An Overview of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Overview of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse


Much has been written about the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and this paper brings together from multiple sources a single summary of information that will be useful to Cabrillo National Monument staff, volunteers, and guests.

Interpretation Period

We interpret the lighthouse as being set in the year 1887, and we do this for two main reasons.

First, the lighthouse was painted white in 1887, and if we were to accurately interpret the lighthouse prior to that year, we would have to strip the white protective paint from the house and revert to the natural color of the sandstone blocks, exposing them to the elements and erosion. Obviously, this is not an option.

Second, by interpreting later in the life of the lighthouse, we have more history to look at than if we interpreted at the beginning of the lighthouse’s life.

The flag that we fly on the flagpole outside of the lighthouse has 38 stars representing the 38 states in the United States in 1887.

General Lighthouse Information

Lighthouse Administration

Lighthouses were erected, operated and maintained by each colony prior to the American Revolution. In August 1789, Congress passed an act that shifted responsibility for lighthouses to the federal government.

From 1789 to 1820, responsibility for the lighthouses fell to the Commissioner of Revenue (except for the period 1802 – 1813 when the Secretary of the Treasury was responsible). In 1820, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury was tasked to supervise all aids to navigation and did so until 1852 when the Lighthouse Board was established. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 3,4)

Construction of West Coast Lighthouses

Congress authorized the building of several lighthouses along the west coast on September 28, 1850:


  • Alcatraz Island *
  • Battery or Fort Point, San Francisco Bay *
  • Farallon Islands *
  • Point Pinos near Monterey *
  • Point Conception *
  • San Diego (Point Loma *)


  • Cape Flattery
  • New Dungeness
  • Cape Disappointment *

In March 1851, two more lighthouses were authorized. One was at Umpqua River, Oregon, and the other at Humboldt Harbor, California. *

* – Denotes the first eight lighthouses built.

The Secretary of the Treasury had decided to use the $158,140 that was appropriated by Congress to build the first eight lighthouses, but the contractor selected wasn’t able to post the $75,000 security bond, so no action was taken through April 1852. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 15,16)


Early lighthouses in the United States almost universally used the Argand lamp and parabolic reflector system. The system was inexpensive, but it was complicated to run, used a lot of oil, required constant attention, and produced relatively little light for the effort. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 4,6)

Augustin Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) developed a lens that used refraction to direct light into a single, intense beam of light using prisms. This advancement revolutionized lighthouse illumination. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 6,8)

Fresnel lenses were classified into seven orders depending on their size:

Order Focal Distance Overall Lens Size
Millimeters Inches
First 920 36.2 6’
Second 700 27.6 4’6”
Third 600 19.7 3’2”
Third and a half 375 14.7 2’4”
Fourth 250 9.8 1’6”
Fifth 187.5 7.4 1’2”
Sixth 150 5.9 10”

(Holland & Law, 1981, p. 8)

The Lighthouse Board was a strong proponent of adopting the new Fresnel lens technology, and by 1859, nearly all of the Argand parabolic lamp systems had been replaced. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 11)

Fuel Types

Fuel Period Used Comments
Sperm Whale Oil 1840’s – 1854 Cost $0.55 per gallon in 1840’s; price jumped to $1.38 per gallon in 1854 as oil became scarce.
Colza Oil 1850’s – 1867 Form of rapeseed from wild cabbage; not a large enough crop to meet the demands.
Lard Oil 1867 – 1880’s
Kerosene (Mineral Oil) 1880 – 1920’s Point Loma Lighthouse started using kerosene in 1882

(Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 13-15)

The new Point Loma Lighthouse at Pelican Point converted from kerosene to electricity in 1926. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 21)

Information Specific To The Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Site Selection

Chief Topographer, U.S. Coast Survey, A.M. Harrison recommended the location of the Point Loma Lighthouse near the end of Point Loma 422 feet above sea level during his survey in 1851.

In a note concerning the site selection to A.D. Bache, the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Harrison commented that while he was on the point, fogs were frequent and heavy. Bache asked Harrison if the fog would interfere with the normal operation of the light, and Harrison replied that this was the best site available. Bache agreed and approved the site selection. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 16,17)

The one advantage to Harrison’s site was the fact that the light could be used by those sailing along the coast and by those in the harbor.

The land that the site was located on was part of a military reservation on Point Loma that was established in 1852 by President Millard Fillmore.


Francis A. Gibbons and Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore, Maryland were awarded the contract to build the eight lighthouses along the coast, including the Point Loma Lighthouse. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 20)

When they arrived in San Diego, there was considerable confusion. Gibbons and Kelly were contracted to build a lighthouse at “San Diego,” and there was no mention of Point Loma, which was approximately 8 miles away from the town.

On January 17, 1853, Gibbons wrote the Lighthouse Board asking for the correct location on where to build the lighthouse, and the Lighthouse Board responded on January 25, 1853 with a copy of the Coast Survey report done by Harrison. In disbelief over the location on Point Loma, Gibbons wrote the Lighthouse Board a second time, asking where in San Diego to build the lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board responded by telling Gibbons that he was under contract to build the light on Point Loma.

