The Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Symbol of the Pacific Coast's first Lighthouses
NPS Logo


There were problems getting the lighthouses built, and lighted, and there were problems securing personnel to tend these important aids to navigation. Locating keepers was not an easy task, and holding them once they were hired was even more difficult. The villain in the case was low pay.

In the beginning a first order light rated a principal keeper and two assistants, while second and third order lights called for a principal keeper and one assistant. Only a principal keeper was allowed for fourth and fifth order lights.

Principal keepers, regardless of order of light, received $1,000 annual salary. First assistant keepers received $650, and second assistant keepers $500. Everyone, from the keepers up to the Lighthouse Board itself, considered the salaries inadequate, but Congress would do nothing about raising them.

Keepers were usually appointed about the time the individual lighthouses were completed. Perhaps at the time it was thought that once the structures were completed the illuminating apparatus would be installed immediately.

The Point Loma lighthouse furnishes a good example of the result of the imperfect understanding of the size of Fresnel illuminating apparatuses as it affected personnel. It was first contemplated that the Point Loma lighthouse would have a light of the first order; consequently, about 6 months after the structure was completed a principal keeper and two assistants were hired. But when the light was changed to one of the third order there was a concomitant reduction in personnel allowance, which, on the surface at least, meant someone had to go. However, both assistants were retained until January 1, 1856, when the second assistant tendered his resignation, which was accepted on the 17th. He gave no reason for leaving, but undoubtedly he was disturbed by the two factors which upset most of the keepers; low pay and effective date of employment. With his departure the position of second assistant was discontinued.

The first assistant keeper, George Tolman, had been most upset over the effective date of employment. Tolman had been in the Army and served in the Yuma-San Diego area. Upon discharge he settled in San Diego and on January 29, 1855, was appointed first assistant keeper at the Point Loma lighthouse. In the latter part of November he found out that his salary was to begin on the day the lighthouse was put into operation—on November 15, 1855—and was not retroactive to his date of appointment. He was indignant at this intelligence and immediately wrote directly to Lt. Edmund Hardcastle, Secretary of the Lighthouse Board, expressing his unhappiness. He identified himself as having served a few years before in the same regiment with Hardcastle in the New River area east of San Diego. Tolman said he had understood at the time that his pay was to begin on the date of appointment. Since he had one job he could not take another, and on the basis of his understanding about salary he had in the meantime run up a sizeable board bill. Unfortunately, the action taken by the Board is not known, but it is unlikely Tolman received back pay. At any rate he resigned his light keeper's job on January 29, the first anniversary of his appointment.

Getting principal keepers for the lighthouses was to some extent a problem, but the main difficulty was in filling the lower paying assistant keeper positions. The ones attracted to the jobs came for the most part from a rather unstable segment of society. Four months after the lighting of the Point Loma lighthouse the keeper, James Keating, complained: "I have been unfortunate in respect of assistants. There comes a strange one every month."

At the Point Loma lighthouse the principal keepers tended to remain longer than the assistant keepers. During the 36 years the lighthouse was in operation there were 11 keepers and 22 assistants. The last keeper was on duty for 19 years and transferred to the new lighthouse when it began operating. Undoubtedly the difference in pay greatly explains the difference in tenure.

The light keeper was usually nominated for the position by the local collector of customs. The Lighthouse Board either endorsed or did not endorse the nominee. Official appointment was made by the Secretary of the Treasury. By the 1890's the procedure was for the light keeper to remain on duty for three months, after which period he was given an examination by the District Inspector. If the inspector was satisfied, he certified the fact to the Lighthouse Board. The Secretary of the Treasury then gave the keeper a full appointment.

As time went on though, lighthouse jobs began to take on more and more the form of a career service. Toward the end of the 19th century transfers of personnel between lighthouses began to take place, and keepers began to be appointed from the ranks of assistant keepers. For example, David Splaine served in several lighthouses on the Pacific Coast, including the one on Point Loma, as assistant keeper. By the time of the establishment of the lighthouse at Ballast Point he had gained enough experience and was appointed first keeper of that light station.


