Owens Family, Point Arena Lighthouse, Point Arena, 1870
Accessible, lease by United States Coast Guard to Point Arena Light Keepers
Association; open to public for tours; used for vacation rentals; active aid to navigation
William (Bill) Owens, lighthouse keeper from 1937-1952, and his wife Cora Isabel,
raised six daughters at Point Arena. Their sixth daughter was born there. The daughters
all kept colorful journals, including military events during World War II. A chapter
in Cheryl Roberts Lighthouse Families tells the "breaking" story
of battle during World War II. In the summer of 1945, Japanese desperately wanted
a face-saving "victory" and came up with a plan to invade U.S. mainland.
With three destroyers, troops isolated Point Arena as their landing spot. U.S. officials
apparently learned of the planned attack, although they never made it public, Owens
received a dispatch ordering him to have all available cars parked in front of lighthouse
and to be prepared to evacuate at a moments notice. The girls had to sleep downstairs
with their parents. At around 9 p.m. on August 12, 1945, two days before end of the
war, Owens heard the first sounds of battle. The whole family watched flashes of
guns offshore. The Navy never released the story, but days later the beach was covered
with plasma bags, Japanese rice bowls, and sandals. Owens also witnessed one of the
first submarines in 1941, two days after the start of the war. He reported it to
the district office who told him it was not possible and to go back to bed. Several
nights later, the oil tanker Montebello was torpedoed.
Cheryl Roberts recorded many other anecdotes with vivid memories from the six
daughters in her book, Lighthouse Families, describing their childhood at
Point Arena. The chapter has wonderful photos, and the daughters hold an annual reunion
at Point Arena each summer.
Bill Owens served a total of 33 years as a keeper at Point Conception from 1931-1935,
at Point Sur from 1935-37, at Point Arena from 1937-1952, and at Point Cabrillo from
1952-1963. The Keepers Log has several articles of his wifes and daughters
entitled "Lighthouse Memories from Point Conception, Point Sur and Point Cabrillo".
Bill Owens was the last civilian keeper on the West Coast.
From the land, a bucolic setting with green pastures leads towards the Point Arena
Lighthouse and the Pacifics edge; however, the shores are treacherous to mariners
with reeks and rocks. A first-order Fresno lens still shines in the tower.
An original ornate Victorian keepers dwelling also looked idyllic, but it housed
the keeper, his assistants, and their families, so it was very cramped. An 1880 log
entry stated "threatening weather and fighting children".
The Point Arena Lighthouse was devastated in the 1906 earthquake. The keepers
residence was also destroyed. Four new freestanding residences were built in addition
to a new tower. Keepers had to live in tents during the construction. Bids were high
so lighthouse engineers did the work themselves. The tower was rebuilt of reinforced
concrete, and it was the tallest in the U.S. at 115 feet. (Walter White, who worked
on the project, describes the construction in an article in The Keepers Log.)
Since 1984, the old keepers quarters have been used for vacation rentals.
The Point Arena Lighthouse now hosts over 30,000 visitors annually. It was also
featured in the film Forever Young (1992) with Mel Gibson as well as in Treasure
(1982). The gazebo from the Forever Young set still remains.
Whale watching from the lighthouse is excellent from December through April as
California gray whales migrate northward to Bering Sea from the lagoons of Mexico.
The Mendocino Coast Whale Festival is held in Fort Bragg and Mendocino in March.
Pastures flanking the nearby Garcia River are the winter home for hundreds of
tundra swans, red-tails, osprey, and peregrine falcons.
Interesting note: The architecture of Point Arena, Pigeon Point, and Point Bonita
is all the same; only Pigeon Point remains unchanged. Point Conception is considered
the Cape Horn of the West Coast.
Fish, Society Keeper at Point Piños, Pacific Grove, 1855
Museum, open to the public.
Emily Fish was the wife of a prominent doctor, Melancthon Fish. In 1893, when
she was widowed at age 50, her naval officer son-in-law, who was Inspector of the
12th District of the Lighthouse Service, arranged for her appointment as the keeper
of Point Piños. Emily brought her Chinese Servant Que as well as antique furniture,
good paintings, fine china, old silver, and leather-bound books. After transforming
the keepers house, she had topsoil brought in and, with Ques help, they planted
trees, grass, and a cypress hedge around the yard. She added Thoroughbred horses,
Holstein cows, chickens, and French poodles. When her period of mourning was over,
she entertained artists, writers, and naval officers form ships in Monterey Bay.
