Our thanks to LighthouseFriends.com for this article
Even before the construction of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, officials were concerned that fog might shroud the light on the lofty hill. Their concerns were soon validated, and after 36 years of operation, the old lighthouse was abandoned. Pelican Point, a low-lying, level area at the southern extreme of Point Loma, was selected as the site for the replacement light.
Brick and lumber were delivered to the point in September of 1889, and by the following spring, two Victorian cottages, each flanked by its own cistern and privy, along with a concrete foundation for the lighthouse were completed. The tubular lighthouse tower, manufactured by Phoenix Iron Company of Trenton, New Jersey, rolled into San Diego aboard two flatcars of the Southern California Railroad on July 5, 1890. The tower was off-loaded at Old Town, and strong wagons were employed to transport it to the Point. During the month of August, the spiral staircase, central tube, and supporting framework were assembled to support the two-story lantern room. The 70-foot-tall pyramidal tower, built more for function than aesthetics, is the only one of its kind on the west coast.
A Fresnel lens, equipped with beautiful ruby and clear prisms to match the characteristic of the old lighthouse, was ordered from France. However, the maker of the lens, Henri Le Paute, was so proud of his creation that he wished to enter it in the Paris Exhibition of 1889. After the lens won a gold medal, Le Paute requested permission to exhibit it at Chicago’s Colombian Exposition in 1893. The Lighthouse Service agreed to let the lens remain on the exhibition circuit, and a replacement lens was procured. Superintendent of Lighthouse Repairs, Frank A. Burke, arrived in San Diego in October of 1890, where he made an unpleasant discovery. As recorded in a report to the Lighthouse Board of October 20, 1890, “the lens furnished for the new tower was found to be too large for the space provided for it, therefore it was necessary to procure another.”
The steamer Corona arrived in San Diego on February 3, 1891 with the new lens, described by the local paper as “a $4,000 affair from France.” The lens may have originally been intended for the Anclote Key Lighthouse in Florida, as the plate on the pedestal in the New Point Loma Lighthouse bears the following inscription: “ANCLOTE KEYS FLORIDA Henry Le Paute Engineer PARIS 1887.” After it was assembled in the lantern room, the lens was illuminated for the first time on March 23, 1891. The community helped celebrate the inaugural lighting with a sailing party to the Point and a moonlight picnic. The third-order lens has twelve bull’s-eyes, and a red pane of glass was placed in front of every other one to produce the desired characteristic. After winning another prize in Chicago, the lens originally manufactured for the New Point Loma Lighthouse was placed in the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, where it was used until the early 1960s.
The first principal keeper at the New Point Loma Lighthouse was Robert Israel, who had served for 18 years just up the hill at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. However, after less than one year at the new lighthouse, Israel quit over a quarrel with authorities. He was replaced by George P. Brennan, who transferred to the station from Point Arena.
In 1913, a square building with a double-hipped roof was built just north of the tower to house a powerful compressed-air fog signal. A new dwelling was also built, southeast of the twin Victorians, for the head keeper. The new second assistant keeper, assigned to help out with the increased workload at the station, took over one of the Victorians. Lacking a proper fog signal, keeper Israel is said to have used his trusty shotgun as his own personal fog signal. When a low bank of fog covered the waters, Israel would keep an eye out for the masts of a sailing vessel protruding above the fog and fire warning shots if the vessel drew too close to the Point.
Just a year before the fog signal was added, an incandescent oil-vapor light replaced the kerosene burner. Around this time, the red panes of glass were removed from the lens, and the lights characteristic became flashing white. The light was converted to electricity in 1933.
Milford Johnson transferred to the station in 1931, and was certainly happy to be closer to civilization after his assignment at the Farallon Islands. Johnson would witness several changes at the station during his 21 years on the Point. When the Coast Guard assumed control of all U.S. lighthouses in 1939, Johnson became a Boatswain’s Mate, the Coast Guard rank commensurate with his pay level in the Lighthouse Service. During World War II, a black out order was imposed on the station. Not only was the light in the tower extinguished, but the keepers had to place black tarpaper on their windows if they wanted to turn on their lights. To make the station less visible during the day, the station was painted olive drab – the dwellings, the lighthouse, the outbuildings, even the sidewalks.
A sense of normalcy returned to the area following the war. Assistant keeper Johnson was offered the head keeper position in 1952, when head keeper Pat Dudley retired. Johnson, however, did not want to move into the head keeper’s dwelling, a move that was considered mandatory, so he reluctantly took an early retirement instead.
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1973. From that time, the Fresnel lens would rotate twenty-four hours a day, until rust and warping brought it to a halt in 1997. Repairs would have been too costly, so a replacement beacon was used instead, and a zippered-canvas was placed over the antique lens. In 2002, the lens was dismantled, removed from the tower, and placed in storage. After being restored, the lens was placed on display in 2004 in the replica keeper’s dwelling constructed adjacent to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
Today, the keepers’ quarters continue to house Coast Guard officers, who are fortunate to enjoy the prime oceanfront property. The lighthouse can be seen from a lookout point near the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in Cabrillo National Monument, or you can take a road down to the tide pools at the base of the Point.
Last revised 17-Aug-13