What’s in a name? Where to put the lighthouse.

Did you know there was considerable debate on the location of the Old Point Loma lighthouse, even after the U.S. Coast Survey had selected the site?

On September 28, 1850 (coincidentally 308 years to the day after Cabrillo landed at Ballast Point), the United States Congress authorized the construction of nine lighthouses from Cape Flattery, Washington, to San Diego.

In 1851, A.M. Harrison, Chief Topographer, U.S. Coast Survey, selected the current site of the Point Loma lighthouse at 422 feet above the water.

When the contractors, Francis A. Gibbons and Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore, arrived in San Diego they asked where to put the lighthouse.  Keep in mind, that San Diego was located at present-day Old Town, about eight miles from Point Loma with a population of about 700 people.

Gibbons and Kelly were told to put the light on Point Loma, which confused them.  Point Loma was not the same as San Diego, and they were contracted to build a lighthouse at San Diego.

On January 17, 1853, Gibbons wrote the Lighthouse Board for clarification and, once again, he was told to use the survey prepared by Harrison, placing the lighthouse on Point Loma.

In disbelief, Gibbons wrote the Lighthouse Board a second time, and the Lighthouse Board responded once again to build the lighthouse on Point Loma.

Not satisfied with that answer, Gibbons made an appointment with the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, William Hodge, to clarify the situation.  He was given the option to build the lighthouse or back out of the contract.  Gibbons did nothing for six months and, in October 1853, once again wrote to the Lighthouse Board offering to build the lighthouse on the Point Loma site for “proper compensation.”

Gibbons was so stubborn in his objections because he would have to incur costs to build a road and bridges to bring the materials from La Playa all the way out to Point Loma.  He asked the Treasury for additional funds to cover the increased costs, but he was denied.

Finally, after more than a year of back-and-forth on determining the correct location of the lighthouse, the schooner Vaquero arrived from San Francisco on April 7, 1854 with the building materials for the Point Loma lighthouse, and construction began within a week.

Construction of the lighthouse at its current location wasn’t easy.  It took the construction crew 18 men and 35 days to construct a road to Point Loma.  To wet the mortar for the bricks, water had to be brought in from a well at La Playa, nearly 7 miles away.  Sandstone for use in construction of the body of the house was quarried near Ballast Point.

The original budget for the construction of the lighthouse: $15,000.  The actual cost because of the remote location on Point Loma: $29,115.26 (not including the 3rd Order Fresnel lens which was an additional $3,810).

Gibbons and Kelly went to court to get compensated for the additional costs of building a lighthouse on Point Loma—not San Diego—and eventually prevailed.

So what’s in a name?  Today, San Diego and Point Loma are almost synonymous, but in 1852 – 1854, it made a huge difference.

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