Not satisfied with that answer, Gibbons made an appointment with the Assistant Secretary, 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 objected 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. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 30,31)

On April 7, 1854, the schooner Vaquero arrived from San Francisco with the building materials for the Point Loma lighthouse, and construction began within a week. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 32,33)

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.

Interestingly, there is no record of the official completion date of the construction. We do know, however, that the collector of customs in San Diego wrote the Lighthouse Board on August 26, 1854 telling the board that the lighthouse had been inspected and was accepted on behalf of the U.S. Government. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 34,35)

Even though the structure was completed in 1854, it would take more than a year to get the actual light installed in the lighthouse.

The Fresnel lenses for the west coast lighthouses were ordered from Sautter & Co. in France in 1853. The Humboldt Harbor lens (3rd order) arrived in San Francisco on January 31, 1855 and the Point Loma lens (1st order) arrived on February 25, 1855.

Unfortunately, because of the incompetence of some of the west coast Lighthouse Inspectors, it took an excessive amount of time to get the newly constructed lighthouses lighted. Major Hartman Bache arrived on the west coast on June 30, 1855 and took charge of the installation of the lights. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 39)

Near the end of July 1855, Bache sent Samuel Franklin to Point Loma with the 3rd order Fresnel lens originally designated for the Humboldt Harbor lighthouse. The lens arrived in San Diego on August 3, 1855. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 39)

Considerable modifications had to be made to the support tower within the lighthouse in order to accommodate the Fresnel lens. On November 15, 1855, Major Bache ordered the first keeper of the Point Loma Lighthouse, James Keating, to light the light. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 40,44) We celebrate the anniversary of the first lighting of the light on every November 15th with “Open Tower Day” where we allow guests into the tower and lantern room. (We also have “Open Tower Day” every August 25th, the anniversary date of the founding of the National Park Service.)


The original amount authorized to build the Point Loma Lighthouse was $15,000. But with the complication of transporting the materials to the construction site, the final cost was nearly double that at $29,115.26. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 36)

The Treasury department did allow for certain additional expenses for Gibbons and Kelly after the fact, but they were not reimbursed for the full amount. Gibbons and Kelly went to court and eventually prevailed.

The cost of the 3rd order Fresnel lens is estimated to be an additional $3,810 ($1,600 for the lens; $250 for the three lamps; $260 for the frame; $1,760 for the lantern and other pieces). (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 37)

Structure Design

The Point Loma Lighthouse is actually two structures. There is the Cape Cod style house, approximately 20 feet by 38 feet, with its basement, and the separate tower which rises through the center of the building and supports the lantern and lens. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 98)

The building is constructed from sandstone quarried most likely near Ballast Point, and the exterior walls are eighteen inches thick. The tower was constructed from bricks brought down from San Francisco. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 113)


The basement contains two large compartments that are similar in shape and size to the two rooms above them. In the middle is the foundation for the light tower. You can access the basement from a spiral staircase leading down from the kitchen, or from an exterior door on the northwest corner of the building. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 117)

During the 1935 restoration, a new window was installed on the west wall of the south compartment, as well as a lavatory with sink and toilet and two storage closets. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 119)


In the building plans, the lean-to was referred to as a “porch” that was to “have a proper sink, shelves, &c, and an outside door with proper steps.” One of the construction foremen referred to it as the kitchen. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 121)

The original design had shelves along the west wall, and a sink below the south window with a pump that reached into the cistern in the basement. There never was a stove in the lean-to; so it was probably used more as a storage area and as a sub-kitchen where all of the activity associated with meal preparation, aside from the actual cooking, occurred. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 121)

At some point after the light went out of service in March 1891, the foundation under the lean-to became unstable and the lean-to separated from the building. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 115)

During the life of the lighthouse, the exterior of the lean-to was finished in wood siding. It was with the 1935 restoration that the exterior was covered with mortar and made to look like the stone on the rest of the building. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 115)

Water Supply

The basement contained a cistern that held 1,240 gallons of water, which wasn’t nearly enough capacity to meet the needs of the keepers and their families. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 42)

An article in the San Diego Herald on November 27, 1858 reported that “A gentleman, named Russell, arrived on the last steamer, having a contract to build a new water tank, and make other repairs and alterations at the Lighthouse on Point Loma.” Unfortunately, there are no historical records indicating the size, location, or use of that additional tank. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 132) However, this second cistern was found during an archeological investigation of the catchment site in 2004. It is partially covered by the south edge of the catchment basin.

To further augment the water supply at the lighthouse, authorization was given in 1882 to construct a large catch basin and cistern in front of the lighthouse. “The work was completed in January 1883 and it consisted of a 2,900 square-foot mortar catch basin and an 11,000 gallon brick cistern fitted with a Douglas hand pump and suction pipe.” (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 60)

In years with normal to heavy rainfall, the cisterns were adequate. But in dry years, the keepers had to augment their water supply by hauling two 50-gallon barrels in the back of their wagon from “a well in a canyon back of Roseville,” nearly ten miles away. The number of trips they would make depended upon the rainfall. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 55,60)

Exterior Colors

The outside of the lighthouse was not covered or painted until 1879 when it was noticed that the sandstone was deteriorating in the elements. Portland cement mortar was applied to the south and west walls, and then “two coats of stone color, rubber paint” were applied. The other two walls were given three coats of the stone colored paint as well. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 113)

In 1887, the lighthouse was painted white. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 113)

The tower was painted red from 1855 through 1887, and the light was listed as being painted black in the 1888 Light List. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 108)

The original roof on the lighthouse was tin and painted red, but in 1866 the leaking tin roof had been replaced with a shingle roof.   (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 113)

During World War II, the exterior of the building was painted in a camouflage color scheme, and in 1947, the camouflage paint was removed and the house was once again painted white.