The work of a lighthouse keeper was not too difficult, and some keepers had outside activities. The first keeper of the Point Loma lighthouse, for example, operated a shipyard—San Diego's first—and in 1857 launched the first vessel built in the city. That the keepers would have time for other activities was recognized, at least negatively, by the Lighthouse Board when it provided that the keepers could not carry on any business which kept them away from the lighthouse for a prolonged period of time.

Instructions provided that regular 4-hour watches were to be maintained, and so as not to have the less desired watches fall entirely upon one man, the watches were to be alternated daily. In practice, however, it would appear that this rule, at least at Point Loma, was not adhered to, since reportedly the keepers stood 24-hour watches, changing at midnight.

The work itself was not difficult physically, and no great amount of imagination was required to successfully operate a lighthouse, provided one could read. In justifying higher pay for keepers to attract a better educated group (that is, those who could read), the Lighthouse Board remarked that there were ample instructions to guide the keepers if they could but understand them. Just before the lighting of the Point Loma lighthouse the District Inspector gave the principal keeper copies of Lighthouse Establishment Instructions and Instructions and Directions for the Management of Lenses, Lights and Beacons, as well as a copy of the current Light List.

Other publications available to the keeper included List of Illuminating Apparatuses, Fixtures, Implements, Tools, Miscellaneous Articles, and Supplies in General Use in the U. S. Lighthouses, Light-Beacons, and Light-Vessels ...; Instructions and Directions to Guide Light-House Keepers and Others Belonging to the Lighthouse Establishment; and Management of Lens Apparatus and Lamps. In his administrative duties the keeper could draw assistance from the List of Blank Forms, Circular, Pamphlets, Placards, and Books.

Obviously, the principal task of the keepers was to see that the light was exhibited at sunset and kept burning brightly until sunrise. To perform the main job effectively it was necessary for the lighting equipment to be in good condition, and the keepers were instructed to have "everything put in order for lighting in the evening by 10 o'clock a.m., daily." In carrying out this regulation, work at light stations with two or more keepers was divided into two "departments." One keeper had to clean and polish the lens, clean and fill the lamp, "remove all dust with the brushes from the frame-work of the apparatus, fit wicks if required, and if not required trim carefully those already fitted to the burner and see that everything connected with the apparatus and lamp is perfectly clean, and the light ready for lighting at the proper time in the evening."

The other keeper had to "clean the plate glass of the lantern inside and outside; clean all the copper and brass work of the apparatus, the utensils used in the lantern and watchroom; the walls, floors, and balconies of the lantern . . . the tower stairways, landing, doors, windows, window-recesses, and passages from the lantern to the oil cellars." In performing their work in the lantern the keepers were instructed to wear linen aprons to prevent the possibility of their coarse clothes scratching the lens. Indeed, when the lens was not in use or being worked on, a special linen cover was draped over it to protect it from dust, the sun, and the possibility of scratching.

The various printed instructions, of course, spelled out the routine of a keeper's job, such as washing the lens every 2 months with spirits of wine and polishing it annually with rouge, and alternating the lamps inside the lens every 15 days. Any questions about his work could be answered by carefully perusing the instructions available. If a keeper dropped oil on the lens, instructions told him to use spirits of wine in cleaning it off. If he did not know how to trim a wick or adjust a lamp, a step by step detailed description was available, including a picture of what the lamp flame should look like. Little was left to the discretion or, for that matter, the imagination of the keeper, and a neat workable lighthouse could be kept with only a modicum of intelligence and imagination. All the keeper needed was the ability to read and to comprehend what he read. Physically he needed to bring to the job a certain amount of energy.

Once the routine work connected with the light was accomplished, the keepers could turn their attention to maintenance, which for the most part consisted of repairs of a minor nature to the equipment and structures. Major repairs were normally taken care of through contract and were usually provided for by special appropriations from Congress as specifically request ed by the Lighthouse Board.


