When you read (or hear) the words, “California Coast,” what images come to mind? If you’re a Southern Californian, you may imagine beach bums and bunnies, woodies and wave-riding surfers. If you’re in Northern California, your thoughts may well turn to rocky shores and groves of towering redwoods. If you live in Central California, I suppose you might think of that famous Monterey cypress at Pebble Beach. One thing that probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind is a lighthouse.
Nevertheless, California has the fifth-longest coast of any American state and so naturally, it has some lighthouses — 30 to be exact. I’ll be honest, that number surprised me; when I think of lighthouses, I think of Maine (even though I’ve never been there). Maine has 65 lighthouses. Another likely surprise is that the state with the most — 124 — is Michigan. When Americans use the term “bi-coastal,” after all, they are inevitably referring to the East and West coasts — and never the South or Midwest ones.
Promotion of the “Southern California Lifestyle” may have accustomed us to thinking of the region as a place of entirely based around leisure — a place characterized by marinas and muscle beaches, boardwalks and rollerbladers, and of course, the aforementioned sunbathers and surfers. The Southern California coast happens to also be a place of incredible industrial activity. Even most Angelenos don’t seem aware that that the San Pedro Bay is home to the busiest port outside of Asia. Perhaps a few know that Southern California is also the birthplace of the offshore oil rig. Additionally, on Terminal Island and elsewhere, there are numerous, massive, corroding and crumbling canneries. San Clemente Island, that is controlled entirely by the US Navy and used for military testing and training. Even though it’s more than twice the size of Manhattan, it rarely appears on maps of Los Angeles.
And then there are the lighthouses. I’m sure I’m far from the only person who finds them terribly romantic. Of course, preventing shipwrecks is their primary purpose — but perched as they usually are above crashing waves, peering over vast maritime wilderness, and protruding from atop sea cliffs, it should come as no surprise that they appear as subjects in several paintings by the master of the sublime, Joseph Mallord William Turner.
The country’s first lighthouse was the Lighthouse Establishment, overseen by the US Department of Treasury from 1791 – 1852. From 1852 – 1910, they were managed by the United States Lighthouse Board. From 1910 – 1939, the nation’s lighthouses were
overseen by the United States Lighthouse Service. During World War II, the US Navy assumed control, dimming most lest they serve as a beacon for enemy forces. Afterward, the operation of most was turned over to the US Coast Guard which continues to oversee those that remain in use today.
Many were originally lit with Fresnel lenses. Fresnel lenses are a type of composite compact lens invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1823. Several in Southern California were designed by Silesian-American architect, Paul Johannes Pelz — most recognized today for having designed the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Foghorns were installed in most.
Most lighthouses were automated in the 1960s and ’70s and many are thus unmanned. Most of the old foghorns have been replaced with electrically powered diaphragms or compressed air horns. The Fresnel lenses have all been replaced — usually with LED lighting apparatuses. Those still in use are maintained and sometimes staffed by the US Coast Guard. I, for one, wouldn’t mind at all if several were converted into Bed & Breakfasts, provided there was more on the menu than mud and kerosene.
Eleven of California’s thirty lighthouses are located in Southern California (not counting San Pedro‘s, Newport Beach‘s, or Hermosa Beach‘s restaurants named “Lighthouse Café“; or Terminal Island’s Harbor Light 등대 Mini Mart Restaurant Fish & Chips, the Torrance offices of Lighthouse ロサンゼルス, or other such businesses).
Here they be:
POINT LOMA LIGHT
Point Loma Light is located at the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula. The original, two-story Cape Cod-style lighthouse, sometimes referred to as the “Old Point Loma Lighthouse,” was first lit in 1855. Situated 120 meters above the harbor atop the cliffs of Point Loma, it is the highest lighthouse in the US. Unfortunately, however, at its notable elevation, its beam was frequently rendered invisible by thick fog, making it rather ineffective as a lighthouse. It was threatened with demolition in 1913 but what it lacked in usefulness it made up for as a tourist attraction and thus it was spared. It’s Fresnel lens long ago went missing. The lighthouse museum, located in the former living quarters of the assistant keeper, is open to the public from 9:00 – 17:00 but the tower is open just three days a year, from 10:00 – 15:30.
In 1891, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was replaced with the “New Point Loma Lighthouse,” situated below at a more modest 27 meters above sea level. It was first lighted on 23 March 1891. Its first keeper was Robert Decatur Israel, who’d already served as the old lighthouses keeper for eighteen years. It was automated in 1973. Today, it is the only pyramidal skeletal lighthouse on the West Coast.
POINT CONCEPTION LIGHTHOUSE
Point Conception Lighthouse is named after the prominent point along the Santa Barbara Coast on which it’s located. It was completed in 1856. The following year, however, it was seriously damaged by the Fort Tejon Earthquake. It was, like the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, located at too high an altitude not to be frequently rendered ineffective. It was therefore moved to its current location, 41 meters above sea level, in 1881. Its reconstruction was completed and it was re-lit in 1882. It was automated in 1973. In 1981 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The original light, a 1st Order Fresnel lens, is now on display. The current optical apparatus is a VRB-25.