Other Buildings

There is no official record of a woodshed being erected on the site. However, it does appear in a photo dated to 1869. Also, in 1875, the Lighthouse Board’s annual report mentions that a “portion of the woodhouse was to be fitted up for the better accommodation of the keepers.” Obviously, there was a building on site that the Lighthouse Board was authorizing its modification. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 132)

In 1875, a pair of “California horses” and a wagon, were authorized by the Lighthouse Board for the keeper to transport supplies to the lighthouse and, in 1876, a barn was built near the lighthouse. (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 56, 132)

In 1880, the Lighthouse Board authorized replacing the horse and wagon with a sailboat to transport supplies. In 1881, a boathouse and storage shed were authorized to be built by the Lighthouse Board. The shed was “for the safekeeping of supplies awaiting transportation to the Light Station.” (Holland & Law, 1981, pp. 56, 134)

At some point between 1867 and 1870, Keeper J.D. Jenkins erected a flagpole near the lighthouse, and would fly the flag on “special state occasions.” (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 134)


Sautter & Co. in Paris, France, was contracted to build the Fresnel lenses for the west coast lighthouses.

The lack of knowledge about the change in technology from the old Argand lamp and parabolic reflector system to the new Fresnel lenses, as well as the classification methods for both systems, added some confusion to the ordering of the Fresnel lens for the Point Loma lighthouse.

The U.S. Coast Survey recommended a “first class seacoast light” for Point Loma, using the terminology associated with the Argand lamp and reflector system. When it came time to order the Fresnel lens, a “first class” light was equated to a first order Fresnel lens. So an order was placed for a first order Fresnel lens (at a total cost of $11,150) for the Point Loma lighthouse. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 19)

Of course, the new technology of a first order Fresnel lens provided much more light that its “first class” predecessor. In fact, a third order Fresnel lens was proven in testing to be superior to a “first-class reflector system.” (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 22)

When Major Hartman Bache arrived on site to install the lighting systems, he decided to make the Point Loma light a third order light instead of a first order light. The tower was only large enough for a third order lens and mechanisms, and Bache ordered the third order lens originally destined for Humboldt Harbor to be diverted to Point Loma.

When the Point Loma lighthouse ceased operation on March 22, 1891, the 3rd order Fresnel lens was dismantled and returned to the Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island, New York.

The third order Fresnel lens that is currently on display in the lighthouse lantern came from the Mile Rocks lighthouse located about two miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. The lens arrived May 20, 1981 and was installed during a renovation of the tower and lantern room.


The Point Loma Lighthouse was placed into operation on November 15, 1855 and ceased operation on March 22, 1891. In anticipation of taking the Point Loma Lighthouse out of service, two replacement lighthouses were built and put into service.

The Ballast Point Lighthouse was placed into service on August 1, 1890 and it was demolished in 1960.

The New Point Loma Lighthouse at Pelican Point began operation on March 23, 1891, replacing the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and is an active aid to navigation today.

The focal plane of the 3rd order Fresnel lens at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is 462 feet above the water, making it the light with the highest focal plane in the United States. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 73)

The line of sight from the light to the horizon is 24.5 nautical miles (28.2 statute miles). (Bowditch, 1966, p. 1254)

The light used an Argand lamp with three concentric wicks producing 158 candlepower. The Fresnel lens effectively magnified and intensified the light to the equivalent of 19,000 candlepower. (Clodine, 2013) That equates to 238,754 lumens. (Glover, 1989, p. 411) (A standard 60 watt incandescent light bulb puts out 825 lumens.)

The lamps consumed approximately 7 ounces of kerosene per hour.

Initially, the light shone as a constant white light, but on April 1, 1889, the light’s characteristic was changed to “fixed white varied by flashes, alternately red and white, interval between flashes one minute.” Because the Fresnel lens was fixed in place, this flashing was likely achieved by installing a rotating colored shield inside the lens. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 71)

Around the same time the characteristic of the light was changed, the keeper was instructed to reduce the lamp from three concentric wicks to two, to save approximately one half gallon of kerosene per night. This realized a total annual savings of $25, but it also had the effect of cutting the candlepower of the light from 158 to 73. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 72)

Supplies to run the lighthouse (oil, wicks, mops, brooms, equipment, etc.) were brought to the lighthouse quarterly. (Holland & Law, 1981, p. 56)


The position of lighthouse keeper and assistant keeper was filled by appointment, with the keeper “usually nominated by the local collector of customs.” Nominees approved by the Lighthouse Board were appointed to the position by the Secretary of Treasury. However, keepers had to go through a three month probationary period and successfully pass an examination given by the district inspector. On certification to the Lighthouse Board, the keepers received a full appointment. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 27)

