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The Owens Family at Point Arena

Emily Fish, Society Keeper at Point Piños

The Egg Wars at Farallon Island

Pigeon Point and Point Montara

The Los Angeles Harbor Lights

The Owens Family, Point Arena Lighthouse, Point Arena, 1870

Accessible, lease by United States Coast Guard to Point Arena Light Keeper’s 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 Keeper’s Log has several articles of his wife’s and daughter’s 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 Pacific’s 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 Keeper’s 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.

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Emily 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 keeper’s house, she had topsoil brought in and, with Que’s 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 Red Cross.

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 Coast’s 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).

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The 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 1840’s, 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 Coast’s 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 Company’s 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 1880’s until 1906, the O’Caine 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 O’Caine children died. Another O’Caine 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.

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Pigeon 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 California’s 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.

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The 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, p. 63)

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 keeper’s 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 lonely.

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 I’m 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.

Angel’s 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 steady.

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, 1949

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 1950’s 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.

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