Even in the golden era of lighthouses when they were all staffed by keepers, lighthouse news usually didn’t make big headlines or even the front page in most newspapers. It was generally buried in back sections amidst mundane shipping or maritime news in small print. But in the case of California lighthouse keepers Herbert H. Luff and John P. Kofod, their lighthouse lives provided a good deal of headlines and journalistic sensationalism, even if they weren’t always mentioned by name.
BACKGROUND OF THE KEEPERS: Born on July 13, 1867 in Surrey England, Herbert H. Luff immigrated to America around 1884 and entered U.S. Lighthouse Service at the Oakland Harbor Lighthouse in 1891. For the next 42 years, he served at a total of seven different California light stations. His longest stints were 17 years at Yerba Buena Lighthouse from 1904 to 1921, and 14 total years at Point Montara Light, serving there from 1892 to 1901 and again from 1928 to 1933.
John P. Kofod also had a long lighthouse career, putting in three decades of service at four different California lights. Born June 6, 1858 in Copenhagen, Denmark, John Kofod immigrated to America around the same year as Herbert Luff. John Kofod served under Herbert H. Luff as an assistant at Yerba Buena Lighthouse for almost a dozen years, from 1903 until 1914, when he was promoted and transferred to East Brother Light Station as the head keeper for the next seven years. In 1921 when Herbert Luff left Yerba Buena Lighthouse, John Kofod replaced him, and he served there for another five years, bringing his total service at Yerba Buena Lighthouse to almost 18 years.
“TREE PLANTING ON GOAT ISLAND: SUGGEST SEA-COW FOR LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER” Oakland Tribune- July 14, 1909 - It was while serving at Yerba Buena Lighthouse together in 1909 that Herbert Luff and John Kofod first made headlines with their lighthouse cow; a story in full detail is told elsewhere in this edition of Lighthouse Digest. As you will learn in that story, the newspapers had a heyday over a period of five months reporting the latest progress made in the battle between the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and several government agencies over the issue of reforestation of the pastureland around the lighthouse where the cow grazed.
While the keepers’ names were never mentioned in the newspaper articles, there are family stories that verify their identity and ownership of the cow, whose name, unfortunately, will forever remain forgotten.
“NAVY MEN WIN IN FIGHT WITH STUBBORN FIRE: SAILORS, MARINES, APPRENTICES, AND OFFICERS SAVE HOME OF LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS” The San Francisco Call - July 18, 1909. During the same month the cow saga was at its height, Herbert H. Luff and John P. Kofod made headline news again when the keeper’s house at Yerba Buena Lighthouse almost burnt to the ground. According to the newspapers, the passengers aboard the ferry routes were “treated to a great spectacle when the whole population of the island, 500 persons, were engaged for some time in an attempt to put out the blaze.”
John P. Kofod was sitting in the kitchen when he heard the sound of crackling timbers overhead and realized the attic was on fire. He shouted a warning to his family, as well as to keeper Luff and his family, to vacate the house. The fire was spotted by the Navy tug Vigilant which sounded the blasts of the fire signal that called the entire workforce of men from the naval base and lighthouse depot on the island to a quick response.
A fire hose attached to the tug’s engines was brought up the hillside by the tug’s crew. They were joined by the base’s personnel with more hoses from the water supply reservoir at the top of the island, and after an hour, the fire was put out. The roof and several upstairs rooms were destroyed, but many household goods of the keepers and their families were salvaged.
It was supposed the fire had started due to a defective flue, but the real story came out when John Kofod’s grandson and family went to Yerba Buena Lighthouse for a visit in the 1980s. The keeper’s house was then the home of Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral James S. Gracey, and his family. Over lunch, the tale of the fire and what really happened was disclosed to Admiral Gracey.
John Kofod’s daughter, Anna, and newlywed husband, Walter Fanning, were living upstairs in the keeper’s house following their marriage in 1908. Fanning was a radioman for the Navy and loved to experiment with radio equipment, even in his off-time. He had built his own private radio station in the attic that had electrical wiring for all his different lights, radios, and Morse code systems. According to the family, “The wiring caught fire on that fateful day. Walter managed to rip out all the wiring and equipment and hide the remnants before the fire crew got there.”
During the investigation that followed, the fire was logged as starting from an unknown source. John Kofod kept the secret well throughout the next 20 years of duty. He retired from the Lighthouse Service after his second stint at Yerba Buena Lighthouse in 1928 at the mandatory retirement age of 70 and passed away five years later.
“NAVAL OFFICER ADOPTS LIGHTKEEPER’S CHILD” Oakland Tribune - April 18, 1918. While at Yerba Buena Lighthouse, the Luff family, composed of Herbert; his first wife Louise (Marsh), who he had married in 1894; and her niece Louisa (“Louise” Ostermann). The Luffs were childless and in their early 40s, so sometime shortly before 1910, Louise’s sister and husband, who had several children and not a lot of money, allowed the Luffs to take their daughter Louisa, then a toddler, to raise as their own.