Low pay was the major contributing factor to the high turnover rate, especially among the assistant keepers. Over the 36 years that the lighthouse operated, a keeper’s salary ranged from $800 to $1,000 per year; and assistant keeper’s salary ranged from $500 to $650 per year. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 25, 26)

Lighthouse keeping was one of the first federal occupations open to women, where they received the same pay as their male counterparts. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 26)

During the life of the Point Loma lighthouse, there were eleven principal keepers and twenty-two assistant keepers:


Keeper Date Appointed Date Vacated Salary Remarks
James P. Keating Dec. 28, 1854 Feb. 1, 1859 $1,000 Removed
W.C. Wiley Feb. 1, 1859 $1,000 Salary reduced to $800 on Sept. 1, 1859
J.N. Covarrubias Oct. 9, 1859 Mar. 13, 1860 $800 Resigned
Joseph Reiner Mar. 13, 1860 Nov. 16, 1860 $800 Resigned
James P. Keating Nov. 16, 1860 $800 Resigned
W.C. Price Feb. 16, 1861 Nov. 23, 1867 $1,000
J.D. Jenkins Nov. 23, 1867 Apr. 24, 1871 $1,000 Removed
Isaac Swain Apr. 24, 1871 May 20, 1871 $1,000 Declined
Enos A. Wall May 20, 1871
James J. Ferree Mar. 5, 1872 June 27, 1873 $1,000 Resigned
Robert D. Israel June 27, 1873 Mar. 23, 1891 $1,000 Salary reduced to $800 on Jan. 1, 1880.   Transferred to new Point Loma Light after old light ceased operation.


Assistant Keepers

Assistant Keeper Date Appointed Date Vacated Salary Remarks
George B. Tolman Jan. 29, 1855 Jan. 29, 1856 $650 Resigned
Anthony Genan Jan. 29, 1855 Jan. 17, 1856 $500 2nd assistant position discontinued
Julius Semen Apr. 28, 1856 $650 Salary reduced to $500 on Sept. 1, 1859
W.C. Price $500 Resigned
Thomas Susk Dec. 6, 1859 Dec. 31, 1859 $500 Resigned
J.J. Serano Dec. 30, 1859 Mar. 13, 1860 $500
W.C. Price Mar. 13, 1860 $500
S. Fields Feb. 16, 1861 $500
Christopher McAleer Mar. 7, 1865 $625
Lewis McCoy Feb., 5, 1867 Nov. 23, 1867 $600 Resigned
Eliza Jenkins Nov. 23, 1867 May 20, 1871 $600 Removed
Robert D. Israel May 20, 1871 June 27, 1873 $600 Promoted
Maria A. Israel June 27, 1873 Feb. 15, 1876 $625 Removed
A.G. Walker Feb. 15, 1876 May 19, 1876 $625 Transferred
J.S. Craig May 19, 1876 Aug. 13, 1877 $625 Resigned
John Stone Aug. 13, 1877 July 30, 1881 $625 Salary reduced to $600 on Jan. 18, 1880; resigned
Victor H. Richet July 30, 1871 Nov. 14, 1883 $600 Resigned
James Maloney Nov. 14, 1883 Sept. 15, 1884 $600 Resigned
Philip Savage Sept. 15, 1884 Aug. 14, 1886 $600 Resigned
David R. Splaine Aug. 14, 1886 Apr. 15, 1889 $600 Transferred
Thomas W. Anderson July 15, 1889 Oct. 25, 1891 $600 Resigned
Haydon B. Cartwell Oct. 28, 1891 Feb. 23, 1894 $600 Resigned


Life at the Lighthouse

Life was lonely at the lighthouse given its distance from the city. Still, local residents would visit the lighthouse just as an afternoon outing or to watch the whalers harpoon the gray whales migrating just beyond the kelp beds. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 32)

Weather certainly influenced life at the lighthouse. Point Loma rarely saw any truly violent storms; squalls were more frequent, but even they weren’t all that common. On October 2, 1858, however, a severe gale battered San Diego for six hours. “So fearful was the gale at Point Loma the Lighthouse keeper, Capt. Keating, was obliged to leave at 12 o’clock M., fearing the tower would fall.” Despite Captain Keating’s fears, the lighthouse survived the storm without damage. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 31)

The lack of rain made gardening quite difficult. Not having much luck with growing at the lighthouse, the keepers created a 1 ½ acre garden near the present day USS Bennington Monument in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery where they would grow potatoes. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 32)

The Lighthouse Board provided keepers at “unusually isolated” lighthouses “200 pounds of pork, 100 pounds of beef, 2 barrels of flour, 50 pounds of rice, 50 pounds of brown sugar, 24 pounds of coffee, 10 gallons of beans or peas, 4 gallons of vinegar, and 2 barrels of potatoes a year.” (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 31-32)

According to David and Jeanne Israel, the great-grandchildren of Robert Israel, they kept “three horses, chickens, pigs and goats” at the lighthouse. (Clodine, 2013)

Lighthouse keeping could be a family affair, and the most prominent family at the Old Point Loma lighthouse was the Israel family.

Robert Decatur Israel, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 23, 1826. He was chair maker by trade, but joined the U.S. Army. At the end of his service in the Mexican-American War, he came to San Diego in 1849.