She chaired local committees and helped to organize the Monterey-Pacific Grove American
According to the Nelsons (California Lighthouses, p.53), she gave a San
Francisco reporter a detailed tour of the lighthouse and tower, and said "...
there are more things about the lamp than one would ever imagine. This is the most
important thing in the house".
Emily was making her last rounds at 5:00 a.m. during the 1906 earthquake, when
she noticed the animals in the barn were acting strangely. She recorded in her log
that the first tremor of the "violent and continued earthquake" jarred
the lighthouse at 5:13 a.m. She and Que rushed into the tower, noting that an existing
crack had widened considerably and that the flame in the light was much higher, so
they fought to control it. After the earthquake, there was considerable damage to
the tower; it was eventually torn down and rebuilt.
Emily served as keeper from 1893 to 1914. During that time, she listed in her
log more than 30 male workers. She stated that most of them were discharged for incompetence.
She died in 1931.
The West Coasts oldest standing lighthouse is now a maritime museum. (Alcatraz
was a year older, but it is no longer in use.) The dwelling is restored to the 1890s
period with a parlor, bedroom, and a second story tea room which are accessible to
visitors for viewing. Visitors can also walk around the kitchen Docent Bruce Handy.
The first keeper, Englishman Charles Layton, was an adventurer who fought honorably
for both the British and American armies before he joined the California Gold Rush
in 1849. He was wounded and died while chasing bandito Anastasio García. Charles
wife, Charlotte, was given his job after the local collector of customs recommended
her to the Lighthouse Board, and included a petition on her behalf from local citizens.
When she married a male assistant keeper, she stepped down to once again become assistant
keeper, as in her first marriage. (see Bibliography: Clifford. Women Who Kept the
Lights, p. 43 - 47)
Robert Lewis Stephenson visited keeper Alan Luce at the lighthouse in 1879 and
was so charmed that he included a description of the lighthouse in his travel book
The Old Pacific Coast. In From Scotland to Silverado, Robert
Lewis Stephenson describes the lighthouse: "Westward is Point Piños,
with the lighthouse in a wilderness of sand, where you will find the light keeper
playing the piano, making models and bows and arrows, studying dawn and sunrise in
amateur oil painting, and with a dozen other elegant pursuits and interests to surprise
his brave, old-world rivals" (p. 154).
Farallon Island Light, 1856, and the Egg Wars
Closed to public; owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Commission
The Farallon Islands are a seven mile stretch of rocky, barren islets 23 miles
west of the San Francisco Bay. On July 24, 1579, Sir Francis Drake used these islands
to obtain a great store of seals and birds. In the early 1800s, Russians collected
200,000 fur seals over the course of three years. By the 1840s, the Russians had
left. With the Gold Rush, the Farallon Islands gained new prominence as gold seekers
risked their lives as they sailed here. The rich supply of seabird eggs on the Farallon
Islands became a prime resource to feed hungry newcomers to San Francisco. Eggs were
selling for $1.00 each in San Francisco. Soon, competing egg-gathering companies
were shipping millions of eggs to San Francisco. One boatload carried 1,000 dozen
eggs! Hunting bird eggs began to mirror hunting gold with numerous brawls and shoot-outs.
In the meantime the Lighthouse Board was planning to construct other lighthouses
on the California coast and in 1852,Southeast Farallon, the largest of the islands
at 317 feet, was selected as the site of the West Coasts third lighthouse. When
a construction crew arrived on the Oriole, armed egg men chased them away,
afraid that a flashing light would frighten away the birds. Local lighthouse authorities,
appalled at these events, sent a well-armed crew of U.S. seaman in a Coast Survey
steamer, who quickly overpowered the egg gatherers.
After construction was completed in 1856, competition between egg gatherers continued.
