“As we made the high point off San Diego, Point Loma, we were greeted by the cheering presence of a lighthouse. As we swept round it in the early morning, there, before us, lay the little harbor of San Diego, its low spit of sand where the water runs deep; the opposite flats, where the Alert grounded in starting for home; the low hills, without trees, and almost without brush; the quiet little beach…”
Two Years Before The Mast
When Richard Henry Dana wrote the above lines, White Tower No. 355 had not yet been built. In 1851, only one year after California became a state, the board of the 12th U.S. Light House District selected a site for
the West Coast’s southernmost lighthouse. The location of the 422-foot high Point Loma seemed perfect. The light would be a beacon for the entrance to San Diego Harbor
as well as a coastal warning light.
In 1854, workers from Gibbo and Kelly Co. brought supplies from San Francisco. The schooner Vaquero landed at Ballast Point and soon, a road was carved out of the steep hillside. Sandstone was quarried from Point Loma for the walls of the house. Floor tiles were salvaged from
the Old Spanish Fort Goijarras that sat nearby. It took about two months to
finish the structure, complete with brick tower, rolled tin roof and an iron and brass housing for the light. The original
cost for the lighthouse doubled to $30,000. This made it one of
the most expensive lights on the West Coast. The tower was designed to house an Argand lens and parabolic reflectors. When in 1855, the five-foot high third order Fresnel lens the lighthouse board had settled on arrived from France, the tower had to be rebuilt.
On November 15, 1855, James Keaton lit the oil lamp on the country’s highest lighthouse for the first time. One early sea captain stated that on a clear night, he could see the light from 39 miles away. On foggy or cloudy nights it was another matter. Often, the lighthouse, shrouded in fog or the light, was above the level of the clouds and not visible at all.
The lighthouse site was several miles from the cluster of “adobes” that made up the settlement of San Diego. The nearest neighbor was a whaling station located at the bottom of the bluff on Ballast Point. This remote location, the inhospitable weather, and pay of only $800 a year caused a steady turnover of lightkeepers. From 1855 until 1871, ten keepers and over 20 assistants came and went. Then, on the day his son Henry was born, June 2, 1871, Captain Robert Decatur Israel was appointed assistant light keeper. Three years later, Captain Israel was appointed keeper and his wife Maria became one of the few female assistant lighthouse keepers.
In 1874, the San Diego Union Tribune wrote:
“The lighthouse, upon the extreme point of Point Loma, is some 14 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 consist of a very neat and commodious dwelling house surmounted by a tower 15 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 heretofore been brought from San Diego. The vegetation around the lighthouse is very meager consisting of very low, scrubby sagebrush. 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 cultivation…”
For 17 more years, Israel and Maria continued to keep the light and raise their three boys and niece, Emma, at this remote location. One of their grandsons was even born at the lighthouse. When on March 23, 1891 they extinguished the lamp for the last time, the family moved down the hill to the New Point Loma Lighthouse. The new light was built below the fog line. Today, members of the Israel family still volunteer at the lighthouse. They say they can “almost hear the foot steps of the children who once lived there, and see the Captain rushing upstairs to light a blown out wick.”
After the lighthouse was closed, the original Fresnel lens was removed and everything was boarded up. The structure fell into disrepair and in 1913, there was even talk of removing it and putting up a 150-foot statue of Juan Cabrillo.
In 1933, the acre site where the lighthouse stood was assigned to the National Park Service and the light was restored. The structure was camouflaged and used as a Navy signal station during World War II. After the war, the Park Service again took over.
For its 100th birthday in 1955, a fourth order Fresnel lens was brought from the Table Bluff Lighthouse and installed in
the empty tower. In 1957, the Cabrillo monument and Old Point Loma Lighthouse was the most visited monument in the United States. Attendance even exceeded that of the Statue of Liberty. The memorial site was expanded to 144 acres and in 1980, the lighthouse experienced further renovation. At that time, the roof and upper part of the old tower were rebuilt.
In 1984, the fourth order lens was returned to Table Bluff; a third order lens from Mile Rocks Lighthouse replaced it and the tower was wired for electricity. Today, even though the light isn’t used for navigation, a small lamp comes on at dusk and shines toward San Diego.
In 1955, the interior of the lighthouse was restored. Great care has gone into furnishing the living area as it might have been during the 1880s, when Captain Israel and his family were present. There is even a replica of the kitchen table Israel used for his frequent games of solitaire.
It has been said that he used the same deck of cards for so long that Maria
“threatened to boil them up for soup.”
Today, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse remains a part of the 144-acre Cabrillo National Monument. Included on the site is a visitor’s center with exhibits, films, and publications about the natural, cultural, and military history of the area. There is a statue honoring Juan Cabrillo and a trail that descends 300 feet down the bluff in a two-mile round trip. The trail leads past the remains of military installations that protected San Diego Harbor during WWI and WWII.
Adjacent to Cabrillo National Monument is Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The first American casualty of the war in Iraq to be buried in a national cemetery was interred there on April 2, 2003. Not the least attraction, on a clear day, is the outstanding view of San Diego Bay and the city that sits on its shores.
This story appeared in the
July 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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