In 1852, at the age of 26, Robert Israel married Maria Arcadia Alipás, the 16-year old granddaughter of one of San Diego’s earliest settlers, Juan Machado. Together, they had four sons:

Henry Clay, born February 11, 1862

Joseph Perry, born February 3, 1865; died 1869

Robert Lincoln, born July 8, 1867

A second Joseph Perry, born June 12, 1871 (Robert Israel was appointed assistant keeper on May 20, 1871 just weeks before his last son was born.)

At some point, one of Maria’s sisters died, and the Israels took in their niece, Emma Minter. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 34-35)

David and Jeanne Israel reported that the Israel children would have to “row a boat across the harbor” to get to school in present-day Old Town in San Diego. (Clodine, 2013) Presumably, the children would stay with one of their aunts or grandparents during the week.

Apparently, Robert Israel “forbade Spanish from being spoken among their four sons—perhaps revealing why she is listed in the service records as Mary.” (Fahlon & Scanlon, 2008, p. 15)

Maria Israel passed the time raising the children, knitting using the lighthouse lamp as her light source, or performing her decorative artwork. The children would collect chiton and abalone shells from the tide pools, and she would turn the shells into intricate floral designs. Sometimes, she would sell her shell artwork to visitors to the lighthouse. Today, two of her pieces can be seen in the parlor; one hanging over the mantel and the other on the back wall. A hand-painted salt shaker can be seen on the window sill in the kitchen. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 35-36)

A Day in the Life of a Keeper

Keeping the light lighted from sunset to sunrise was, of course, the primary task of the keepers. This required that the lighting equipment be properly maintained on a daily basis. The Lighthouse Service instructions to keepers required that “everything be put in order for lighting in the evening by 10 o’clock a.m., daily.” (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 28, 30)

If there were two or more keepers at the lighthouse, the work was divided between them into two “departments.”

“One keeper had to clean and polish the lens, clean and fill the lamp, ‘remove all dust with brushes from the frame-work of the apparatus, fit wicks if required, and if not required trim carefully those already fitted to the burner and see that everything connected with the apparatus and lamp is perfectly clean, and the light ready for lighting at the proper time in the evening.’” (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 30)

“The other keeper had to ‘clean the plate glass of the lantern inside and outside; clean all the copper and brass work of the apparatus, the utensils used in the lantern and watchroom; the walls, floors, and balconies of the lantern, …the tower stairways, landing, doors, windows, window-recesses, and passages from the lantern to the oil cellars.’” (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 30)

To protect the lens from dust and scratches, keepers wore linen aprons and the lens was covered with a linen cover when not in use to protect it from dust, the sun, and scratches. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 30)

When not working on the light itself, the keepers maintained the house and grounds around the house within their abilities and skills. If a major repair was needed, a contract was made to make the repair. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 30-31)

The Lighthouse Service prescribed that, while the light was lighted, regular four-hour watches be kept by the keeper and the assistant keeper. These were to alternate every night so that neither was unduly burdened by always having one particular watch. This procedure, however, wasn’t always followed. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the keepers at the Old Point Loma lighthouse stood 24-hour watches, ending at midnight. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 30)

The Lighthouse Board provided detailed step-by-step instructions for the keepers in the Lighthouse Establishment Instructions and Instructions and Directions for the Management of Lenses, Lights, and Beacons. There were several other publications a keeper could refer to if needed. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 28)

Use and Life of the Lighthouse after 1891

Creation of Cabrillo National Monument

When the lighthouse was taken out of service, there was no effort made to preserve or protect the lighthouse. In fact, vandals broke windows and “cart[ed] away parts of the old building.” The outbuildings were gone and, “by 1910, the wooden lean-to in the back of the old building had fallen away.” All of the glass and the roof of the lantern had been stripped away by 1913. The commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans recommended demolition of the building. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 40)

But the Army also considered “repairing the building and converting it into a military radio station.” Simultaneously, an organization called the Order of Panama was planning a monument to honor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo on Point Loma. The Order of Panama negotiated with the Army to find a site on the point for their intended 150-foot tall statue of Cabrillo, and the consensus was to remove the lighthouse and put the statue in its place. Ultimately, the Order of Panama failed to execute its plan and the organization ultimately disbanded. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 41)

To support the Order of Panama’s efforts, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation setting aside one-half an acre, including the Point Loma lighthouse, as Cabrillo National Monument on October 14, 1913. Responsibility for the monument and the lighthouse fell to the U.S. War Department. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 41)

Radio Station

Some repairs were made to the building in 1915 by the Army at a cost of $360. The army then used the building as a radio communications station from about 1915 to 1920. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 42)

Enlisted Housing

To help slow the decline of the building, the army “encouraged soldiers and their families” to live in the light house. Mrs. H.E Cook was allowed by the army to live in the house rent-free from 1921 to 1934, and to make a living, she sold postcards, other items, and refreshments from the parlor. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 42)

Change in Administration

In 1933, administration of Cabrillo National Monument and the Point Loma lighthouse was turned over by the War Department to the National Park Service. The National Park Service began immediate planning to restore the lighthouse.


