Category Archives: Lighthouse construction

Los Angeles Lighthouses

Apart from a few more trees, Point Fermin Lighthouse has not changed significantly since its construction in 1874.  Photo by Candace Clifford

Apart from a few more trees, Point Fermin Lighthouse has not changed significantly since its construction in 1874. Photo by Candace Clifford

Point Fermin in 1893. Herbert Bamber photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Point Fermin in 1893. Herbert Bamber photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

I recently attended the Council of American Maritime Museums conference hosted by the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. Upon arrival in Los Angeles I went directly from the airport to the Point Fermin Lighthouse, where historic site manager Kristen Heather gave me a delightful tour.

The tower was designed by Paul J. Pelz, A U.S. Light-House Board draftsman who designed six stick-style lighthouses. Pelz also worked for the U.S. Life-Saving Service and designed several their stations.

The tower was designed by Paul J. Pelz, a U.S. Light-House Board draftsman. The stick-style design was used for six lighthouses. Pelz also worked for the U.S. Life-Saving Service and designed several of their stations.

Front parlor at Point Fermin Lighthouse. The station is now a museum run by the City of Los Angeles.

Front parlor at Point Fermin Lighthouse. The station is now a museum run by the City of Los Angeles.

The visit was especially meaningful because the first keepers of Point Fermin Light, when it was established in 1874, were sisters Ella and Mary Smith. Although I realize these women had challenges living in such a remote location, I think it would have been a rather plum assignment when compared to many other light stations of that period. The interior exhibits interpret the lives of the station’s four keepers and their families. The fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display in one of the ground floor rooms and visitors can climb to the top of the tower for a spectacular view.

Kristen Heather, the historic site manager, has worked with the property for over a decade.

Kristen Heather, the Point Fermin’s historic site manager, has worked with the property for over a decade.

Lovely gardens surrounding the property are maintained by volunteers. For more information on this wonderful station, visit the Point Fermin Lighthouse website or read Point Fermin Lighthouse Families by Henrietta E. Mosley. The next morning I ventured further down the coast to Point Vicente Light Station. Unfortunately it was closed. Although generally open on the second Saturday of the month, April was the exception. Apparently it was open the previous weekend for a whale watching festival. However I enjoyed walking along the cliffs capturing views of the lighthouse at a distance.

Completed in 1926, Point Vicente used reinforced concrete in the construction of the tower.  A material adapted after the 1906 earthquake. Photo by Candace Clifford

Completed in 1926, Point Vicente used reinforced concrete in the construction of the tower–a material adapted after the 1906 earthquake. Photo by Candace Clifford

The lantern plan for Point Vicente.  Note the diagonal astragals.

The lantern plan for Point Vicente. Pointe Vicente had a larger lens than Point Fermin so could be seen at greater distances. Note the diagonal astragals.

Marking the entrance to San Pedro Harbor, the San Pedro Breakwater Lighthouse was completed in 1913. Photo by Candace Clifford

Marking the entrance to San Pedro Harbor, the San Pedro Breakwater Lighthouse was completed in 1913. Photo by Candace Clifford

Fortunately the CAMM conference included a narrated cruise of the harbors of San Pedro and Long Beach so I was able to capture the San Pedro Breakwater Light, also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Light and locally as “Angels Gate.” Still an active aid to navigation, the tower is located at the end of two-mile breakwater. It welcomes all types of vessels into the nation’s busiest container port. In 1928, Los Angeles Harbor Light Keeper Frank Weller described his duties as consisting of: Standing watches and upkeep of station and grounds, illuminating apparatus, fog signal engines, motors and generators, radio beacon apparatus, aga beacons, oil beacons, gas buoys, motor launch, sail and rowboats.

The Fresnel lens from the Los Angeles Harbor Light is on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

The Fresnel lens from the Los Angeles Harbor Light is on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

The watches average eight or more hours a day. The first watch is from sunset to 11 p.m. . . . The man on watch starts to light up I.O.V. lamp by heating up the lamp with alcohol; keeps a good light at all times; sees that clockwork and lens is on time; keeps watch on the weather; operates radio beacon for fifteen minutes every hour from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.; and in foggy weather or smoky weather operates fog signal continuously. . . .  Weller had started out as an assistant keeper in 1916. He became keeper around 1922. In 1928 he had two assistants–James E. Dudley and Herman L. Francis. Apparently life at this “bachelor station” was challenging for the assistant keepers. Their high turnover rate indicates that it was not a popular assignment. The Los Angeles Harbor Light was manned until the light was automated in 1973.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is located in the old ferry terminal on the San Pedro waterfront.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is located in the old ferry terminal on the San Pedro waterfront.

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Sandy Hook Lighthouse Celebrates 250th Birthday

Documentation drawing completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historic American Building Survey (HABS)

Documentation drawing completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historic American Building Survey (HABS). Click on image to see larger version.

On June, 14, 2014, the Gateway National Recreation Area celebrated the 250th birthday of a National Historic Landmark.  According to park historian Tom Hoffman, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was lit for first time on June 11, 1864. “. . . it was one of only eleven lighthouses built in the thirteen colonies during the colonial era, but, as the years went by, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse literally stood ‘the test of time’ to outlast all of its contemporaries to become the oldest standing and oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.” Hoffman provided me with an article on the 250th anniversary of the light and I will share some of his history here.

“Sandy Hook’s strategic geographic location at the entrance into lower New York Harbor made it a prime location for a lighthouse to help guides sailing ships safely around its tip and into the harbor.  . . . The catalyst that created the movement to build a lighthouse at Sandy Hook occurred during the winter of 1761. During the first three months of that year the merchants of New York lost 20,000 pounds due to shipwrecks which threatened their material wealth and financial resources. Due to their financial losses, forty-three merchants in New York banded together and, on March 13, 1761, sent a ‘Memorial’ (a petition of facts) to New York Lieutenant Governor Caldwallader Colden, President of His Majesty’s Royal Council of New York.