In addition to maintenance of Government property, the keepers also concerned themselves with personal endeavors peculiar to their job location. For many years the lighthouse at Point Loma possessed only one cistern—the one in the basement—and it was too small to hold a year's supply of water, obtained by run-off of rainwater from the roof; consequently, when the keepers ran out of water they had to haul barrels by wagon from a well at La Playa or from a well near what is now the junction of Midway and Rosecrans Streets. The 7- to 10-mile journey was over roads liberally dotted with chuckholes; the steep ascent to the top of Point Loma added to their problems. The number of trips a year depended upon the annual rainfall. Even with the addition in 1883 of a huge concrete catch basin in front of the lighthouse and a cistern at each end to hold water, these problems were not ended. Annual rainfall was simply not always adequate to meet needs.

Generally, weather was not a special problem for the occupants of the lighthouse. Point Loma gets its share of strong winds and squalls, but really violent storms are rare. These are not completely unknown, however. On October 2, 1858, a severe gale mercilessly lashed the San Diego area for 6 hours. Several ships in the harbor dragged their anchors and were driven aground. A couple of wooden structures (including the newspaper editor's house) in Old San Diego were toppled, and "So fearful was the gale at Point Loma the Lighthouse keeper, Capt. Keating, was obliged to leave at 12 o'clock M., fearing the tower would fall." Fortunately, though, the lighthouse was not harmed. Four years later an earthquake rocked San Diego, and this time the lighthouse was damaged. The extent or type of injury is not known. It must not have been too serious since the Secretary of the Lighthouse Board felt he had authority to order immediate repairs without first consulting the Board.

The lighthouse keepers on the west coast sometimes, where feasible, kept gardens. At Point Loma a potato patch, for a while at least, was maintained. Located just north of the lighthouse and then moved to a 1-1/2-acre site near the present Bennington Monument in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, the patch contained only potatoes; lack of water prevented growing anything else. The last keeper's wife, Mrs. Israel, kept a tomato vine growing and bearing year after year only by careful nursing and protection.

Normally, supplies such as oil, wicks, mops, brooms, and equipment were brought to lighthouses quarterly. The procedure described as occurring in the 1890's at a New England lighthouse was probably duplicated numerous times over the years on the Pacific Coast. On arriving at a light station the supply vessel anchored and a party landed and made its way to the lighthouse. After a brief social period and exchange of pleasantries the keeper produced his worn out brushes, mops and brooms, broken tools, and decrepit lamps, and they were exchanged for new ones. The old items were taken back to the vessel, and when the ship was far out at sea were dumped overboard; the captain of the supply vessel did not want them to be washed ashore to be again offered in evidence.

Probably in the 1880's, certainly prior to 1890, the Lighthouse Board began supplying portable libraries to the keepers. The books were arranged in cases which "make rather a neat appearance when set upright on a table, and they only need be closed and locked to be ready for transportation." Each contained about 50 volumes of a mixture of historical and scientific books, poetry, and good novels, and a Bible and a prayer book. The libraries were usually exchanged at the quarterly inspection.

Another innovation of the 1880's was the introduction of a uniform for the light keepers. In 1883 dress and fatigue uniforms were prescribed, and the following year the Lighthouse Board put the regulations into effect, giving the first uniform free to each keeper. On May 1, 1888, regulations regarding the uniform were issued. The uniform consisted of trousers, vest, and a double breasted coat. The coat had five large yellow metal buttons on each side. The material for the uniform was dark indigo blue jersey or flannel. The cap was of cloth with a visor. The yellow metal lighthouse badge was worn in the middle of the front of the cap.


During its active period the pattern of development of the Point Loma lighthouse was not very much unlike that of the other light stations on the west coast; that is, over the years the dwelling and tower were found to be inadequate for the necessities of an active station, and barns, sheds and other buildings were added from time to time.

At first, living space was not a special problem; at least there are no indications of complaints during the early years of the lighthouse. But as time went on the four room dwelling became just too small. By the 1870's, quarters had become obviously inadequate, and in 1875 two rooms were fitted up in a portion of the wood and oil storehouses as a dwelling for the assistant keeper. This shed was built of rough unseasoned lumber and was lined inside with cloth and paper. Cracks in the walls made it rather uncomfortable living quarters, despite the highly touted balmy climate of Southern California. Later the inside walls were lined with tongue and groove boards, but in 1877 it was still described as unfit for quarters. Additional repairs must have been made in 1880 for the structure was still being used as a dwelling for the assistant keeper. How long this building served in that capacity is not known, but in 1886 the keeper fitted up a room in the wash house for the accommodation of the assistant keeper's family.