The lighthouse was featured in the obscure 1959 monster movie, The Monster of Piedras Blancas, which concerns a monster fed by a hermitic lighthouse keeper who proves incapable of satiating a monster’s bloodthirst.
The lighthouse is surrounded by a gated private property and thus neither accessible nor open to the public except from the beach below, and only then at low tide.
SANTA BARBARA LIGHT
Santa Barbara Light was completed in 1856. It was first lit with a 4th Order Fresnel lens on 1 December of that year. Its original light was red. Later it was replaced with a white light. The light shone from the center of a Cape Cod-stye home.
The initial keeper was Albert Johnson Williams. After a few years, he relinquished his role so that he could instead pursue farming. In 1865, after a few short-lived successors, Williams’s New Brunswick-born wife, Julia, assumed the position of head keeper. Albert died in 1882. In 1905, after forty years of service, Julia Williams retired at the age of 81. A serious earthquake shook the structure on 29 June 1925. Keeper Harley Alonzo Weeks awoke and safely ushered his family (including visiting relatives) outside mere moments before the lighthouse came crashing down. The lighthouse log records, rather taciturnly, “Earthquake at 6:45 a.m. Tower and building down.” Alonzo Weeks was briefly succeeded by his wife, Caroline, and, from 1925 – 1943, Raymond H. Weeks.
A new, decidedly utilitarian structure was completed in 1935. It consists of little more than a white, metal, square tower, and beacon that stands 7.3 meters tall. The beacon that was used from 1935 – 1977 is now on display at the Point Vicente Lighthouse. It is still in operation today and is managed by the US Coast Guard.
Santa Barbara Light is served by Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District‘s 4 and 5 lines.
POINT FERMIN LIGHT (1874)
Point Fermin Light is located in San Pedro. The Stick-style lighthouse was designed by Paul J. Pelz and was constructed from California Redwood lumber. It was first lit in 1874 with a 4th order Fresnel lens — now on display at the lighthouse museum. In 1898, the lighting apparatus was changed to a petroleum vapor incandescent lamp. In 1925, it was electrified. The City of Los Angeles took over the operation of the lighthouse in 1927.
Point Fermin Light was deactivated in 1942 and the lantern room and gallery were removed and replaced with a lookout shack. In 1972, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1974, it underwent restoration for its centennial. In 1986, it was featured in an episode of Amazing Stories titled “Magic Saturday.” It appeared in two episodes of MacGyver: “Flame’s End” and “D.O.A.: MacGyver.”
Today there are free guided tours of the lighthouse, Tuesdays through Sundays, between the hours of 13:00 and 15:00.
PORT HUENEME LIGHTHOUSE
Point Hueneme Light stands at the southeast entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel at the Port of Hueneme. The original lighthouse was designed by Paul J. Pelz and constructed in 1874 by Salisbury and Co. The lighthouse’s first keeper was Samuel Ensign, previously the 1st assistant keeper at Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. He was appointed on 9 November 1874. His assistant keeper was Melvin P. Giles. It was first lit with a 4th Order Fresnel lens on 15 December.
A storm destroyed the nearby wharf in 1938 and in early 1939, Standard Dredging Company began improving the harbor, necessitating the relocation of the lighthouse. It was transported by barge across the harbor so that it could be repurposed for the Hueneme Yacht Club. That yacht club never came to fruition, however, and the old lighthouse — having suffered years of wear and tear from wind, sand, water, and termites — was razed.
A temporary light was established nearby in 1939. The current Art Deco lighthouse, with a fifteen-meter-tall tower, was completed by Oxnard Harbor District in December 1940. Its first keeper was Walter White, who’d previously been keeper at the old lighthouse since 1928. It was lit with the lens from its predecessor until 2013. The original lens is now on display inside the lighthouse whereas the lighthouse beacon is an LED one.
The lighthouse is still in use by the US Coast Guard but is open for free tours the third Saturday of the month from February through October between 10:00 and to 15:00.
Port Hueneme Light is served by Gold Coast Transit District‘s 1A and 1B lines.
PIEDRAS BLANCAS LIGHTHOUSE
Piedras Blancas Light Station is located at Point Piedras Blancas. It was first illuminated on 15 February 1875. The sound signal was added in 1906. It was originally thirty meters tall but damage from several earthquakes took their toll on the structure. Finally, after sustaining more earthquake damage on 31 December 1948, the decision was made to remove the top three floors, landing, watch room, and lantern. The lighthouse now, subsequently, is 21 meters tall.
The light was automated in 1975 and the sound signal was removed. Since then, it has been unmanned. In 1977, permission was granted to biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a biological research station there. The original lens was removed and is on display in Cambria. Today, the light station uses a Vega VRB-25 optical system. In 2013, a replica water tower was constructed albeit to house public safety communications equipment instead of water. In 2017, it was designated a California Coastal National Monument.