The Farallon Egg Company acquired exclusive gathering rights in 1856, but poachers
were common and violence flared periodically. In 1881, a rival company decided to
break Farallon Egg Companys monopoly and sent three boatloads of armed men to storm
the island. Though the attack was anticipated and the company was prepared to defend
itself, it surrendered after four brawls. The situation was so out of hand that a
platoon came and the egg pickers were ejected. The Lighthouse Service became very
angry when one assistant keeper broke both of his legs in an egg gathering incident.
However, egg sales continued until 1890.
Construction of the Farallon Island light station started in 1852, and was completed
in 1853, with the exception of an enormous first-order Fresnel lens. It was delivered,
along with a large shipment of wine, the following year. However, it was quickly
discovered that the lens was too large for the lighthouse. Construction partners
Kelly and Gibbons were forced to tear down the lighthouse and rebuild it from the
ground up. It was finally completed on January 1, 1856.
The Farallon Island Lighthouse had an interesting fog signal. It was powered by
air forced through a blowhole by natural wave action. However, in California it is
often foggy when the sea is calm, so the signal did not function correctly when it
was most needed. However, it was used until storm waves smashed it in 1781.
Keepers and their families lived at this post on Farallon Island until the 1960s.
From the 1880s until 1906, the OCaine family and the Beeman family were dedicated
keepers of the Farallon Island Light. Their lives were isolated but bucolic. Besides
the Madroño that delivered supplies just four times a year, there was no other
communication with the mainland. Rabbits, turkeys, chickens, eggs, and fish were
plentiful. There was a schoolhouse for the children who enjoyed life on the island.
However, stir-crazy teachers often resigned. Tragedy struck when diphtheria broke
out and the children got sick. Frantic families lit bonfires all around the perimeter
in an effort to attract passing ships. A passing ship did noticed the alert and notified
authorities in San Francisco. A doctor was sent to the island on the Madroño
the next day, but two of the OCaine children died. Another OCaine child drowned
when he fell from the landing where the Madroño docked. One of the Beeman
children died in December of 1898. He became very ill and his parents had to risk
a hazardous trip on breaking seas in a rowboat to get to San Francisco. Although
they survived the trip, he died in the hospital.
The Farallon Island lighthouse was not inhabited in 1972. It is presently closed
to the public. It now has a solar light, and is a major research station. The largest
seabird rookery, with 12 species, is part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife
Refuge Complex on the Farallon Islands.
Point, Pescadero, 1872, and Point Montara Light, Pacifica, 1900
Both of these lighthouses are now open to the public as hostels. The interesting
adaptive use and interviews may offer additional views on the attraction of lighthouses
to young adults.
Pigeon Point is one of Californias most photgraphed lights. It is the best example
of a classic California seacoast tower. Of the three built in California (Piedras
Blancas and Point Arena), only this one remains unchanged.
Keepers originally had to carry lens fuel up 147 steps, the equivalent of an eleven
story building. The fog signal at Pigeon Point led to the wreck of the Columbia
in 1896. The captain heard the signal, and mistook it for another ship. The ship
crashed in the rocks as he steered away from the misguiding signal.
The lighthouse was automated in 1974, and once vacant, it became subject to vandalism.
The Coast Guard assigned a caretaker, and Seaman Albert S. Tucker, who requested
the duty, moved in with his wife. He often got intruders, and once found a fisherman
using his grill to cook freshly caught fish. He bought a Doberman to ward off uninvited
guests. However, he still encountered trespassers, so he bought a pet pig named Lester,
who grew to about 800 pounds. "With his good sized tusks, nobody came in with
him here," Tucker said. One day while cleaning the lantern, Tucker discovered
that Lester had climbed all the stairs to the tower.
Lights of Los Angeles Harbor
The four lights of the Los Angeles area are notably dissimilar. The ornate gingerbread
design of Point Fermin, the classic beauty of Point Vicente, the slight tilt of the
Los Angeles Harbor monolith, and the almost comic robot-like Long Beach Harbor Light
show extreme contrasts in styles.
