The Old Point Loma Lighthouse – Illuminating the Past

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Foggy Lighthouse
It’s easy to see why the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was taken out of service after only 36 years, as heavy fog would often obscure the light. -NPS Photo

Excerpts from our website:

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse – Illuminating the Past

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse stood watch over the entrance to San Diego Bay for 36 years. At dusk on November 15, 1855, the light keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the light for the first time. What seemed to be a good location 422 feet above sea level, however, had a serious flaw. Fog and low clouds often obscured the light. On March 23, 1891, the light was extinguished and the keeper moved to a new lighthouse located closer to the water at the tip of the Point.

Today, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse still stands watch over San Diego as a sentinel to a vanished past. The National Park Service has refurbished the interior to its historic 1880s appearance – a reminder of a bygone era. Ranger-led talks, displays, and brochures are available to explain the lighthouse’s interesting past.

Construction – Why is it the “Old Point Loma Lighthouse?”

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a reminder of simpler times – of sailing ships and oil lamps and the men and women who day after day faithfully tended the coastal lights that guided mariners. In 1851, a year after California entered the Union, the U.S. Coastal Survey selected the heights of Point Loma for the location of a navigational aid. The crest seemed like the right location: it stood 422 feet above sea level, overlooking the bay and the ocean, and a lighthouse there could serve as both a harbor light and a coastal beacon.

Construction began three years later. Workers carved sandstone from the hillside for walls and salvaged floor tiles from the ruins of an old Spanish fort. A rolled tin roof, a brick tower, and an iron and brass housing for the light topped the squat, thick-walled building. By late summer 1854 the work was done. More than a year passed before the lighting apparatus – a five-foot tall 3rd order Fresnel lens, the best available technology – arrived from France and was installed. At dusk on November 15, 1855, the keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the oil lamp for the first time. In clear weather its light was visible at sea for 25 miles. For the next 36 years, except on foggy nights, it welcomed sailors to San Diego harbor.

The seemingly good location of the lighthouse concealed a serious flaw: fog and low clouds often obscured the beam. On March 23, 1891, the keeper extinguished the lamp for the last time. Boarding up the lighthouse, he moved his family and belongings into a new light station at the bottom of the hill. Today you can see the “New” Point Loma Lighthouse from the Kelp Forest/Whale Overlook, 100 yards south of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

Life at the Lighthouse – Family Memories 

By David & Jeanne Israel

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse was not just the housing for a light; it was the home of the people who took care of the light. It’s a light and a house in one.

Where did your grandfather grow up? Mine grew up in a lighthouse. The day he was born, June 2, 1871, his father (my great-grandfather), Captain Robert Decatur Israel, was appointed Assistant Lighthouse Keeper at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. When my grandfather was three years old, his father was promoted to Keeper, and his mother (my great-grandmother), Maria Arcadia Machado de Alipas Israel, was appointed Assistant Keeper. The lighthouse was a bustling family home, with the Israel’s three boys and a niece growing up there. In the yard lived three horses, chickens, pigs and goats. The Israels lived and worked on Point Loma for 18 years, where they watched their children and grandchildren grow up. One of the Israel’s grandsons was born at the lighthouse. Maria and her mother, Juana Machado, of Old Town San Diego, delivered the baby.

Life on the isolated Point was, at times, an adventure. My mother remembers as a child complaining to my grandfather about having to walk to school, and him telling her, “How would you like to have to row a boat across the bay to school?” That’s how he and his two brothers got to school in Old Town San Diego from the lighthouse.

Not only was their home one of the first lighthouses on the west coast of United States, it was also the highest in the country, the light being 462 feet [height of the lens] above sea level. It was so high that ships often couldn’t see the light through the fog and clouds. At such times, because there was no foghorn, Captain Israel would fire a shotgun to warn ships away from the treacherous rocks below. Eventually the lighthouse was replaced by the “New” Point Loma Lighthouse, built at the end of the Point at a lower elevation.

My great-grandfather kept the Old Point Loma light longer than any other keeper, and he was also the last keeper. He extinguished the light for the last time in March 1891. In 1984, the National Park Service lighted the light again for the first time in 93 years, in celebration of the site’s 130th birthday. Approximately 3,000 people and over 100 descendants of the Israels attended. It is always a thrill for me to look up at night from anywhere in San Diego and see the light shining as it did over 100 years ago. It’s as though my great grandparents still live there.

Recently it has been our pleasure to volunteer our time, effort, and memories at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. On special occasions the park opens the very top of the tower to the public. The 360-degree view is breathtaking. We are there, in 1880’s attire, to show visitors through the house at times. We can almost hear the footsteps of the children who once lived there, and glimpse in our imagination Maria knitting by the fire or the captain rushing upstairs to re-light a blown out wick. You may also see us recreating a kitchen garden beside the lighthouse, and helping park staff to reintroduce native plants to the area surrounding it. We are helping put the past back into place for the enjoyment of future generations.

The National Park Service, by preserving this historic lighthouse, gives us all a special place to step back in time, a windswept retreat from our busy modern world, a place to remember the people and times that went before us. Over 100 years ago, people drove out by horse and buggy, over steep and rutted dirt roads, to visit the Israels, to picnic, and to enjoy the spectacular view that visitors still come to enjoy today.

 The Old Spanish Lighthouse?

“The Old Spanish Lighthouse” is a name that stuck with the lighthouse for a number of years even though it wasn’t constructed in the Spanish time frame. Its longest lasting family, the Israels, had Old Town connections to the Spanish era and Maria was among them.

