Legacy of Light: Point Loma Light guides American forces home

Vessel DocumentationDocumentation News & Updates

Written by Walter T. Ham IV

The U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Aids Team installed a new light emitting diode (LED) on the historic Pt. Loma lighthouse Feb. 6, 2013 in San Diego, Calif. The LED system is brighter, uses 96 percent less energy and requires less maintenance than the incandescent lantern it replaced. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Henry G. Dunphy.

First lit in 1855, the Point Loma Lighthouse helped to guide the rise of San Diego from a sleepy fishing village to a bustling military port.

American military vessels have followed the light home from hot spots around the globe for more than a century.

With the largest concentration of sea service personnel in the world, San Diego County hosts dozens of military commands, including units from the Coast Guard 11th District.

The Alameda, California-based Coast Guard command covers waterways in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, as well as Pacific Ocean waters a thousand miles offshore.

In addition to being a major American homeport, the nation’s eighth largest city is an economic juggernaut and top travel destination, with the port contributing more than $7.6 billion to the economy and 34 million tourists visiting the city every year.

U.S. Coast Guard aids to navigation, like the Point Loma Lighthouse, have helped to enable San Diego’s meteoric rise.

Five years after California became the 31st state in the United States, the Point Loma Lighthouse was built on the mountainside ruins of Spanish fort located 462 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Due to heavy fog that often obscured the light, the Point Loma Lighthouse was deactivated and replaced by a new light closer to the sea in 1891.

Today, the old lighthouse anchors the Cabrillo National Monument and more than 800,000 tourists visited it in 2015. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is one of nine lighthouses with elevators named after them in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Kim Fahlen, the official lens cleaner at the lighthouse museum, said the old lighthouse is one of only two Cape Cod-style lighthouses.

U.S. Coast Guard photo Petty Officer 1st Class Charles B. Palmer.

U.S. Coast Guard photo Petty Officer 1st Class Charles B. Palmer.

“What is now referred to as Old Point Loma Lighthouse was the last of the first eight lighthouses that began operation on the West Coast,” said Fahlen, who co-authored the book Lighthouses of San Diego with her identical twin sister Karen Scanlon. “Only two of these original eight Cape Cod-style lighthouses remain.”

Fahlen’s interest in lighthouses began when she first saw America’s tallest light, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, in the North Carolina Outer Banks when she was 12 years old. Since then, she has not only visited lighthouses in the United States but also in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The New Point Loma Lighthouse stands 88 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the tip of Point Loma and shines an LED light that can be seen from 14 nautical miles away. The only West Coast light of its kind, the New Point Loma Light is similar to New York’s Coney Island Lighthouse, which was built around the same time.

Petty Officer 1st Class Charles B. Palmer leads the U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team in San Diego that maintains the lamp at the New Point Loma Lighthouse. His team facilitates safe navigation from the U.S.-Mexico border to San Mateo Point, California.

A native of Plainville, Connecticut, who considers San Diego home, Palmer said the New Point Loma Light guides military, commercial and civilian mariners around underwater boulders, bedrock and kelp beds. The New Point Loma Lighthouse is an integral part of the ATON system that includes a range, buoys and other non-lateral hazard markers.

In addition to the light, the four-person ATON team uses a 26-foot ATON Boat and a tow vehicle to maintain 61 floating and fixed navigational aids and supports the San Pedro, California-based U.S. Coast Guard Cutter George Cobb with 38 buoys near San Diego.

The team leader said the aids “are still serving a critical purpose, especially for one of the world’s most active military ports.”

Palmer said the team is honored to maintain the Point Loma Lighthouse and other navigational aids that keep mariners on course around the southwestern corner of the United States.

“We take a great deal of pride in our stewardship of the light and in continuing the legacy of those dozens of keepers, men and women, who served before us,” said Palmer.