Many ships started sailing along the west coast once gold was discovered in California and the need for safety measures soon became apparent. The Point Loma lighthouse was one of eight built along the shoreline to help ships avoid danger and find ways into the various harbors. The original lighthouse was built 462 feet above sea level in 1855 and could be seen a reported 34 miles away. However, the height proved to be a problem when the ever-present fog during the winter surrounded the base of the hill and the light shined over the top of the clouds. This led to the building a new lighthouse in 1891 down by the shoreline were the fog didn’t interfere as much.
After the lighthouse closed, it was left to the elements and started to deteriorate badly. During World War II, the lighthouse was briefly restored and used as a signal tower for ships entering San Diego Bay. Ships would flash a signal as they approached so the submarine nets across the harbor could be lowered so it could enter. Afterwards, it was abandoned for nearly another 40 years until the early 1980s when the National Park Service restored the lighthouse to its condition when it closed in 1891.
Getting Drinking Water
Having access to fresh water was a serious chore back in the early days of the lighthouse. Although the original lighthouse was built with a 1,240-gallon cistern in the basement, filling it up wasn’t easy to do. San Diego generally gets less than 12-inches of rain per year. That makes it a semi-arid environment. Rain falling on the roof was drained into the cistern, but it usually wasn’t near enough to meet the needs of those living there. To mitigate against the low rainfall amount, the lighthouse keeper or his assistant would have to hitch up a wagon and take a 14-mile round trip to the closest fresh water well to fill up barrels and get properly resupplied.
The solution: Build a concrete water catchment basin to collect larger amounts of rain water. In 1882, two underground cisterns capable of holding over 11,000 gallons of water were added along with a large concrete pad to direct the rain water into the cisterns.