Other buildings were added from time to time. In 1875 a barn was constructed near the lighthouse, and in 1881 a boat house was built at Ballast Point to house the lighthouse boat which had been acquired in 1868. At the same time a winch for hauling up the boat was installed.

The lighthouse structure was not painted the usual white until later in its active life. For many years it was left unpainted, but by 1879 it was realized that the action of the weather was causing the soft sandstone to disintegrate. Repairs were necessary, and preventive action was called for: the west side and south end walls were covered with a heavy coat of Portland cement-mortar, after which they were painted with two coats of stone-color paint.

Over the years the Light Lists had the Point Loma lighthouse described variously as grey and yellow sandstone and having a red lantern. The Light List for 1888 had the description altered for the first time, It said "Low white tower, rising from white dwelling, lantern black." The lighthouse, then, was not painted the "traditional" white until 1887.

During its active years the lighthouse was often visited by local residents. Sometimes they came to watch the shore whalers from Ballast Point harpoon the migrating California gray whales just beyond the kelp beds off Point Loma. Groups of young people packed picnic lunches and journeyed to the lighthouse for a pleasant outing. There was at least one instance of the lighthouse barn being used for a dance by the local young people.

In 1874, a reporter for the Union left an account of the station:

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 consist 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 rain water enough during the rainy season to fill the cistern. These roofs are very flat and are arranged with spouts, etc. Water and wood are items of considerable importance here, both having heretofore been brought from San Diego. We were conducted through the entire establishment by the gentlemanly keeper, Mr. Israel, and his wife, who is his assistant in the care of the light, which is very ingenious. Everything is scrupulously clean; the glass reflectors of the lantern fairly dazzle the eyes. There is a small room in the tower, below the light, for the accommodation of the watchers, and here they pass the long hours of the night, watching alternately the the light of the huge lantern, which is a welcome beacon to the 'toilers of the sea' who may be within reach of its rays. The light, which is 480 [actually 462] feet above the ocean can be seen upon clear nights a distance of sixteen or eighteen miles. The roar of the wind about the tower is almost deafening, and necessitates the voice being raised to the highest pitch whilst conversing within.

The vegetation around the lighthouse is very meagre, consisting of a 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. . . .

The one keeper most prominently associated with the lighthouse was Captain Robert D. Israel. He was a Pennsylvanian and by trade a chairmaker. He joined the army during the Mexican war and after duty in Mexico settled in San Diego. He married Maria Arcadia Machado de Alipas, a member of an old San Diego family. He first came to the lighthouse in 1871 as assistant keeper and 2 years later was promoted to keeper.

Mrs. Israel served as assistant keeper for 3 years, but it is not known whether her husband made her stand her regular watch at night or not. Some say he did and that Mrs. Israel whiled away her watch-hours knitting. She would sit in her rocker on the first floor as near the stairwell as possible. A circular hole in the deck of the tower permitted the light from the lamp inside the lens to beam downward providing just the light Mrs. Israel needed to do her knitting.

Mrs. Israel turned her hand to other decorative artwork. With various small shells her children collected from the tidepool area below the lighthouse she made beautiful and intricate floral designs. These designs were placed in heavy wooden frames which were decorated principally with chiton shells and fragments of abalone shells. Abalone shells, incidentally, with their vari-colored pearllike interiors could be shaped into a great variety of attractive adornments. One of the assistant keepers, David Splaine, carved buttons for his little daughter's topcoat from the shells; two of these buttons are in the museum collection at Cabrillo National Monument.

Captain Israel served as keeper of the Point Loma lighthouse for nearly 20 years. When the light was moved from its promontory on top of Point Loma to the ocean's edge in 1891, he moved with it. He was keeper at the new lighthouse for nearly a year when a disagreement—the facts of which have been obscured by time—made him feel he must resign. On January 9, 1892, George P. Brennan was appointed keeper of the Point Loma lighthouse. Captain Israel returned to Point Loma in January 1908. He died that same month and, as a veteran of the Mexican War, was buried in what was then called the Fort Rosecrans Post Cemetery.