Proposal for new keeper's dwelling at Sandy Hook in 1838. Courtesy National Archives Record Group 26

Proposal for new keeper’s dwelling at Sandy Hook in 1838. (Click on image to see larger version.) Courtesy National Archives Record Group 26

“The merchants urged Colden to recommend to the New York Royal Assembly that a lighthouse be erected at the north end of Sandy Hook, along with a house to shelter Sandy Hook Pilots (who, for a fee, safely guided ships into the harbor), the stationing of some whaleboats at Sandy Hook to transport the pilots out to approaching ships, and a small duty (tax) on the tonnage of ships entering the Port of New York.

” . . . the Provincial Congress of the Colony of New York soon passed an Act on May 19, 1761, ‘for raising the Sum of 3,000 pounds to be employed for and towards purchasing so much of Sandy-Hook as shall be necessary, and thereon to erect a proper Light House.’

“. . .  the merchants turned to Mr. Isaac Conro, a mason, builder, and seller of building materials in New York City, to build the lighthouse. Since the deed was signed May 10, 1762, Conro probably had his labor force of blacksmiths, coppersmiths, artificers, and laborers, along with four oxen, one horse, two carts, and two boats at Sandy Hook building the stone lighthouse tower during the late spring and summer of 1762.  . . . by the end of 1762 more money was needed to finish building the lighthouse. Given that the 1761 lottery raised 3,000 pounds, about half of that amount had to pay winning ticket holders, leaving the other half to buy the four acres of land and build the lighthouse and adjoining keeper’s house. Since the four acres cost 750 pounds this left only 750 pounds for lighthouse and keeper’s house construction. Since addition funds were needed to complete the lighthouse the Colony of New York passed another act on December 11, 1762.   The lottery was drawn in New York on June 14, 1763, and raised 3,000 pounds to complete the lighthouse.

“The June 18, 1764, edition of the New York Mercury Newspaper announced the lighting of the ‘New York Lighthouse’ as Sandy Hook for the first time on Monday, June 11, 1764:

‘On Monday Evening last the New York Lighthouse erected at Sandy Hook was lighted for the first time. The House is of an Octagonal Figure, having eight equal sides; the diameter at the Base is 29 Feet and at the top of the Wall 15 Feet.   The lanthorn [lantern house] is 7 Feet High: the circumference 33 Feet. The whole construction of the Lanthorn is Iron; the top covered with copper. There are 48 Oil Blazes. The building from the surface is Nine Stories; the whole from the Bottom to Top 103 feet.   This structure was undertaken by Mr. Issac Conro of this City, and was carried on with all the Expedition that the Difficulty attending to and from on the Occasion could possibly admit of, and is judged to be masterly finished.’

“The reference to ’48 Oil Blazes’ indicated that either brass or copper ‘spider lamps’, each containing a number of wicks in each lamp, and using whale oil, were employed to light the lighthouse.   To pay for the upkeep, maintenance and operation of the lighthouse a three-pence per ton duty was imposed on ships using the channel into New York Harbor.   The operating costs of the lighthouse during the first two years of operation averaged 419 pounds per year, while the duty tax levied on ship tonnage averaged 451 pounds per year, making for a modest profit when it came to maintaining and operating the lighthouse.

The lighthouse went on to guide many a ship in and out of New York Harbor after it was completed. On June 11, 1964, the 200th anniversary of the lighting of Sandy Hook Lighthouse for the first time, the nation bestowed a great honor on the lighthouse by designating it a National Historic Landmark.   At some time during 1960 and 1964 Sandy Hook Lighthouse was automated with a timer switch.   Even this was replaced in 1989 when the U.S. Coast Guard decided to keep the light on 24/7, since a modern day, commercially made 1,000 watt electric light bulb is rated to stay on continuously for one year, and they have been found by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Teams (ANT) to stay on up to one and a half years.

Photo by Candace Clifford, 2002

Photo by Candace Clifford, 2002

“In 1995, the U.S. Coast Guard officially transferred ownership of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower to the National Park Service, but still retained ownership of the 3rd Order Fresnel Lens (installed in 1857) and modern lighting system to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation.

“In 1998 Congress appropriated $800,000 to totally renovate the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower both inside and out from top to bottom. . . .  The old keeper’s house currently serves as the park’s visitor center and is open every day 9 am to 5 pm. Free ranger and park volunteer lighthouse tours are presented every ½ hour, with the first going up at 1 pm, and the last tour going up at 4:30 pm.   Children must be 48-inches tall to climb the lighthouse.

Many thanks to Tom Hoffman for sharing his article.

Cast Iron Tower at Portland Breakwater

I posted a plan and photo of the first tower on the Portland Breakwater a few days ago.  Here is a historic image of the current cast iron tower constructed on the breakwater in 1875.  Note that the building attached to the tower no longer exists.  And the current tower is now painted white rather than a dark color. Below is a Historic American Building Survey (HABS) drawing of the current tower.  Note the classical columns.  You can download high-resolution HABS/HAER/HAL drawings and photos from the Built in America section of the Library of Congress website.

Imageportland brw 2006

portland drawing

Wooden Tower at Portland Breakwater

portbrw

Plan of 1855 Portland Breakwater Light (National Archives)

Click on images to see a larger view. Like many of the early pier lights, the first tower built on the Portland, Maine, breakwater in 1855 was constructed of wood.  It was replaced in 1875 by the current cast iron tower.

Portland Breakwater Light ca. 1859 (USCG photo)

Portland Breakwater Light ca. 1859 (USCG photo)