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The lighthouse keepers of Los Angeles

Independent women, heartbroken widowers, drunks, and ghosts at LA’s first lighthouses

During the 19th century, the Los Angeles County coast was repeatedly described by sailors as "isolated, dangerous and unpredictable." With the establishment of the Port of Los Angeles in the 1850s, the need for navigational aids along the coast became increasingly urgent. In 1854, Phineas Banning, the "father of the Los Angeles Harbor," petitioned the government to place a lighthouse at Point Fermin in San Pedro, near the mouth of the harbor. It would be another 20 years before his wish was granted. Over the next 50 years, three major lighthouses would be built in Los Angeles County. They would involve drastically different architectural styles, building materials, and locations. But like most structures, the most interesting thing about them was the people who, quite literally, turned the lights on and off.

Point Fermin

In high lands fitted for a fairy palace, a lighthouse stands instead. -Poem by Haven Charles Hurst printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1908

In early 1874, construction on the Point Fermin Lighthouse finally began. Wagons brought California redwood and Douglas fir to the deserted, one-hundred-foot, sage-covered cliff where the lighthouse would stand, guiding ships as they entered the Los Angeles Harbor. The wooden lighthouse was designed by Paul J. Pelz, a chief draftsman for the U.S. Lighthouse Board, most famous as the main architect of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Unlike most lighthouses, it combined a home and light tower in one building. The uniquely family-friendly structure was built in the whimsical Swiss Carpenter Gothic style (also known as Stick style) and featured a spacious, deep porch, "ideal for sunny afternoons and gatherings." On November 5, 1874, the building was almost complete—all it needed was its lamp. According to the Wilmington Enterprise:

Courtesy of Point Fermin Lighthouse Society
Point Fermin lighthouse.

Thomas Winship of San Francisco, lampist of this coast, has arrived and is now engaged in putting up the lamp on the lighthouse at Point Fermin, which will be completed by the close of the week. This is the finishing task upon one of the best constructed houses in the county, and perhaps, as good a lighthouse as can be found on the coast.

On December 15, 1874, lighthouse keeper Mary Smith and her sister, Ella, illuminated the fourth-order Fresnel lens for the first time. Following in the long tradition of female lighthouse keepers, the sisters were already old pros, having tended the light at the Ediz Hook Lighthouse in Washington state. Locals were amazed by the two women, who lived alone at the lighthouse alongside a longtime male retainer. Many years later, the Los Angeles Times would idealize Mary’s eight years of service at Point Fermin:

In those dimly distant days, too, the gay little pueblo of Los Angeles was far away, and exceedingly difficult to reach asleep, in the dreamy sunshine, surrounded by vast plains of yet unsettled country, and Point Fermin lighthouse stood alone and unprotected upon its jutting promontory. Her only companions were the other two members of her small family, the only sounds outside her little home, the sweet trade winds blowing through the few trees that grew near her door, or the breakers lashing to rocks below and, infrequently, the tinkle of some passing mule bell along the hot, dusty road. She kept her lonely vigil unguarded and unafraid. No majestic array of grim war machinery anchored in what was then a wild waste of waters. No protecting Fort MacArthur warned off possible trespassers, although there were many forts in California at that time. But she was alone and unaided. A true suffrage pioneer!

Her only companions were the other two members of her small family .... She kept her lonely vigil unguarded and unafraid.

The Smiths left Point Fermin on May 8, 1882. Though it was reported that they gave up their post due to isolation and loneliness, some believe they were pushed out of their service because of their gender. They were replaced by Captain George Shaw, who tended the lighthouse from 1882 to 1904. Shaw and his family often held large weekend soirees at Point Fermin, inviting friends from all over the county.

The Shaws were replaced in 1914 by J.H. Engles, who would welcome many new neighbors to the point when Fort MacArthur was built nearby to defend the Los Angeles Harbor.

In 1917, "genially pleasant" keeper Willie Austin moved into the lighthouse with his wife, Martha, and their boisterous brood of children. Over the next eight years, the lighthouse and surrounding gardens were filled with laughter and little feet. The Austins so adored living on Point Fermin that they even named their eighth child Paul Fermin, in honor of their beloved home. But tragedy struck in 1925, when Martha passed away. Willie was destroyed, and sat staring blankly at the kitchen table for two months until, according to his daughters, he died of a "broken heart."

Though orphaned, the Austin children were not done with lighthouse living. That year, Willie and Martha’s daughter Thelma petitioned the U.S. Lighthouse Service, requesting to be made head keeper at Point Fermin. She pointed to a childhood spent living in lighthouses as all the training she needed:

Why, the sea and this lighthouse 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, as I have been, it is mighty difficult to change your mode of living and accept any other line of endeavor which does not offer romance and adventure.

