During California's Spanish period, local settlers built
signal fires at Point Loma to guide supply vessels into
the harbor. When the US gained control of California,
the government chose Point Loma as one of the first sites
on the California coast to receive a navigational aid.
Work began in Spring 1854 and was completed in November 1855.
The light was built in the California cottage style which
was standard to California's first lights.
Workmen built a road from Ballast Point, and used local
quarried rock, materials transported aboard
the steamer "Vaquero" from San Francisco,
as well as tiled from the abandoned Spanish
The lighthouse was originally to receive a first order Fresnel
lens, but the tower was too small to accommodate the lens.
Instead, a fixed third order lens intended for Humboldt Bay was
installed at Point Loma, and the first order lens was installed
at Cape Flattery in Washington State.
The light stood at an elevation of 462 feet, and was said to
be visible at 39 miles on a clear day. However, the fog
which frequently rolled in from the Pacific at a height of
a few hundred feet often obscured the light completely.
Like several of California's early lights, the active light
would eventually be relocated below the fog line.
Staffing at Old Point Loma was problematic. The pay was low, the
site was isolated, and the station was cramped. The
building's four rooms housed the keeper, assistant keeper,
and their families until the woodshed was converted to two rooms
in 1876. As a result, eleven principal keepers and twenty two
assistant keepers served at the original light from 1855 to
1891, when the light was extinguished.
Keeper Robert Israel was the only long-time keeper at Point Loma.
He served from 1871 to 1891. His wife Maria, a native Californio,
(Californian from the Mexican / Spanish period), planted flowers
and vegetables near the light, crafted wall hangings of shells,
and also served as assistant keeper for a time.
In the 1890's, the original Point Loma light was replaced by a pair of lights.
In 1890, Ballast Point opened
as a harbor light. In 1891, a new light was erected at a lower elevation
on the southern tip of Point Loma. The new tower - a cylindrical
tower with metal scaffolding - housed a third order
Fresnel lens. Keeper Israel retired after a year at the new light.
A fog signal was established in 1913, and radio beacons in the 1920's.
The lens was lit by electric light bulbs in 1933. The Coast Guard
assumed control in 1939, and the light remains a Coast Guard
station. The third order lens remains in the tower, but the
active light is a modern optic.
In the meantime, the original building languished. The site fell
victim to souvenir hunters, vandals, and neglect. The assistant
keeper's dwelling and other auxiliary buildings were lost. In 1913,
plans were made to replace the lighthouse with a 150 foot statue
of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. However, funding
was not available and the plan was scrapped.
In 1933, the site was designated part of the Cabrillo National
Monument and handed over to the National Park Service. However,
the point was closed in World War Two. The original lighthouse
was painted green and served as a Navy signal tower. The light
was restored to the park service in 1946, and restoration
began. A fourth order lens from Table Bluff light
in Humboldt Bay was installed
in 1955, during the lighthouse's one hundredth anniversary.
In the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the light
was erroneously referred to as "The old Spanish
Lighthouse." In fact, the only Spanish connection
were the old tiles from the Spanish fort.
As Point Loma grew as a tourist attraction, the facility
around the old light was further developed.
A visitor's center, auditorium,
exhibit building and administrative building were completed
by 1966. The fourth order lens was replaced by a third order
lens from Mile Rocks.
Further restoration took place in 1983-1984, and David Israel,
great-grandson of keeper Robert Israel, relit the light.
Today, a statue of Cabrillo stands at Point Loma
but is considerably smaller than the original
plans, and was placed near the visitor's center.
The lens is lit in the evenings, and is visible
from the Bay side only, so the light (which is no longer
officially active) will not confuse ships.
In 2001, the National Park Service announced an ambitious
plan to restore the site to its appearance in the 1880's,
then the Israel family lived at the station. Plans included
removal of the asphalt road surrounding the station, and
construction of a replica of the assistant keeper's residence
on the site of the old residence, for use as a museum.
The work was completed in 2005. The
lightouse itself is undergoing $119,000 of restoration
work as of 2006.
As early as 1997, the new tower displayed signs of deterioration
due to corrosion. The watchroom floor was not level, and the
lens did no longer rotated smoothly on the chariot mechanism.
In December 2002, after 111 years, the Fresnel lens was
removed from the New Point Loma lantern room. The
lens is displayed in the replica assistant keeper's cottage
by the Old Point Loma light.
Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses (2nd ed.), Nelson pp. 3-6, 10-13
Four Sentinels: The Story of San Diego's Lighthouses, Moeser pp. 12-20
California Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 77-78
Legendary Lighthouses, Grant and Jones p. 137
The Old Lighthouse at Point Loma (flyer)
Cabrillo Journal Summer/Fall 2001
The Keeper's Log Spring 2003, Spring 2005
Lighthouse Digest March 2006