Friday, November 12, 2010

As Altruistc As a Lighthouse

Where California began.

As we stood on the hill overlooking San Diego harbor, we could see parts of the town of Point Loma north of San Diego Bay and Old Town San Diego on the eastern side of the Bay.

A bit to the south is Ballast Point (center left in the photo). As our eyes panned to the right (south), we understood the description of the harbor as "a closed and very good port" when Cabrillo's ships anchored off Ballast Point on September 28, 1542. This was the first landing by a European in present-day California, so that Point Loma has been described as the place “where California began.”

In the foreground (left) is the Naval Air Station North Island, which was originally referred to as North Coronado Island, because it was separated from South Coronado (now the city of Coronado) by a shallow bay, which was filled in 1945. It is the homeport to three aircraft carriers: USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and the USS Carl Vinson.

The southern-most view is of the city of Coronado with Miguel Peak (on the left in the photo) and the Otay Mountain range (right in the photo) in the background.

Located on Point Loma is the Cabrillo National Monument. A plaque at the base of the statue of Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (João Rodrigues Cabrilho in Portuguese) notes that the statue was presented by the Portugese Navy as a tribute to Cabrillo.

For us, the main attraction of the park was the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. In 1851, a year after California entered the Union, the U.S. Coastal Survey selected the heights of Point Loma for the location of a navigational aid. The crest seemed like the right location: it stood 422 feet above sea level, overlooking the bay and the ocean, and a lighthouse there could serve as both a harbor light and a coastal beacon. Construction began three years later.

"There is something romantic about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers. Perhaps it's the vision of foggy rainy nights with the sound of fog horns in the darkness. Man and his beacon in isolation facing the devouring action of the sea to perform their duties" (

By late summer 1854, the work was done. More than a year passed before the lighting apparatus--a five foot tall 3rd order Fresnel lens (shown in the photo below and on display in the museum adjacent to the Old Lighthouse), the best available technology--arrived from France and was installed. At dusk on November 15, 1855, the keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the oil lamp for the first time.

"I can think of no other edifice
constructed by man as
altruistic as a lighthouse.
They were built only to serve.
They weren't built for any
other purpose...."

George Bernard Shaw

In clear weather its light was visible at sea for 25 miles. For the next 36 years, it welcomed sailors to San Diego harbor--in clear weather.

When fog and low clouds obscured the beam--which occurred all too frequently--the lighthouse was ineffective.

This serious flaw in the selection of a location resulted in the flame being extin-guished on March 23, 1891.

The keeper moved into the "New" Point Loma Lighthouse, at the bottom of a hill 100 yards south of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

The final three photos show scenes along the descent from the Old to the New Lighthouse.

You can barely see three figures on the rocks.

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