in the wooden barn that stood near the lighthouse. The lighthouse was even the setting for a marriage.9
The old Point Loma light was at onetime the highest light in the United States. Estimates of its altitude ranged from 422 to 510 feet above sea level. Some of these figures confused the height of the site with the elevation of the focal plane of the lens system at the top of the tower. In 1882 the light was listed officially as being 462 feet above sea level.
Such an elevation was to have its advantages and disadvantages. A light with such an altitude could be seen many more miles out at sea on a clear night than could a light closer to the shore line. The view of the surrounding sea and countryside to be had from the lighthouse was (and is) spectacular. One writer compared the sweeping panorama of San Diego with that of Naples. He judged that the view of San Diego to be obtained on a clear day excelled that of the Italian city.10
Often the keepers, spotting a steamer heading for port, would fly a flag from the lighthouse as a signal to the harbor pilots that a ship was approaching. The keepers also spotted whales for the local whalers.
The lofty position of the old Point Loma light, however, proved to be its eventual downfall as an aid to navigation. It was found that high fogs often obscured the light while the coast line just below was clearly visible. By 1881, a new site had been picked, but at the time no funds were available to relocate the light.
In 1889 Congress appropriated $30,000 for reestablishment of the Point Loma light on the lower site.
On August 21, 1889, bids for the construction of the new lighthouse were opened, and work was soon begun. By late March of 1891 the final hour of the old Point Loma light was at hand.
At sunrise, Monday morning, March 23, 1891, after almost thirty-six years of service, the yellow flame in the lantern of the old Point Loma lighthouse winked out—forever. Contemporary accounts of the end of the era were almost like obituaries:
One of the most familiar and romantic landmarks of the entire bay region has disappeared forever. On Sunday night the light in the tower at Point Loma which has been a “Pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day” for many, many years, shone for the last time. It will be sadly missed by residents of the bay region who have regarded it with a feeling akin to reverence and have pointed it out to strangers as one of the historic and interesting features of the landscape. Many have for years watched for its first gleam at night and felt a sense of companionship in the light that never failed. It could be seen from the mountains, from the mesas, from any direction. It was a beacon and a hope to mariners and an object of veneration, almost, to the old residents of the bay region. It will shine no more forever, and to thousands its disappearance will be like the death of an old comrade . . . To many, Point Loma will have lost half of its romantic interest because of ‘”the light that failed at last.”11
The old illumination apparatus was dismantled and shipped to New York. The lighthouse was boarded up, whitewashed, and left in the charge of Captain Israel, keeper of the new light. No one seemed to want the old lighthouse; there was speculation that the War Department might tear it down to make way for new fortifications.
That the lighthouse survived was partly due to the sturdy construction of the building and partly to an ironic twist of history. The lighthouse had been an aid to navigation. One day it would become part of a monument to a navigator who had sailed in the days when there were few if any aids to navigation: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer in the service of Spain, who discovered the coast of California.
On November 15, 1955, the old Point Loma lighthouse observed its 100th anniversary. At 4:47 P.M., sunset, a light once again appeared in the tower. It was a much brighter light than the one that had first shone forth a hundred years earlier. A 300 watt electric bulb replaced the oilburning lamp. The lens system of the apparatus magnified the intensity of this bulb, producing four beams with a combined brightness of about 200,000 candlepower.12
The old Point Loma lighthouse continues today to excite the imagination and interest of young and old. It is a significant reminder of the early pioneer days in California. The “little stack of bricks” continues to be a snug and cozy memorial of other times.
1. San Diego Herald, April 15, 1854, 2.
2. San Diego Herald, April 8, 1854.
3. San Diego Herald, November 25, 1854.
5. Augustin Jean Fresnel, 1788-1827, was a French physicist specializing in optics. He was the first to construct compound lenses as a more efficient substitute for mirrors in lighthouse illumination apparatuses. The basic system he designed is used to this day. Any compound segmented lens used for focusing light, horizontally or vertically, for use in lighthouses or on the back porch of the kitchen, is still known as a fresnel lens. The Orders of Fresnel is Fresnel”s system of ranking efficiency and focal length of the lens system used in lighthouse illuminators. A “third order” system has a focal length of 500 millimeters, while a “first order” system is larger and more efficient, having a focal length of 920 millimeters.
6. George Davidson, Directory of the Pacific Coast ofthe U.S. for 1858 (cited in James Mills, “Southern California’s First Light,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, October, 1955, p. 46.
7. William Tregarthen Douglass and Nicholas G. Gedye, “Lighthouse,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, XVI, 633-36.
8. The San Diego Union, December 2, 1876, p. 1.
9. The San Diego Union December 12, 1876, p. 4.
10. The marriage of A. C. Wentworth to Sarah Peters” both of San Luis Rey, took place in the lighthouse on December 11, Judge Porter officiating.
11. Charles Dudley Warner, “Our Italy,” Harpers New Monthly Magazine, November, 1890.
12. The San Diego Union, March 24, 1891, p. 4. This light was not a navigational aid, and elaborate precautions were taken to prevent it from being so mistaken. The light was lowered on its pedestal and secured from revolving.
ASHLEY THOMAS McDERMOTT served as seasonal historian at Cabrillo National Monument in 1960. During this period he did some of the preliminary research for this article on the Old Point Loma Light. Mr. McDermott is an Instructor in Astronomy and in the History of Western Civilization, at the College of the Desert, Palm Desert, California. He is working toward a doctorate in Astronomy.