Point Vicente lighthouse
Point Vicente lighthouse

Thelma and her sister Juanita would tend the lighthouse until 1927, when the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department took over its care from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The light was electrified, and the lighthouse became a home for superintendents of the L.A. City Recreation and Parks Department. Two days after Pearl Harbor, on December 9, 1941, the light was turned off for the last time, shut off as part of the U.S. Army’s blackout program. The idyllic building was painted camo green for the duration of the war, and the light was taken out, replaced with a lookout tower that servicemen referred to as the "chicken coop."

Today, Point Fermin, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, is a lovely, rambling museum in the midst of a bustling park. One still feels the love of lighthouse living that enlivened this place for many, many years.

Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse (Angel’s Gate)

With the coming of the ides of March, Uncle Sam will adjust a new glass eye through which to twinkle a warm welcome and a powerful warning to the men who go down to the sea in ships. Early in the month of presidents, the paternal guardian of rocky coasts will set a brand new lamp in a freshly cut window, looking out over the front porch of the United States—the Pacific Ocean; a blazing beacon of promise, splendidly housed in a cage of steel and glass built upon the very tip end of that monument of masonry dedicated by the same paternal force to the port that is and is to be—the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater. -Los Angeles Times, 1913

All keepers at this station are instructed that in the future no distilled or malt liquors are to be brought to the station.

From the top of the Point Fermin Lighthouse, so filled with warmth and brightness, one can clearly see the forlorn and foreboding Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, standing guard in the icy waters at the end of the 9,250-foot San Pedro breakwater, which was built with rock from Catalina Island. First lit with gas vapor on March 1, 1913, the Romanesque style lighthouse, designed by Edward Woodruff, was constructed primarily of steel and concrete to withstand the battering ocean that surrounded it. Unlike Point Fermin, there was no room for families on the small concrete island, and the keeper and his two assistants lived in foggy solitude, taking a boat into town to visit loved ones and gather supplies.

Point Fermin lighthouse.

This intense isolation appears to have done a number on first keeper John Olson and his two assistants. Only eight months into their stay, Second Assistant Keeper Philip Hughes attacked Olson in the lighthouse. In a writeup ordering Hughes’s suspension, Olson alluded to what may have caused the scuffle, writing, "All keepers at this station are instructed that in the future no distilled or malt liquors are to be brought to the station."

Future keepers were able to find more industrious ways to pass the time. Willard Miller, head keeper from 1915 to 1922, discovered that he had a gift for making phonographs and music boxes out of the driftwood he found on the breakwater. "I had never before used a knife or carving tool. But as soon as I started whittling on that piece of oak I knew I had struck the thing I wanted to do more than everything else. "

"He also has constructed a two foot working model of the breakwater light," the Los Angeles Times reported. "Its beacon flashes at regular half minute intervals and the twin fog horns blow with a minimized tone of the mammoth sirens of the big lighthouse."

Miller was also amused by the "visitors who come out on Tuesday afternoons and sympathize over our monotonous, lonesome life." He felt that they clearly didn’t know the "fine points of lighthouse-keeping," which included being a skillful machinist, mariner, diver, plumber, painter, cook, and housekeeper. A reporter concurred, describing the activities the day he visited the lighthouse:

Last week, [Second Assistant Keeper] Gratto was down beneath the surface repairing the pipes feeding water to the huge air compressor; [First Assistant Keeper] Grenier was overhauling the 44 horsepower engines that pump compressed air for the twin fog horns, and Miller was testing the mammoth French lens of the beacon.

The view from Point Fermin.

During the 1930s, eccentric head keeper Irving Conklin became a minor celebrity of sorts, telling colorful tales to the local papers about living in the secluded lighthouse. He survived a near disaster when the battleship Oklahoma rammed into the breakwater, giving the lighthouse a mighty jolt. He also survived the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which shook the lighthouse for 20 terrifying seconds.

Conklin claimed to often hear ghostly sounds in the lighthouse, and decided to investigate one dark morning:

One time about 4 o’clock in the morning, I thought there really were spooks here. I was sitting up in the watch room reading a magazine. Suddenly I heard a voice, or thought I did. Then another voice came on, as if it was answering the first. I went down below and looked at the radio, and it was turned off. The other keepers were asleep and there was no one on the breakwater. I went back to the watch room and started to read. Pretty soon I heard a noise as if someone were laughing and another voice chimed in. They sounded like high feminine voices. This went on for five minutes and then I gave up. I was going to find out what the noises really were.

Dead sea lions dot the breakwater, and the interior of the lighthouse has a ramshackle haunted feeling. But once you are atop the breathtaking tower, you feel you are atop the world.

The "spooks" turned out to be a group of giggling women, who had come to welcome their sailor boyfriends home after a long journey out to sea.

In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard. During World War II, the Navy took over the lighthouse, construction barracks, and a degaussing station on the breakwater. During the 1960s, the Coast Guard members who tended the light befriended a harbor seal named Charlie, who was found in the engine room. "Lighthouse keeping can be lonely and tedious at times and spirits sure do perk up around here when that little critter comes calling," one guardsman said.