Clifton Rock was the custodian of the monument, and he and his wife, Mildred, actually lived upstairs in the building after the 1935 restoration. The set up a concession in the lower south room (present-day parlor) and a tea room in the lower north room (present-day kitchen). Accessing the newly installed bathroom in the basement from the upstairs bedrooms was quite inconvenient.

World War II

Cabrillo National Monument was closed to public visitation beginning in 1941 and for the duration of the war. Photos circa 1943 show the lighthouse painted olive drab. (Fahlon & Scanlon, 2008, p. 21)

Early in World War II, the U.S. Navy used the lighthouse as a signal station for ships returning to the harbor. If the ship responded with the correct signal, the submarine net providing protection to the harbor entrance would be opened, and the ship would be allowed to pass.

Historians think the lighthouse was used in this fashion for just the first year of the war, yet we have oral history from Voyd Beights, a Navy Signalman I who was stationed there from November 1941 to September 1945, stating the lighthouse was used for two years. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 44)

Mr. Beights stated that the south bedroom was used as an Army headquarters; the north bedroom was Navy command; the parlor was storage and sleeping area for duty personnel; and the kitchen was used to prepare rations and coffee on a hot plate.


For the centennial celebration of the lighthouse in 1955, a fourth order Fresnel lens from Table Bluff Light in Humboldt Harbor was installed in the tower. That lens was removed from the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in 1981 and has since been moved to the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum. (Holland, 1978, p. 25) (Lougher)

Restoration Efforts through the Years

The first major restoration of the lighthouse occurred in 1934-1935. Rotted wood was replaced; the lean-to was rebuilt; flooring was replaced throughout; and the metal lantern was reconstructed. Modern conveniences, such as electrical fixtures and plumbing, were added, and the wooden tower stairs, window sashes, and doors were all replaced with metal for fire protection. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, pp. 43, 44)

In 1966, the National Park Service used documentation from the actual residents of the lighthouse to restore and refurnish the lighthouse to the period when Robert and Maria Israel lived there. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 45)

In 1983, the tower and lantern are rebuilt as part of an on-going restoration program, and the third order Fresnel lens from Mile Rocks lighthouse is installed in the tower. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 46)

In 2003, the asphalt loop road and parking spaces around the lighthouse were removed; the Assistant Keeper’s Quarters were rebuilt; the rain catchment basin was reconstructed; and the flagpole and picket fence were installed. (Holland, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, 2007, p. 46)

In March and April 2014, the lighthouse underwent a significant retrofit as part of a seismic upgrade project for all buildings within the park. The retrofit included installation of rods into masonry walls; adding additional blocking between joists; new wire lath and plaster ceilings in the basement and first floor; and new roof deck and shingles. A more detailed list of improvements can be found in Appendix D.


This overview of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was not meant to be all-encompassing, rather a consolidation of highlights from multiple sources. For a more in-depth understanding of the history of the lighthouse, please refer to the source documents in the bibliography.

Appendix A: Point Loma Lighthouse Timeline

Date Activity Keeper Assistant Keeper
September 28, 1850 Congress authorizes construction of west coast lighthouses, including one at San Diego.
1851 A.M. Harrison, U.S. Coast Survey recommends location of the San Diego lighthouse on Point Loma.
1852 President Millard Fillmore sets aside most of Point Loma as a military reservation
1853 Fresnel lenses for lighthouses ordered from Sautter & Co. in France
January 17, 1853 Contractor Gibbons writes to Lighthouse Board asking for clarification of the San Diego lighthouse build site location
October 1853 Contractor Gibbons writes the Treasury Department offering to build the lighthouse at the Point Loma location for additional compensation
April 7, 1854 The schooner Vaquero arrives in San Diego with building materials for the lighthouse. Gibbons begins construction within a week.
August 26, 1854 Collector of Customs inspects and accepts the Point Loma Lighthouse on behalf of the U.S. government. Final cost of construction: $29,115.26
December 28, 1854 Appointed Keeper James Keating
January 29, 1855 Appointed Assistant Keepers (the second Assistant Keeper position was later eliminated) George Talman