The Ghost of Point Vicente Light, Rancho Palos Verdes, 1926
The basis of this ghost tale was a lady whose lover had died in a shipwreck. She
supposedly walked the grounds of the light station waiting for him. Keepers swore
to have seen this ghost. One assistant keeper finally figured out that the Fresnel
lens was slightly out of kilter and refracted light toward the ground in a confusion
of arcs. On certain foggy days, when the refractions came together in just the right
way, the "lady" appeared. (see Bibliography: Roberts, California Lights,
The lighthouse sits at the edge of a cliff more than 100 feet over the Pacific
and its light can still be seen 20 miles at sea. It is a beautiful light, in a very
picturesque setting with palm trees swaying and mountains looming in the distance.
The light serves as a coastal marker, and it helps guide ships to San Pedro Harbor.
It is located six miles northeast of Point Fermin and nine miles west of the Lost
Angeles Light. This light was used as the set for several film and television productions.
Point Fermin, Los Angeles, 1874
Observable but Inaccessible, owned by City of Los Angeles
The completely restored exterior of this beautiful Victorian structure is now
the centerpiece of a Los Angeles park. It was built in the Italianate style, with
a square tower rising through the keepers dwelling. A caretaker lives in the house,
and although it is not available for tours, it is a very popular tourist attraction.
There were several women keepers at Point Fermin. Mary and Helen Smith served
from 1874-1882. They supposedly took the job with the hopes that the exercise would
improve their health. After eight years, both women left because the life was too
Thelma Austin served from 1925 until 1941. Her parents both died in 1925 while
her family was at Point Fermin. Thelma and her sister vowed to keep the light going
in memory of their parents. She said "I felt that we had a sacred duty to perform:
to promulgate the heroic work which our parents started". Her sister however,
was less dedicated, and soon ran off to marry a sailor. Thelma applied for the permanent
position, saying "Why the sea and this lighthouses seem to me like a holy shrine,
and Im afraid it would break my heart to give it up. But no matter what happens,
I will accept my fate with a brave heart, and just as cheerfully as my parents would
have done. When you have been raised in the lighthouse atmosphere..... it is mighty
difficult to change your mode of living and accept any other line of endeavor which
does not offer romance and adventures." She got the job, but supplemented her
income by working as a dental assistant in the daytime. She operated the light until
two days before Pearl Harbor when it was blacked out. (see Bibliography: DeWire,
Guardians of the Light. p. 202-203; Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights, p. 111).
Bill Olsen, a 93-year old historian who works at Los Angeles Maritime Museum,
was the child of a keeper at Point Fermin.
Angels Gate (Los Angeles Harbor) Light, Los Angeles, 1913
A harbor or "greeter" light, which is classical in structure, guides
a steady parade of ships entering San Pedro. It is a very popular landmark and impressive
monument. It sits at the end of the San Pedro Harbor breakwater, and rises more than
70 feet out of the water. Automated in 1971, its third order lens was exchanged for
a modern acrylic solar power green light.
It has been at a slight tilt ever since its early years, when a severe gale hammered
tremendous breaking waves against it for five days. Workers complained about problems
walking afterwards, and dropped a plumb line from the lantern gallery to the ground,
which proved their suspicions. Despite the tilt, the tower has remained strong and
The lighthouse also survived a brush with a battleship years ago. The battleship
struck the rocks directly below. Jim Gibbs (Lighthouses of the Pacific, p. 43) says
it was this incident that probably inspired these lines by Don Newman entitled Check
your Bearings :
First voice: Our radar has you on a collision course with us. You should alter
course 10 degrees south.
Second voice: We have you on our radar. Suggest you alter course 10 degrees north.
First voice: Admiral Goodman aboard. Strongly suggest you bear 10 degrees south,
this is a battleship!
Second voice: This is Seaman Farnsworth. Still suggest you bear 10 degrees north.
This is a lighthouse!
Long Beach Harbor Light, "the Robot Light", Long Beach,
A departure from the style of traditional lighthouses, the Long Beach Harbor Lighthouse
was designed to withstand earthquakes, winds, and waves. It was originally equipped
with a 36 inch airway beacon, dual tone fog signals, and a radio beacon inside its
frame. It was called the Robot Light because the rectangular base on six columnar
legs resembles a 1950s version of a futuristic robot. Therefore, it has attracted
media attention since it was built. This light creates a radical contrast with the
other Los Angeles lights.