During the first 34 years of its existence the Old Point Loma lighthouse exhibited a fixed white light beaming in all directions. But later the Lighthouse Board felt that the light needed a more distinguishing characteristic in order for it not to be confused with other lighthouses in the vicinity or other lights which happened to be along the coast. On April 1, 1889, the characteristic of the light was changed to "fixed white, varied by flashes, alternately red and white, interval between flashes one minute."

Normally a flashing characteristic in a Fresnel lens is obtained by rotating the lens. But the Point Loma lens had not been designed to rotate; rather, it was fixed in place. Conceivably the lens could have been redesigned to rotate, or the old lens could have been replaced with one which rotated. Either modifying the lens or exchanging it would have been an operation which took a week or more to perform—quite a long time for a lighthouse to be out of service. There is no historical evidence that either event occurred. Actually what probably happened was that a rotating red shield outside the lens was used. Many of the early Fresnel lenses were designed by the manufacturer to flash. These used a shield; some a solid shield that blanked out the light to obtain a simple flashing characteristic; and some a red shield to obtain a flashing red and white effect.

The flashing red and white light continued to be the characteristic of the Point Loma lighthouse even after it was moved to the ocean's edge. It is interesting to note that when the lens was made for the new lighthouse certain panels of the lens were made with red glass. As events turned out, though, this lens was never used at Point Loma. The lens was such a work of art that it was displayed at the Paris Exhibition where it won a prize and again at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago where it vied with Little Egypt for attention. At this latter fair the lens won another medal and consequently was never installed at Point Loma. By the time the Exposition was over, the new Point Loma lighthouse already had a lens and the prize-winning one ordered for it was sent to the Chicago Harbor lighthouse where it is today.

At about the same time the characteristic of the light was changed, Captain Israel reported receiving orders to reduce the lamp from three concentric wicks to two. This maneuver saved one-half gallon of fuel a night. Since kerosene was then selling for 14 cents a gallon, it meant that at the Point Loma light station the Government was saving a whopping $25 a year in fuel, and the only effect the eliminating of the wick had was to cut the candlepower of the light from 158 to 73. This, of course, endangered ships and sailors at sea. Captain Israel was disgusted and complained that the light could barely be seen. How long the order remained in force is not known.


In the late 1880's the long designed plans to move the light began reaching fruition. For years it had been recognized that the light was too high—indeed, it was the highest lighthouse in the United States—and that the lighthouse was often obscured by high fog, while the rest of the coastline was distinctly visible, and was thus of little practical value as an aid to navigation. A new site was selected at the tip of Point Loma some 30 feet above the sea—about 400 feet lower than the old lighthouse.

In 1882 the wheels of the machinery of government began to turn. With the exception of the lighthouse reservation, the Army controlled all of the land on Point Loma, and the Secretary of the Treasury applied to the Secretary of War for land to erect two new lighthouses. In 1889 the army transferred the requested land to the Lighthouse Board on the condition that it "be vacated at such time as the needs of [the War] Department require."

Bids for building the new sea coast lighthouse were immediately received and opened in August of the same year. Construction was soon begun, and most of the buildings were finished by June, 1890. Some difficulty was experienced in securing the right size lens, but a third order one was finally obtained and placed on the metal skeleton tower. On March 23, 1891, the lower light went on for the first time. Three years later a harbor light, situated at Ballast Point, was erected.


With the moving of the light the Old Point Loma lighthouse fell on evil days, and for the next 40 years it was to know few good times. The out-buildings remained for a while, but in time they disappeared. Vandals did their work on the lighthouse itself; windows were broken and pieces of the old building were carted away. By 1913 it was in a dilapidated condition, and the commanding officer at Fort Rosecrans recommended that it be torn down.