This arrangement suited everyone for several years. However, because lighthouse keepers didn’t make a lot of money either, it appears everyone wanted Louisa to have a better life, so in 1918, when she was but 12 years old, she was given over to naval officer Lt. Commander Richard Brennan to legally adopt as his sole heir. Interestingly, Brennan was the son of lighthouse keeper George P. Brennan who was head keeper at Point Loma Lighthouse (new) for 11 years from 1892 to 1903. It was not stated how Richard Brennan made his money, but he had a lot of it, as Louisa was considered to be a lucky heiress.
In a newspaper article in 1918 about the adoption, Brennan said he had first become acquainted with Louisa when she “was living with her uncle, a lighthouse keeper, on Goat Island.” The article goes on to say that Brennan was to take heiress Louisa to the East and place her in a school when he was ordered to duty in the Atlantic. For whatever reason, that never materialized, and Louisa remained with the Luffs through 1920 at Yerba Buena Lighthouse on Goat Island.
In 1920, she and her Aunt Louise Luff spent over a year touring throughout the island nations of Asia, presumably funded by her newly acquired fortune. Meanwhile, Herbert H. Luff stayed faithfully at his post as head keeper of Yerba Buena Light.
“LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER SEES CREW FIGHT IN EFFORT TO SAVE CARGO” Bakersfield Morning Echo - October 29, 1926. After his 17 years at Yerba Buena Lighthouse, keeper Herbert Luff then transferred to Punta Gorda Lighthouse for a stint of at least two years as head keeper. In 1926, he assisted in attempts to save the steamer Everett and her crew when a fire broke out on board from her chemical cargo. Luff notified the Coast Guard of the steamer’s predicament, and the rescue cutter Cahokia was immediately dispatched, arriving just in time to take the crew of 28 off when they had to abandon the ship because the fire could not be contained. The steamer was considered a total loss and later sank, but the crew was safe due to Luff’s observation and timely call.
“BRIDE OF AGED LIGHT KEEPER LAID TO REST” San Mateo Times - November 29, 1930. Personal tragedy soon became a way of life for Herbert H. Luff. In either 1924 or 1929, his first wife, Louise, passed away from an illness. They had been married at least 30 years. Toward the end, Louise was nursed by her best friend Stella Bell. By 1930, Keeper Luff, then age 63, was serving at Point Montara Lighthouse and became quite lonely for female companionship, so he married Stella, who was only 38 at the time.
Within only two months of their marriage, tragedy struck again, and Stella died from a heart attack at the lighthouse. An inquest was held and an autopsy performed that verified her death was from natural causes, but Luff was devastated. According to the newspaper reports, his friends feared for his sanity because they were unable to console him. Little did they all know that the worst was yet to come.
“LIGHTHOUSE WIDOWER AGAIN CHALLENGES LOVE” San Mateo Times - March 17, 1931.
The story goes that while serving at Punta Gorda Lighthouse in 1907 as a single man, Herbert H. Luff became acquainted with a local family in Petrolia by the name of Cook, who had a 3-year old daughter named Lila. The problem is that Punta Gorda Lighthouse was not operational until 1911 and Luff was definitely at Yerba Buena Lighthouse in 1907, married, and serving with John Kofod at that time.
But, according to many different articles and papers, Luff used to make play toys for Lila, and she was enamored with him. Once, when he gave her a bag of candy in exchange for a kiss, she said, “Oh, you nice big Herb, I’m going to marry you when I grow up.” And, amazingly, many years that statement came true and here’s how it happened.
Three months after losing his second wife, keeper Luff happened upon Lila Adeline Cook (Jones) again, now a 23 year-old widow, and a month later in March of 1931, they got married. In a joint interview the day before the marriage, they said the 40-year age difference didn’t matter as “we’ve always been in love with one another, even if we have only just found it out.”
Unfortunately, the love didn’t last long because just 48 hours later, keeper Luff filed a police report saying that Lila had been abducted from Point Montara Lighthouse. The next day, Lila was found to be at her former home in Santa Clara and fully admitted to consenting to leaving with truck driver W.P. Davis when he came by. They had plans to go to Reno together so he could get a divorce.
Lila claimed that lighthouse life was “dreary, lonely, and he tried to order me around. I was glad to get away.” Herbert H. Luff applied for and was granted an annulment a few months later in July of 1931. Abashed, but not defeated, he actually married for a fourth time just a couple of months after that in November of 1931. His fourth wife, Marguerite Benton (or Burban), was 43 at the time, which was a much better match, though still twenty years Luff’s junior. They remained married for the next 13 years when Marguerite died, also of heart problems, leaving Luff alone once again.
“CAPTAIN ENDS 42 YEARS DUTY AT LIGHTHOUSE” San Mateo Times - September 1, 1933.
In 1933, Keeper Herbert H. Luff retired after 42 years of lighthouse service at age 65. Even his retirement announcement was mostly about the travesty of his third marriage. It did, however, give one fitting tribute for which he should be remembered and honored. “In more than four decades of service, he is said to have never missed a night of duty.”
With no children and no wives left, there was no one at the end to take care of him, nor see to his burial. Herbert H. Luff died in the United States Marine Hospital in San Francisco in 1948 at age 81. He was buried in an outlying corner of Olivet Cemetery in Colma, California, in the midst of other Public Health Service burials, largely forgotten.
That is, until now.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2017 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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