In 2001, management was taken over by the Bureau of Land Management, who were tasked with restoring the light station and offering public access. Toward that end, the non-profit Piedras Blancas Light Station Association was established. Guided tours are provided most Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 15 June through 31 August.
POINT SAN LUIS LIGHTHOUSE
The Point San Luis Lighthouse, also known as the San Luis Obispo Light Station, was built in 1890. It stands above a small cove next to Port San Luis Harbor. The main impetus for the lighthouse’s construction was the 1888 loss of the Queen of the Pacific at Port Harford (as Port San Luis was then known). No lives were lost but the ship’s cargo was and a legal case followed concerning the question of liability. Its design, a mix of American Foursquare and Eastlake styles, was most likely created by Paul J. Pelz. Its original light was a 4th Order Fresnel lens that alternated flashes of red and white light.
In 1969, the Fresnel lens was replaced by an electric light. The original, twelve-meter-tall tower was decommissioned by the US Coast Guard in 1975. Its replacement was an automatic, 35-meter tall tower with an electric light. It currently is light with a Vega VLB 44-2.5. Since 2010, the original Fresnel lens has been on display inside.
In 1991, the original tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The non-profit the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers was formed in 1995 to oversee operations of the decommissioned lighthouse. The lighthouse is accessible to the public either by tour van or through docent-led hike along the Pecho Coast Trail. It is also technically accessible from the water via a stairway and path that connects to the lighthouse from Lighthouse Beach.
ANACAPA ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
The Anacapa Island Lighthouse is surely one of the loneliest lighthouses in California, located as it is on an island which in 2000 had a population of just three humans. Animals inhabitants of Anacapa include an endemic subspecies of deer mouse, two endemic species of lizards, a native salamander, and various species of marine animals and seabirds. It’s situated at the southwest corner of the entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel. The Chumash never established any permanent villages on ‘Anyapakh (“mirage”) due to an absence of freshwater.
In 1853, after entering a heavy fog, a sidewheel steamer called the SS Winfield Scott ran aground there. The entire crew of 450 survived and lived on the island for a week until they were rescued. Around that time, a man named George Nidever raised sheep on the island, devastating the island’s native plant community. Louis le Mesnager and Herman Bayfield Webster followed in his footsteps until the early 1900s. A man named Ira Eaton then used the island to bootleg during prohibition. Finally, a hermit named Raymond “Frenchy” LeDreau lived on the West Island (Anacapa is actually an archipelago) from around 1928 until 1954, when failing health impelled him to return to the mainland, where he died in 1962.
In 1983, Anacapa and several other Channel Islands were designated Channel Islands National Monument. It’s not one of the most popular of the Channel Islands with visitors, however, as the National Park Service regularly issues warnings regarding the loud noises and smells that arise during seagull mating season.
The first lighthouse, a primitive structure, was built in 1912. The current twelve-meter tall, Spanish Colonial Revival-style lighthouse was completed in 1932. Its first keeper was Frederick Cobb. It was automated in 1968. In 1989, a solar-powered, acrylic lens was installed to replace the original 3rd Order Fresnel lens which had been in use since 1932 and is now on view at the island’s visitor center.
Should you want to visit the islands, Island Packers regularly conducts trips to the East End Landing Cove throughout the summer. Visitors are prevented from getting too close to the lighthouse, however, on account of its deafening horn.
LOS ANGELES HARBOR LIGHT
Los Angeles Harbor Light, also known locally as Angles Gate Light, is situated at the end of the San Pedro Breakwater in San Pedro Bay. It was designed by Edward Lowery Woodruff, a civil engineer and architect who designed numerous lighthouses. It was constructed in 1913. Originally, it was painted entirely white but black stripes were added to increase its visibility to ships. It has been fully automated and unstaffed since 1973. Its signature light is green. The original Fresnel lens is on display nearby at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro. In 1980, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The public is prohibited from visiting the lighthouse although graffiti reveals the relative ease with which it can be reached by the determined lawbreaker. Metro’s Silver Line will take you to Cabrillo Beach, though, and from the Cabrillo Beach Pier you can get reasonably close.
POINT VICENTE LIGHT
Point Vicente Light is a twenty-meter-tall lighthouse on the Palos Verdes peninsula. It was built in 1926. The first head keeper was George W. L’Hommedieu. It was originally lit with a 3rd Order Fresnel lens, now on display at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center. It was automated in 1971. It was replaced with an LED apparatus in 2019.
In 1934, the Long Beach Radio Station was housed in a neighboring building to monitor distress signals. It ended operation in 1980, the year the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
As an active residential facility for US Coast Guard personnel, the lighthouse is not open to the public. However, the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers public tours once a month, on the second Saturday, from 10:00 – 15:00. It is also the site of Rancho Palos Verdes‘ Whale of a Day Festival.
“Where to Find SoCal’s Historic Lighthouses” (Sandi Hemmerlein)
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.