Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Three Beams of Light: Chronicles of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family. By Norma Engel. San Diego: Tecolote Publications, 1986. Primary Documents. Illustrations. Reading List. Appendix. Price Unavailable.
Reviewed by Ronald V. May, Staff Archaeologist, Department of Planning & Land Use, County of San Diego; and Director of Archaeology, Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation. He is the author of articles on the Spanish Fort Guijarros, the Ballast Point whaling station, and U.S. Army Coast Artillery on Ballast Point and Point Loma.
Three Beams of Light is an important contribution to the pathetically small body of published material describing San Diego’s maritime community before World War II. The book provides elements which will be attractive to the historical geographer, new social historian, historical archaeologist, and general public. Capitalizing on the freedom given by a non-academic publication, author Norma Engel has attempted to balance nostalgic human interest with reminiscences of historical events in a narrative style.
The title introduces a novel approach to organizing the histories of three lighthouse stations to which her father Herman Engel had been appointed in his career spanning 1900 to 1931. The first third of the book narrates personal and family memories of life at the Oakland Harbor Light and Point Bonita in the San Francisco Bay area. Both “beams” illuminate the dimly understood life of lighthouse keepers’ families in tight quarters, on very limited incomes, and in remote maritime outposts. The only neighbors were other keepers at the lights, U.S. Lifesavers, U.S. Army garrisons, and special attachments of the U.S. Navy and their families. The detailed description of space, proxemic distances between families, furnishings and personal effects, heating and provisions, and associated problems are significant information generally not provided in most published sources.
For the historian, geographer, or archaeologist piecing together news ac-counts, archives notes, and statistical counts of artifacts in order to learn about life around Ballast Point, Engel’s memory of the layout of Fort Rosecrans and San Diego Bay will be invaluable. In her book, aerial photographs, hand-drawn sketches, and close-up pictures have been placed within a conversational text of events as recalled from the experiences of a young girl playing and exploring the tidal flats, beaches, and built environment around Ballast Point. The use of water taxis and pilot boats, visits with Navy launches and Army families garrisoned nearby were a necessary part of life and the performance of the duties of the lighthouse. This chronicle reveals the relationships of a lighthouse keeper’s family with the greater community of San Diego in the first quarter of this century.
The detailing of a lighthouse keeper’s daily routine is important in defining lifestyle and economic existence on salaries of $450 to $750 a year. Norma Engel’s narration of daily schedules reveals maintenance duties, out-side income from boat rentals, and insight into the degree of commodity purchasing in the markets of San Francisco and San Diego. The equally full-time duties of Freda Engels, wife of Keeper Herman Engels, in maintaining Victorian order within available resources are insightful on the role of women in lighthouse communities.
Achieving balance between historic contributions and human interest anecdotes is a difficult task, especially from the viewpoint of a child’s memories. The author does provide nuggets of valuable information where an adult might have overlooked them. For example, the detailed accounting of saving the life of an orphaned seal resulted in excellent descriptions of the physical arrangement of buildings, equipment, and the yardscape of the Ballast Point Lighthouse. In another episode, memory of the fleet of small albacore boats moored inside Ballast Point provided new information on the early 19th century fishing community. The ethnic mix of the Scandinavian named Olaf and the Oriental referred to as “Chinaman” produced detailed descriptions of boat life and community interaction.
Norma Engel’s Three Beams of Light must be viewed on the order of a transcript of an oral history. The forty-five illustrations were inserted to enable the reader visualization of the events. This effect could have been enhanced with a few more illustrations such as the U.S. National Archives plot plans of Fort Rosecrans and Ballast Point, which are readily available at the nearby Cabrillo National Monument. Difficulty in relating the hand-sketches of Fort Rosecrans on page 110 and San Diego Harbor on page 214 would have been resolved with this added research.
This book is a welcome contribution to promoting the better under-standing of the history of Ballast Point and the maritime heritage of San Diego. The narrative style is easy to read, amusing, and informative. The contribution ranks high among those Spanish and American accounts of the 1803 Battle of San Diego Bay and Lucy Wentworth’s unpublished recollections of life among the Ballast Point whalers in the 1860’s. The next stage will be for a scholar to edit Engel’s accounts with footnotes, an index, and bibliographic references.