In 1905, William Smith replaced Henry Young as Keeper at California’s San Luis Obispo Light Station when Young, the station’s first Keeper, transferred to the Alcatraz Lighthouse. It was a promotion for Smith, who had spent the previous 11 years—except for a short stint at the Farallon Island Lighthouse—as an assistant keeper at Point Arena Lighthouse.
Smith’s service at San Luis Obispo Light was marked by loss, commendations, and criticism. He lost a wife, a daughter, and his health. He received recognition for how well he managed the light station, but also a reprimand for “oppressing” Wheeler Greene and Antonio Silva, his two assistant keepers.
How to judge his service is up to the reader. Did Smith deserve his commendations or did they come at the expense of harshly treating his subordinates? Did Greene and Silva give true testimony, or did his assistants turn against him for reasons we can only guess?
William Jarred Smith was born in Wisconsin in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War. By the age of 23, he had moved to California and married into the Lane family, prominent Mendocino county pioneers with a ranch near Point Arena.
Nancy Lane Smith was born in 1856. Her brother, John Crosby Lane, was active in state Democratic councils and county political affairs.
The couple had four children: Bessie, Elsie, Edna, and Ralph, born between 1886 and 1890.
Voter registration rolls suggest that the Smiths were living in Temperance Colony, Fresno, California in 1892, where 20-acre tracts could be purchased by those who “took the pledge.” But, by 1894, the family was back in Mendocino, California.
That year, district inspector Henry Nichols nominated William J. Smith for a light keeper post; history does not record why. And Smith’s own words do not help to explain. Asked about his qualifications, Smith wrote that he was “qualified by the habit of attending strictly to whatever duties I may have on hand, leading a temperate life.”
Smith’s application lists farming as his occupation, but those who recommended him were men of stature and influence: Charles Goodall, Pacific Coast Steamship Company superintendent and son of the company’s co-founder; William English, Surveyor of the Port of San Francisco, appointed by President Cleveland; and Rev. Thomas Filben, a well-known Methodist minister. Nancy’s brother was also a man of influence. The inspector would have taken note. So did patronage come into play?
In 1896, William J. Smith was appointed 3rd assistant keeper, assigned to Point Arena Lighthouse, and later he was promoted to 2nd assistant. In 1901, he was transferred to the Farallon Island Light Station and promoted to 1st assistant. Ten months later, he transferred back to Point Arena Lighthouse. In November 1905, Smith was promoted to head keeper of the San Luis Obispo Light Station, which was sometimes also referred to as the Point San Luis Obispo Light.
Six months after the family’s transfer, Nancy Smith passed away. The care of their teenagers now fell solely to keeper Smith. It must have been a difficult three years.
In 1909, however, Smith remarried. His second wife, Julia Noyes, born in 1857, had previously married, in 1895, to a man named Joseph Gardner. What became of Mr. Gardner is unknown. The courtship of keeper William J. Smith and Julia seems to have been short, because in August 1909, the local newspaper reported Mrs. Julia Gardner was visiting from Illinois. On September 5th, Julia (Noyes) Gardner visited the lighthouse. On October 1st, keeper William J. Smith married Mrs. Gardner, a “popular lady,” according to the newspaper, with “many friends in San Luis Obispo.”
William Smith’s children were popular too, and the paper often noted their comings and goings. Bessie, Edna, and Ralph graduated from San Luis High School. Bessie and Edna then attended the State Normal School in San Jose, California to earn their teaching credentials. Ralph went to UC Berkeley to study dentistry.
In 1912, the Bureau of Lighthouses introduced efficiency stars and pennants as rewards for good lighthouse management. Keepers commended for efficiency at each quarterly inspection during a year were entitled to wear the inspector’s star the following year. The station in each district with the highest efficiency marks during a year had the honor of flying the efficiency pennant the following year. This was actually the Lighthouse Service pennant that was otherwise only flown on lightships and lighthouse tenders, the following year.
William J. Smith was commended for efficiency at each quarterly inspection that year and so he was awarded the inspector’s star for 1912.
Smith’s middle daughter, Elsie, married Alfred Howard in August of 1913. That same month, district inspector H. W. Rhodes awarded San Luis Obispo Light Station the efficiency pennant. Rhodes wrote:
The inspector takes pleasure in notifying you that your station has been awarded the efficiency pennant of this district, based on the marks for general efficiency given during fiscal year 1913, and that you are entitled to fly this pennant in the manner described by the regulations during fiscal year 1914.
Rhodes also wrote:
As you have been entitled to commendation for efficiency at each inspection of your station during the past year, you are authorized to retain the efficiency star awarded to you at the close of fiscal year 1912. In re-awarding you the efficiency star, the inspector again commends you for the efficient and conscientious manner in which you have discharged your duties during the year.
When William J. Smith took over as keeper, the light station was 15 years old. Its facilities and equipment were sorely in need of updating.
In 1906, the fog signal steam whistle was converted from a coal-fired to an oil-burning system. The station acquired a barge to transport oil from nearby Port San Luis, relieving the lighthouse tender of the need to deliver it from San Francisco.
Toilets, sinks, and bathtubs were installed inside the residences in 1907, replacing the outdoor privies.
In 1911, a new incandescent oil vapor outfit, with an improved lamp, replaced the one-wick Funck-Heap lamp. The I.O.V. lamp produced a brighter light and used less kerosene.