Anthony Genan

January 31, 1855 3rd order Fresnel lens for Humboldt Harbor arrives in San Francisco. This lens will be diverted to Point Loma.
February 25, 1855 1st order Fresnel lens for Point Loma arrives in San Francisco.
March 3, 1855 Congress appropriates $1,500 to build a road from La Playa to the lighthouse in fiscal year 1857.
July 1855 Humboldt Harbor Fresnel lens diverted to Point Loma
August 3, 1855 Lens and associated equipment arrives in San Diego on the schooner General Pierce.
November 15, 1855 Point Loma Lighthouse placed in operation and lighted for the first time.
April 28, 1856 Appointed Assistant Keeper Julius Samen
1857 Road built from La Playa to the Point Loma Lighthouse to facilitate delivery of supplies and water.
1858 Notes indicate that a second water tank was built outside the lighthouse, but no specific details are known.
February 1, 1859 Appointed Keeper W.C. Wiley
October 9, 1859 Appointed Keeper J.N. Covarrubias
December 6, 1859 Appointed Assistant Keeper W.C. Price
December 30, 1859 Appointed Assistant Keeper Thomas Susk
March 13, 1860 Appointed Keeper / Assistant Keeper Joseph Reiner W.C. Price
November 16, 1860 Appointed Keeper James Keating
February 16, 1861 Appointed Keeper / Assistant Keeper W.C. Price S. Fields
March 7, 1865 Appointed Assistant Keeper C.P. McAleer
1866 Red tin roof replaced with shingled roof.
1867 – 1870 Keeper Jenkins erects a flagpole during his tenure and flies the flag on special state occasions.
February 5, 1867 Appointed Assistant Keeper Lewis McCoy
November 23, 1867 Appointed Keeper / Assistant Keeper J.D. Jenkins Eliza Jenkins
1869 Repairs made to cistern in basement.
April 24, 1871 Appointed Keeper Isaac Swain
May 20, 1871 Appointed Keeper / Assistant Keeper Enos A. Wall Robert D. Israel
March 5, 1872 Appointed Keeper James J. Ferree
June 27, 1873 Appointed Keeper / Assistant Keeper Robert D. Israel Mary A. Israel
1875 Lighthouse Board authorizes a “pair of California horses and wagon” for the keeper to transport supplies.
1875 Two rooms are added to the wood and oil storehouse as a residence for the Assistant Keeper.
1875 Barn constructed near the lighthouse.
February 15, 1876 Appointed Assistant Keeper A.G. Walker
May 19, 1876 Appointed Assistant Keeper J.S. Craig
August 3, 1877 Appointed Assistant Keeper John Stone
1879 Sandstone blocks were beginning to disintegrate in the weather, and they were repaired with a “heavy coat of Portland cement-mortar, after which they were painted coats of stone-color, rubber paint.”
1880 Lighthouse Board replaces horse and wagon with a sailboat for the keeper to haul supplies.
1881 Boat house was built on Ballast Point to accommodate the sail boat.
July 30, 1881 Appointed Assistant Keeper Victor H. Richet
1882 Point Loma Lighthouse switches to kerosene as the fuel for the light.
1882 Recognizing the limitations of the Point Loma Lighthouse because of the fog, discussions begin with the War Department, which controls the land on Point Loma, to find sites for two replacement lighthouses.
January 1883 Rain catchment basin (11,000 gallons) added to the front of the lighthouse.
November 14, 1883 Appointed Assistant Keeper James Maloney
September 15, 1884 Appointed Assistant Keeper Philip Savage
1886 Roof on the east side of the lighthouse re-shingled.
August 14, 1886 Appointed Assistant Keeper David R. Splaine
1887 Lighthouse painted white and described in the Light List as, “Low white tower, rising from white dwelling, lantern black.”
1888 The Point Loma Lighthouse’s boat was lost by Robert Israel’s son and the Assistant Keeper.
May 1, 1888 Keepers and Assistant Keepers are required to wear uniforms, the first of which was provided by the Lighthouse Board.
1889 The War Department transfers land to the Lighthouse Board for the building of two new, replacement lighthouses.
April 1, 1889 The characteristic of the Point Loma Light was changed from a constant white light to “fixed white varied by flashes, alternately red and white, interval between flashes one minute.”
July 15, 1889 Appointed Assistant Keeper Thomas Anderson
June 1890 Construction of the new Point Loma Lighthouse is complete.
August 1, 1890 Ballast Point Lighthouse is placed into service.
March 22, 1891 The light in the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is extinguished for the last time.
March 23, 1891 The light in the New Point Loma Lighthouse is lighted for the first time. Robert Israel’s 68th birthday
October 28, 1891 Appointed Assistant Keeper Haydon Cartwell
After 1891 The records aren’t clear, but sometime after the light went out of service, the foundation under the lean-to crumbled and the lean-to separated from the building.
1895 The Lighthouse Board gave permission to move the barn from the Old Point Loma Lighthouse to the new lighthouse.
1906 The Lighthouse Board learns that the empty lighthouse “is defaced with vulgar drawings and pictures” and orders the interior and exterior to be painted.
1913 Commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans proposes converting the building into a radio station. At the same time, the Order of Panama is proposing a memorial to Cabrillo with a 150-foot tall statue at the site 300 feet south of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. The Army had plans for that spot, so a compromise was reached and the Army agreed to raze the lighthouse and put its radio station in the base of the statue.
October 10, 1913 Presidential proclamation set aside one half acre of land around the lighthouse as Cabrillo National Monument, and gave permission to erect the statue.
1915 The Army spent $360 repairing the old lighthouse.
1915 A photo shows a wooden porch extending across nearly the complete length of the building.
1920’s The Army encouraged military families to live in the house, and that helped slow the decline of the lighthouse. It was also used as a temporary radio station in the mid-twenties.
1921 Mrs. H. E. Cook runs a concession selling items to visitors, lives in the house rent-free.
1931 The Ninth Army Corps found enough funds to perform a basic renovation of the lighthouse, patching holes in the roof and painting the interior and exterior.
1933 The National Park Service takes responsibility for Cabrillo National Monument and the lighthouse from the Army and begins immediate plans to restore the lighthouse.
1934 Mrs. Cook is evicted from the lighthouse.
1935 The restoration was completed. Wooden spiral stairs replaced with metal.

Sink added in lean-to on west wall (original sink was likely on south wall with a hand pump to pump water from the cistern in the basement below).