The old building had become a favorite tourist spot because of the magnificent view from the old tower. By this time the old ruins had acquired the cognomen "Old Spanish Lighthouse." How and why this inaccurate name became attached to the building is not known for sure. One historian has contended that the name came about for two reasons: (1) tiles from the old Spanish Fort Guijarros were used in the construction of the building, and (2) the keepers married women of Spanish descent and as a result only Spanish was spoken about the light station, Spanish dress was worn, Spanish dishes prepared, and in general a Spanish air prevailed about the place. It is true that tiles from the old Spanish fort were used in the basement of the lighthouse, but that is hardly a reason to refer to the structure as Spanish. One wonders, however, whether there was a Spanish atmosphere about the place or not. None of the early visitors to the lighthouse mentions any Spanish trappings. Moreover, the grandson of the long time keeper, Robert Israel, reports that during the years he lived with his grandparents his grandfather discouraged Mrs. Israel from inculcating the children with even the semblance of her Spanish heritage. He chided her especially severely when she spoke Spanish to the children. Captain Israel felt that since California belonged to the United States the children should be raised as Americans, not foreigners; after all, they would have to make their way in the world as Americans.

Evidence indicates that the term "Old Spanish Lighthouse" is of 20th Century origin. In 1913 the commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans pointed out that, although erroneous, the lighthouse often had that name applied to it. Thus his statement indicates that although a popular name, the term "Old Spanish Lighthouse" had not been in use long enough to have completely supplanted the facts. Consequently, it would appear that the maritime historian Jerry MacMullen was correct when he contended that the name came into being in the early 1900's because of a local Negro guide named Ruben who had little regard for facts and sought only to make his tour more appealing by romanticizing the old ruins which blemished Point Loma. At any rate this writer has not seen, nor has he heard of anyone who has seen, a reference to "Old Spanish Lighthouse" during the active years of the structure.


Nevertheless as the "Old Spanish Lighthouse" the ruins attracted many visitors and vandals. Vandalism, coupled with lack of upkeep, caused the building to become an eyesore. Around 1913 the commanding officer at Fort Rosecrans proposed repairing the building and converting it into a military radio station. However, about the same time other wheels were turning, and a movement was underway to erect a memorial to Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, the discoverer and explorer of the west coast of the present United States. The Order of Panama, an organization dedicated to commemorating California's Spanish heritage, was spearheading the drive for the memorial, and they proposed that it take the form of a statue 150 feet tall to be placed "on that noble and commanding cape, Point Loma which is . . . the first land ever seen by a civilized man on the Pacific verge of the United States."

Point Loma, though, was under jurisdiction of the War Department and, consequently, the Order of Panama had to negotiate with the Army for a site for the Cabrillo statue. The first site selected was 300 feet south of the Old Point Loma lighthouse. But the Army had plans for that particular spot, and as a result recommended the site on which the lighthouse stood. In a meeting between the Commanding Officer of Fort Rosecrans and the Memorial Committee it was agreed that this site was most appropriate. The old lighthouse ruins would be obliterated and on the spot the huge statue of Cabrillo would be erected. The Committee even consented to letting the Army establish its radio station in the pedestal of the statue.

As a result of this activity a Presidential Proclamation dated October 10, 1913, was signed setting aside one-half acre of ground surrounding the Old Point Loma Lighthouse as Cabrillo National Monument, and the Order of Panama was given permission to erect their heroic statue. The Order of Panama had anticipated the signing of the Proclamation and had held formal dedication ceremonies at the lighthouse on the previous September 26.

The Order of Panama never carried through with their plans, and in time they became a defunct organization. The old lighthouse remained, part of a National Monument and the responsibility of the War Department.

In 1915 the Army spent $360 repairing the old building and reported that further improvements were contemplated. About this time Mrs. Elizabeth T. Arnold proposed that the old lighthouse be turned over to the California Federation of Women's Clubs. The Army turned thumbs down on this saying that several military installations were planned for the vicinity of the lighthouse. The Army said it would, however, have no objections to the ladies placing a plaque on the old structure. But nothing ever came of the suggestion, and the lighthouse continued, in its shabby condition, to receive many visitors. In the fall of 1916 the Army noted that the old building was one 'of considerable historical interest...." Since there were no restroom facilities and the visitors used "the basement and some of the . . . rooms rendering the building unsanitary," the Army recommended constructing a concrete comfort station. But nothing came of that proposal.