The distinctive flashing green light of the lighthouse, which still flashes to aid sailors in their journeys, was automated in 1973. Today, a trip out to the light, now cared for by the Cabrillo Beach Boosters, is like visiting another planet. Dead sea lions dot the breakwater, and the interior of the lighthouse has a ramshackle haunted feeling. But once you are atop the breathtaking tower, you feel you are atop the world.

Point Vicente

Having no rocky cliff to climb, no treacherous seas to navigate and no other particularly heroic acts to perform, what does the Point Vicente lighthouse keeper do? Briefly stated, he and his assistants see that everything is kept running in tip-top shape. There is not a great deal of manual labor, nor hazardous activity involved in this work, but, a tremendous amount of painstaking diligence is required. -Los Angeles Times, 1926

By 1914, it was clear that a lighthouse was needed on the southwestern end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a few miles north of the Los Angeles Harbor. "Freight and passenger traffic is very heavy along this part of the coast," a Lighthouse Commission report stated, and [it] will be materially increased with the opening of the Panama Canal."

point fermin lighthouse Courtesy of Point Fermin Lighthouse Society
At the top of the Point Fermin lighthouse.

Unfortunately, the land selected for the lighthouse was already owned by Palos Verdes patriarch Frank Vanderlip, who refused to sell it to the government. The land was not obtained until 1921, when the government finally called Vanderlip’s bluff, threatening to take it through eminent domain. Further delays held up construction on the Spanish Revival-style tower, which was surrounded by three homes for keepers, supporting buildings, and grounds planned by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted. To please neighboring residents in the new, ultra-wealthy developments of Palos Verdes, the design of the buildings was much more refined than at many government sites.

On April 14, 1926, the electrically powered third-order Fresnel lens of the Point Vicente Lighthouse was turned on for the first time. Three keepers moved in with their families on the beautiful cliff-hugging property, seen by many as a cushy assignment compared to most isolated, craggy lighthouse gigs.

But even on this practically suburban compound, personalities soon clashed. A feud broke out between head keeper George L’Hommedieu, his wife, and assistant keepers Harry Davis and Ben South. According to a report issued by the Lighthouse Commission:

There had been considerable friction at Point Vicente light station between the keeper and his two assistants for some time, and while some of the charges are of a serious nature, there are many of them of a petty nature and found to be considerably magnified. It is known that the keeper has at times a violent temper which might be overlooked by an assistant of proper temperament ... Mrs. L’Hommedieu, the wife of the keeper, interjects herself into the government affairs and has caused a considerable amount of trouble at the station.

When you have been raised in the lighthouse atmosphere, as I have been, it is mighty difficult to change your mode of living and accept any other line of endeavor which does not offer romance and adventure.

All three keepers were reprimanded. George L’Hommedieu was transferred to another lighthouse and the efficient Anton Trittinger moved in to take his place. Anton and his wife, Frieda, raised their two daughters, Mary and Sophie, at Point Vicente. They spent many hours planting a garden of ivy, lavender, and rose on the once barren cliff, and were awarded the "efficiency banner" of the Lighthouse Service. The family served at the lighthouse throughout World War II, temporarily installing a smaller lamp in the tower and draping it in blackout curtains.

In 1945, a craggy Welshman named Joe May became the head keeper at Point Vicente, which he called a "dandy spot." Due to complaints from neighbors, the tower windows facing the land were painted over to stop the light from shining into houses throughout the night. This decision coincided with the growing myth that the lighthouse was haunted by a lighthouse keeper’s searching widow. In 1955, May described how the legend had come about:

Those coated windows—that’s how Point Vicente got its reputation as a haunted lighthouse. Seems that years ago the paint on the windows was much thinner. And if you stood up there, back in the hills, and looked at the light, it seemed as though a young lady in an evening dress was dancing in the tower. Course it was just the reflection on the painted window ... funny though—haven’t heard much about the ghostly lady since we spread that thick coat of paint on the windows. Now, it’s too thick even for a 900,000 candle power light to make any reflection.

May, one of the very last keepers from the old Lighthouse Service days, was forced to leave the lighthouse in 1955. He was replaced by members of the Coast Guard. Automated in 1971, Point Vicente was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, almost certainly saving it from being scooped up by some eager coastal developer. Today, it is still Coast Guard property, the same original Fresnel light still shines, and Coast Guard members and their families still live on site. It is open to the public once a month.

While these are the most famous lighthouses in Los Angeles, they are not the only ones. The Long Beach Light, affectionately known as the "robot light," is considered the first fully automated lighthouse in the country. Built in 1949, it sits on the federal breakwater next to Queen’s Gate in Long Beach Harbor. Also in Long Beach, in the Shoreline Aquatic Park, is the Lions Lighthouse for Sight, a "private aid to navigation" built by the Lions Club in 2000.

All of the lighthouses of Los Angeles are worth a visit, if only to reset your soul to a time when the nighttime coast was not dotted by a million bright lights, but just a single solitary beacon, tended to by a man or woman on the lookout for ships in danger in the sea below.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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