1941 Access to Cabrillo National Monument and the lighthouse was cut off during the war. The lighthouse was used to signal approaching ships and, if they responded correctly, the submarine nets across the entrance of the harbor would be removed so the ship could enter.
1943 Photos c. 1943 show the lighthouse painted olive drab.
November 11, 1946 Control of the monument is returned to the NPS and visitation resumes.
1947 The lighthouse is restored after its wartime use—olive drab paint is removed; windows replaced; and floors refinished.   The cost of repairs was $3,706.
1955 4th Order Fresnel lens from Table Bluff Light in Humboldt Harbor loaned to the NPS by the USCG for the Centennial celebration.
May 1981 4th Order Fresnel lens from Table Rock Light removed and returned to the USCG.
May 20, 1981 3rd Order Fresnel Lens from Mile Rocks Lighthouse arrives for installation in the lantern during renovation.
1983 Rebuild the tower and lantern.
2003 The asphalt loop road and parking spaces around the lighthouse were removed; the Assistant Keeper’s Quarters were rebuilt; the rain catchment basin was reconstructed; and the flagpole and picket fence were installed.
March – April 2014 The lighthouse undergoes a seismic retrofit that includes adding rods into the masonry; additional blocking between joists; new ceilings in the basement and first floor; and a new roof deck and new shingles.


Appendix B: San Diego Population


Year San Diego City San Diego County California
1850 650 798§ 92,597
1860 731 4,324* 379,994
1870 2,300 4,951* 560,247
1880 2,637 8,618* 864,694
1887 30,000¤ [the great boom]
1890 16,159 34,987* 1,213,398
1900 17,700 35,090* 1,485,053
1910 39,578 61,665 2,377,549
1920 74,361 112,248 3,426,861
1930 147,995 209,659 5,677,251
1940 203,341 289,348 6,907,387
1950 333,865 556,808 10,586,223
1960 573,224 1,033,011 15,717,204
1970 696,769 1,357,854 19,971,069
1980 875,538 1,861,846 23,667,764
1990 1,110,549 2,498,016 29,760,021
2000 1,223,400 2,813,833 33,871,648

Appendix C: Lighthouse Terminology

These images represent general lighthouse construction and are not specific to the Point Loma Lighthouse.

Lantern, Lamp, Lens Lighthouse

Appendix D: Summary of 2014 Seismic Retrofit Upgrades

The lighthouse underwent a seismic upgrade in March and April 2014, and this is a summary of the major improvements made provided by Charles Schultheis, Facilities Manager, Cabrillo National Monument:


  • Discovery of ceiling joists on 8” centers
  • Installation of rods into masonry walls and tower connected to holdowns on joists @ 32” on centers
  • Additional blocking added between joists
  • Coil straps added to blocking
  • New wire lath and 3 coat plaster ceiling

First Floor

  • Removal of wire lath and plaster ceiling
  • Installation of rods into masonry walls and tower connected to holdowns on joists @ 48” on centers
  • Additional blocking added between joists
  • Coil straps added to blocking
  • New wire lath and 3 coat plaster ceiling


  • Roof deck and shingles removed
  • Roof top plates anchored to top of masonry walls
  • Blocking added between roof rafters
  • “Ridge beam” blocking added to roof rafter apexes
  • New plywood roof deck installed
  • New “Cedar Breather” installed on top of deck
  • New cedar shingles installed
  • Clips added between rafters and top plate
  • Installation of rods into masonry walls (north and south) and tower connected to holdowns on rafters @ 48” on centers




Bowditch, N. (1966). American Practical Navigator, An Epitome of Navigation (H.O. Pub. 9). Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Clodine, R. (2013, August 30). Cabrillo National Monument E-Binder. San Diego, CA, USA.

Fahlon & Scanlon. (2008). Lighthouses of San Diego. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

Glover, T. J. (1989). Pocket Ref. Littleton, Colorado: Sequoia Publishing.

Holland & Law. (1981). Historic Structure Report, The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California. National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

Holland, F. R. (1978). The Old Point Loma Lighthouse. San Diego, California, United States of America: Cabrillo Historical Association.

Holland, F. R. (2007). The Old Point Loma Lighthouse. San Diego, CA: Cabrillo National Monument Foundation.

Lougher, H. (n.d.). Historic Light Station Information & Photography – California. Retrieved January 17, 2014, from United States Coast Guard:



Revision History

Revision Date Section

(Hyperlinked to Section. Use Ctrl + Click)

January 17, 2014 Operation Corrected date Ballast Point Lighthouse was placed into service.
January 17, 2014 Centennial Added new section “Centennial.”
January 17, 2014 Appendix A: Point Loma Lighthouse Timeline Added Ballast Point Lighthouse being placed into service into timeline. Added centennial events into timeline.
January 22, 2014 SUMMARY Added Summary section.
August 2, 2014 Restoration Efforts through the Years Added information about the 2014 seismic upgrades to the lighthouse.
August 2, 2014 Appendix A: Point Loma Lighthouse Timeline Updated to include 2014 seismic upgrades to the lighthouse.
August 2, 2014 Appendix D: Summary of 2014 Seismic Retrofit Upgrades Added appendix.

Last revised 24-Jan-16