By Karen Scanlon and Kim Fahlen
In custom pine boxes—not unlike primitive coffins—rests a Fresnel lens ordered in the mid-1880s for San Diego’s new lighthouse. But this elusive lighthouse lens, given the number H-L 330 by its Parisian manufacturer, Henry-Lepaute, never served its intended destination. ‘Showman’ par excellence, a misfit, and ultimately discarded as surplus, it appears that H-L 330 was delivered to the West Coast twice!
The U.S. Light House Board of 1882 had begun to act on the realization that the lighthouse on Point Loma, 422 feet above the sea, was dangerous. Fog and low cloud too often obscured its light from ever-increasing maritime activity at San Diego. A lighthouse closer to the sea was urgent, but the government must, then, bear the expense of two new light stations. By March 1891, a harbor light at Ballast Point and a lighthouse at the lower tip of Point Loma (with a focal plane of just 88 feet above sea level) were in operation.
Engineers dealt with frustrations in the acquisition of the illuminating apparatus for the reestablished Point Loma Lighthouse. A 3rd Order lens had been ordered, yet before delivery was made to the U.S. Army Quartermaster’s Depot, New York, it was routed to the World’s Fair at home in Paris.
Interestingly, exhibition of the amazing work of glass and bronze of Henry-Lepaute, and its lamp, at Exposition Universelle de 1889 occurred in the shadow of a defining demonstration of French technology, the Eiffel Tower. H-L 330 earned “2 GREAT PRIZES: 1 GOLD MEDAL, 1 BRONZE MEDAL”, as inscribed in marble on its pedestal door.
In January 1890, Engineer Heap of the 3rd Light House District, New York, notes that he received the Point Loma lens from France and that funds were forthcoming to pay for it. On June 28 of the same year, Engineer Heuer of the 12th Light House District, San Francisco, requested shipment of that lens. By August 22, it was on its way by steamer.
Meanwhile, in July, ironwork for Point Loma’s leggy tower rolled into San Diego from Trenton, New Jersey on flatcars of California Southern Railroad. Thirty-seven and one-half tons were hauled on “strong wagons” out to the Point, where a concrete block 25 feet square and 14 feet deep was waiting to support the new lighthouse. But months would pass before an operational lens was fitted in the tower.
According to the San Diego Union, October 19, the superintendent of lighthouse repairs and his assistant arrived “to place the lens in the skeleton iron tower… They proceeded to take some measurements.” But the next day, Engineer Heuer notes in his district report, “Point Loma, Cal., illuminating apparatus, too large, new lens requested.”
So, had H-L 330 actually been shipped to San Diego? In a letter marked October 30, 1890 from Engineer Heap in New York to The Light House Board, Washington, D.C., “… the lens purchased from appropriation for Point Loma, was bought to replace a lens already sent there…” By now, the Board was procuring a different lens altogether, one that had been slated for Anclote Key, Florida, H-L 329. (This complete optic may be viewed in the Assistant Keepers Quarters, Cabrillo National Monument.)
On November 1, a letter was sent to Engineer Heuer from “Gregory” [assumed associate at 3rd Light House District] stating: “It is very unfortunate about the lens and apparatus for Point Loma. The mistake was made by the maker. On the section of the light-house lantern and watch-room which was sent him as a guide for making the lens apparatus and pedestal, the diameter of the area for the foot of the pedestal is clearly marked 13 inches and he has made the base of the pedestal 26 inches…” This would allow insufficient clearance with the stairway into the lens-room; remedial options were suggested so to fit H-L 330 at Point Loma, but, alas, it was sent away.
H-L 330 went to Chicago, where a new lighthouse at the mouth of the Chicago River was under construction in 1893. Its lantern design could be altered to accommodate the dimensions of the pedestal base of Point Loma’s ‘misfit’ lens. (Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was relocated to the south end of the north breakwater in 1919.)
Meanwhile, beautiful H-L 330 was celebrated at a second fair—Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. However, photographs and sketches of the exhibit by the U.S. Light House Board in the Engineering Building do not reveal this lens.
We began to question, did the lens actually ‘attend’ the fair? But our information foraging had followed an errant path, since a recent pursuit of national archives places H-L 330 in the Mining Building. It had been loaned to the U.S. Geological Survey on behalf of The Standard Oil Company, “a party in interest in the exhibition of the lamp”.
In the early 1960s, Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was automated and the fine old H-L 330 was removed from the tower and declared ‘surplus’. Former historian of Cabrillo National Monument (CNM) Ross Holland became aware of its status, and, with Superintendent Thomas Tucker, managed to have it forwarded, or shall we say, “returned” to San Diego. Two local newspapers confirmed its arrival in July 1968.
CNM conserves four historical lighthouse lenses, which must be appreciated! One shines in the lantern of the old lighthouse, two glimmer in the Assistant Keepers Quarters, and H-L 330 lies in museum storage.
The 1968 shipment from Chicago of the lens included a number of ‘fittings’ belonging to it. There is the curved, bronze door that was part of the pedestal on which the optic rotated. H-L 330 needed to rotate in order to signal red and white ‘flashes’. CNM holds three (of four) rare “ruby screens”, or sheets of red glass, which were once affixed to the wider lens panels. Through these screens the lamp’s light cast red beams.
Lens rotation was given by a system of clockwork and weights before electric motors. The stack of disc-shaped weights with varying heaviness, which linked to the cable for motivating the lens, is in museum storage. Displayed in the AKQ is a lighthouse lens clockwork. It belongs to H-L 330. Left of the mannequin of the lighthouse keeper is a photograph showing this lens. It was taken during the nearly 20 years the lens was exhibited in the Visitor Center, which is also where you may put your fingerprints on a magnificent bull’s-eye of H-L 330.
Funny thing is, the 1st Order lens ordered for the 1855 [Old] Point Loma Lighthouse was too large for its lantern, too, so it served elsewhere. But we won’t go there…
It is hoped that you encounter a resurrection ‘of contemplation’ on this curious path of a lighthouse lens. Not earth-shattering maybe, but H-L 330 is irreplaceable, and deserving of merit among all the riches Cabrillo National Monument has to offer.
Last revised 27-Mar-20