Maria Israel and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse

By Debbie Stetz

Debbie Stetz was an interpretive ranger at Cabrillo National Monument. She received an MA in Public History from the University of San Diego. Her thesis was a social history and analysis of development of the early 1900s mining town, Rhyolite, NV, which will soon be published by the University of Nevada Press.

Women’s contributions to the workplace have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Career opportunities during the 1800s were typically of a maternal nature, such as nursing, teaching, or domestic service. Although today’s women have climbed high on the corporate ladder, there are still only a handful of women who have held some very unusual jobs. One such woman was Maria Arcadia Alipas Israel, daughter of a prominent Spanish family in San Diego. For nearly 20 years, she helped the U.S. Lighthouse Service safely guide ships into San Diego’s harbor.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, constructed in 1855, functioned for 36 years, until it was permanently shut down and abandoned in 1891. Built at the harbor entrance high atop Point Loma, the lighthouse was usually shrouded in early morning low clouds and fog and was eventually replaced by another lighthouse built closer to the water’s edge. During its life span, 11 keepers were stationed at the lighthouse. The last keeper was Robert Decatur Israel, who lived there with his family for 18 years. For three of those years, his wife Maria officially served as the assistant lighthouse keeper.

Keeping the immense Fresnel lens lit throughout the night was the principal job of the keeper. But the most difficult part of the work was maintaining the equipment and grounds to exacting government standards. Detailed manuals issued by the U.S. Lighthouse Service outlined every acceptable, and unacceptable, activity around a lighthouse, from the correct procedure for trimming the wicks and polishing the glass, to being “courteous and polite to all visitors who conform to the regulations.”

Maria Israel shared lighthouse duties with her husband and often kept the night watch. She placed her rocker at the base of the circular stairway and passed the hours away with sewing and knitting while a beam of light from the lens in the tower illuminated the needlework in her lap. When the light was extinguished in the morning, the keeper donned a linen apron and began immediate preparations for the detailed cleaning and polishing of the lens and equipment. In keeping with the government rules, Maria was expected to keep the lighthouse and living quarters scrupulously clean, without any speck of dirt and dust. Every hour of the day and night was precious since her time was divided between the maintenance of the lighthouse and caring for her home and family. At times, teamwork was important. Tension welled up when ships drifted too close to the rocks of Point Loma and had to be alerted to their potential danger. Maria kept watch as Captain Israel ran outside to fire off warning shots from his shotgun. On February 15, 1876, the Lighthouse Board, for unknown reasons, replaced her as the assistant keeper.

The old Point Loma Lighthouse is a prim, two-story house, built in a traditional New England style with a parlor and kitchen on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second with a flight of stairs leading to the tower that housed the lens, and a full basement with a cistern below. Its location at the tip of Point Loma offers a spectacular view of the San Diego area and, just as today, has always attracted visitors to the quaint little lighthouse. But its distance from town and lack of available fresh water made life in the lighthouse less idyllic than it may have seemed. In 1874, a woman reporter from the San Diego Union wrote about her visit:

The lighthouse upon the extreme point of Point Loma is some fourteen miles from San Diego and is approached by one of the most beautiful drives in the world, to those who enjoy the cool, bracing breezes … the buildings consisted of a very neat and commodious dwelling house surmounted by a tower fifteen feet high, also several immense sheds erected by the government for the purpose of catching rainwater … Water and wood are items of considerable importance here, both having theretofore been brought from San Diego … The vegetation around the lighthouse is very meager consisting of very low, scrubby sage brush. Mrs. Israel told us that she had endeavored in vain to make a few of the most hardy flowers and vegetables grow, but the position was too much exposed to admit of cultivation.

Maria Israel was an industrious woman who successfully created a home from very limited resources. She had a knack for decorative arts and spent a great deal of time stitching shawls, pillow shams, lace curtains, and quilts. Tourists at the lighthouse often purchased the mosaic picture frames she constructed from colorful seashells her sons gathered from the tidepools. She tried to grow tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and lettuce in the unforgiving clay soil around the lighthouse. She tended a grapevine from which she dried grapes into raisins, and grew hot peppers—a vital ingredient in her Mexican cuisine. If anyone embodied the old lighthouse, it was Maria Israel.

In 1995, the National Park Service celebrated the 140th birthday of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse with a major interior restoration. Bill Brown, Staff Curator of Historic Furnishings at Harper’s Ferry, was brought in to carry out the job. He and his assistant, Andy Chamberlain, immediately embarked on a search of historic resources to help them recreate the lighthouse’s interiors during its 1880 heyday. When Brown and Chamberlain chose materials and furnishings to represent that era, Maria Israel played a prominent role in their decisions. Brown explained:

We know that Mrs. Israel did sewing and mending and a lot of handwork, and she did these two [seashell] frames. We’ve tried to set up various sewing materials of the period, and various kinds of things that were popular for women to do in the home, like hand-work … I’m not saying that we like it, but that’s what they did, and that is what is important, to not ‘decorate’.

The National Park Service has successfully restored the lighthouse to its former glory days when it was a working lighthouse and a comfortable home. The “Light Keeper” manuals are on the desk in the parlor. Part of the keeper’s uniform is laid out on the bed upstairs, and the utility closet is filled with wicks and lanterns. Maria Israel’s presence is also very apparent throughout the house with the lace curtains, Boston rocker, a basket of sewing, appliquéd pillows on the daybed, and strands of red peppers and garlic hanging in the kitchen. The beautiful furnishings throughout the lighthouse portray her role as a wife and homemaker, common positions for women of her time. But she was also a modern working woman—assistant lighthouse keeper—a position not many women, of any time, have had the privilege to hold.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse and outbuildings yesterday… -NPS Photo
Point Loma Lighthouse
…and today. -NPS Photo

Last revised 08-Sep-14