In an effort to stabilize the condition of the old lighthouse and perhaps rehabilitate it somewhat, the Army encouraged soldiers and their families to live in it. Undoubtedly this move at least had the effect of halting temporarily the decline of the old structure. The Army also used the building as a radio station around the mid-twenties. But all of the activity was of a transitory nature, and after each use the lighthouse resumed its downhill march toward extinction.

By 1930 the wooden leanto in the back of the old building had fallen away. The large concrete catch basin in the front of the building was still there, and two large lumps on the edge denoted the cisterns. The framework of the lantern was enclosed in a wooden structure, and there was a wooden rail around the gallery to keep visitors from falling off.

The old lighthouse was a sad and forlorn sight. Captain Fenton Jacobs, commanding officer at Fort Rosecrans, notified several Chamber of Commerce people that the old lighthouse was an eyesore and in danger of being razed. He said the Army received no money for the preservation of historic sites, and unless private funds were raised the old building was doomed. A group from the Chamber of Commerce banded together to raise money by subscription from a few interested citizens to restore the old lighthouse and beautify the grounds. There was a brief flurry of activity and several businesses evinced interest in the project. But like many other efforts related to the Monument, this plan also came to nothing.

In 1931 the Ninth Army Corps found funds to renovate the old lighthouse. Holes in the roof were patched, windows were replaced and iron bars put over them, and the building was repainted inside and out.


These repairs were enough to stabilize the lighthouse until 1933 when Cabrillo National Monument was turned over to the National Park Service. The Presidential Reorganization Act of 1933 took most of the national military parks, national battlefield sites, and national monuments from the jurisdiction of other agencies, such as the War Department, and placed them under control of the National Park Service.

Upon receiving Cabrillo National Monument, the Park Service immediately began laying plans to rehabilitate the old lighthouse. The building was examined minutely, and drawings of it were made for the Historic American Buildings Survey and deposited in the Library of Congress. From the historic record and the building's own story the architects learned a great deal. They began to restore the building to what they believed was its original condition. Rotten wood was replaced, the leanto was rebuilt, the flooring was renewed throughout, and the metal lantern crowning the tower was reconstructed. Certain modern concessions were made because of the intended use of the building. Electrical fixtures and plumbing were installed. Window sashes and doors were made of metal for fire protection purposes. The basement was completely refinished, and the wooden treads and risers in the tower stairway were replaced with metal.

The restoration work was completed in 1935 and the concessioner, who was also custodian of the Monument, set up his operation in the lower south room. Later he operated a tea room in the lower north room. The concessioner also lived in the building.

Many people came to the Monument to see the restored lighthouse structure and climb the tower to enjoy the magnificent view.


In 1941 visits to the Monument were abruptly shut off because the military felt the purposes of wartime security precluded non-military activity on Point Loma. During World War II the lighthouse was used by the armed forces. At first the Navy used it as a signal tower. Ships coming to San Diego were signaled from the lighthouse. If they flashed back the correct sign, the submarine nets stretching across the entrance into the harbor were pulled aside to admit the vessel. This signal station lasted for about a year until another tower was built just south of the lighthouse. Thereafter the old building was used primarily for storage purposes.

Finally in 1946 the Army decided to return the Monument to the National Park Service, and on November 11, 1946 the public was again welcomed. A team from the National Park Service arrived in the spring of 1947 to inspect the old lighthouse. They found that three pieces of plate glass in the tower needed to be replaced, floors needed refinishing, the inside and the outside of the structure needed repainting, and the outside of the lantern needed to be sandblasted to remove the Army's camouflage paint. It was estimated that the cost for this work, including labor and supervision, would be $3,706. The Army was more than willing to have the building repaired to the complete satisfaction of the National Park Service. The work was accomplished, and the former concessioner took up where he left off when he was interrupted by the war. The lighthouse, with a fresh coat of white paint, was reopened and it resumed its role as the centerpiece of Cabrillo National Monument.

Today the old Point Loma lighthouse stands as a symbol of the first successful efforts to obtain aids to navigation for the west coast. But more important, as it stands overlooking the beautiful and busy San Diego Harbor, the old lighthouse is one of modern man's links with the past. The lighthouse is a witness to man's progress and testimony to a giant step he took on the road to providing better and more reliable navigational aids to make the life of the sailor less dangerous.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Sep-2011