In 1912, the characteristic of the station’s light was changed. It had flashed alternately red and white every 30 seconds since first lit in June, 1890. The inspector wrote to the Bureau of Lighthouses:
As the lens has 10 panels of equal size, the red beam is of course much inferior in candle power to the white beam. Recent examination has developed the fact that the lens can easily be revolved in such time as to flash every 20 seconds. It is recommended that the red screens be removed and the characteristic flashing white every 20 seconds be established.
The Bureau approved the inspector’s recommendation, and a notice to mariners advised that the change would occur “about September 10, 1912.”
In 1915, the steam whistle was replaced by a compressed air siren. A notice to mariners reported:
About June 1, 1915, the fog-signal at San Luis Obispo Light Station will be changed from a 10-inch steam whistle to an air siren sounding one blast every 40 seconds, thus blast 4 seconds, silent 36 seconds.
That same year, while teaching nearby, Bessie Smith developed heart trouble. However, the paper noted in October, 1915 that she was improving and planned to visit Edna, who was teaching in San Jose, as soon as she was able.
In November of 1915, William J. Smith traveled to San Francisco to take temporary charge of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s U.S. Lighthouse Service exhibit. Bessie accompanied her father as far as San Jose so she could stay with her sister to recuperate.
In March of 1916, Smith visited the still-ailing Bessie. When he returned, he reported she was much improved but would remain up north for the time being. Unfortunately, Bessie did not get better. She died that September. She was 30 years old. The local newspaper noted that Bessie was survived by her father, two sisters, “Mrs. Elsie Howard of Lakeport, California and Mrs. Edna Laws of Pittsburg, California, and one brother, Ralph Smith, of San Francisco.” In July of 1916, Bessie’s youngest sister had married Henry Laws.
Edna Silva’s death was more sudden. She died the day before Bessie did, after an illness of just three days. She was 15 years old, the daughter of 1st assistant Antonia J. Silva. The doctor who signed her death certificate recorded typhoid as the cause, but the public health surgeon who investigated the death ruled it polio instead.
The surgeon may have been wrong. Keeper Smith told the surgeon that he’d had two typhoid attacks, one in 1879 and the other in 1901. In January of 1917, at the surgeon’s request, keeper Smith was tested and found to be a typhoid carrier. The Lighthouse Service decided that keeper Smith could stay at the station. Apparently the Lighthouse Service felt this was the safest option due to the light station’s isolation.
Did assistant keeper Silva blame keeper Smith for his only child’s death? If Antonio Silva knew about William Smith’s test results, it is not at all unlikely. Also, 2nd assistant Wheeler Greene, may have blamed the head keeper; he had a wife and two small children. Living at the station with a typhoid carrier would have been concerning.
Things came to a head early the following year.
In a letter dated January 2, 1918, 2nd assistant Wheeler Greene filed charges against head keeper Smith. By the time the charges were made, Wheeler Greene had resigned; he and his family had moved to Vallejo, California where Wheeler Greene found a job at the Mare Island naval shipyard.
While the specific allegations that Wheeler Greene made are unknown, a report made by Antonio Silva gave evidence that keeper Smith had, on numerous occasions, oppressed the assistant keepers by enforcing petty rules and regulations and, the inspector wrote, “by actions which placed your own personal wishes and convenience ahead of the interests of the Government in the conduct of your station.” Assistant keeper Silva told the inspector that on December 31, 1917 when he was going on watch, keeper Smith spoke to him as if he were “not a human being,” and said he would not be friends with Silva, that he had gotten rid of one man (presumably Greene) and intended to “finish it up.”
In a January 10, 1918 letter to head keeper Smith, the inspector wrote:
You are warned that such actions on your part without provocation cannot be tolerated and that any further violation of the spirit or the letter of the regulations will result in a recommendation to the Bureau for drastic action by the Department. You are directed in the future to exercise your authority over your subordinates with strict justice and, while requiring full service from them in all respects, not to oppress them in any manner.
In response, on January 12, 1918, Smith submitted his resignation, to take effect, he wrote, on March 31, 1918. Then, on February 2, 1918, Smith changed his mind. He requested his resignation be withdrawn.
Keeper Smith’s son, Ralph, was practicing dentistry in San Francisco when the United States entered World War I. Ralph Smith served as a first lieutenant with the army’s dental corps and with the American expeditionary force in Siberia. He returned home in May of 1919 on the troopship Logan.
Also in May of 1919, the Smiths bought their first automobile, a Ford, and enjoyed taking motor trips to San Diego and San Jose to visit family and friends. Since there was no road leading to the light station, Smith kept the car garaged in a nearby town.
By 1920, Smith’s health was declining. In May, due to illness, he applied for a three-month leave. He was directed to turn over the station and all property to 1st assistant Silva. The district inspector wrote:
It is understood that your quarters with a bedstead, wire mattress, and all cooking utensils will be available for the use of a temporary assistant keeper in case it is found necessary to send one to the station during your absence.
Unfortunately, William Smith’s health did not improve. During his leave, he submitted his resignation, to take effect June 20, 1920. This time he did not change his mind. George F. Watters arrived in July to replace him. William J Smith’s 26-year keeper career was over. He continued to live in the area—in Santa Barbara—until his death in 1940. His remains were shipped to San Jose where he is buried near Bessie at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Did Smith ever regret giving up his post? Did he miss tending the light? Or was it an endeavor that had so hurt his pride, professionalism, heart, and health that he was relieved to finally “finish it up?”
This story appeared in the
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