When "The Lower Light" Was New
By Joe Brennan
In 1892, about a year after the Old Lighthouse was abandoned, my father, George Patrick Brennan, was transferred from Point Arena to Point Loma as keeper. They generally called the new lighthouse "the lower light" to distinguish it from the old one on top of Point Loma.
Of course, we were only a few miles from San Diego, but we might as well have been across the county. There was no telephone, the road in to La Playa was terrible, and we had only coal stoves and kerosene lamps. The water supply was a problem, too; we had what they called the "water-shed" out in back of the buildings and it was all right in wet years, but the years weren't always wet. The "water-shed" was a big patch of cement about the size of a couple of tennis-courts, on the side of the hill, with a cistern at its lower corner. It was supposed to catch enough rain-water to supply the two keepers' families, but it was seldom adequate.
During dry years, old Rafe Thompson, who had a little lunch-room in Roseville, used to load water from his well, half a dozen barrels of it at a time, and bring it out to us in a wagon, dumping it into the cistern for us to use; sometimes he'd come as often as twice a week, if it was a long, dry spell.
I had four brothers and three sisters, and the only school was at Roseville. So, on school days, we'd hitch up "Ping" -- our sway-backed horse -- to the spring-wagon, and drive in over the hill. My oldest brother, Dick, had an old derby hat, and when he wore it, that was the signal that "the Brennan boys are in town, looking for a fight." It always worked.
There were some other interesting characters around Roseville, in addition to Old Man Thompson. One of them was R. A. Douglas, who tended the beacons out in the bay. They had oil lamps, of course, and every day, rain or shine, he'd row out to them, one after the other, in a Whitehall boat. He'd fill the fonts and trim the wicks and clean the globes, and be sure that they were burning bright by dusk. During a southeaster that was quite a chore, for one man with only a pair of oars, but he took care of those beacons, calm or squall.
Roseville and La Playa -- and the lighthouse, of course -- got their mail by San Diego, on foot. George Russel carried it, slinging the mail-sack over his shoulder and taking off at a dog-trot. But he didn't always make it; sometimes, at extreme high tides, he couldn't get across the flats, in about where the Marine Base is now.
For all its isolation, we didn't mind it, out there. Once a week or so we'd come in to Roseville for groceries. For amusement, we'd go hunting quail or gathering abalones. We hunted with a big, old 10-gauge shotgun that was so heavy we had to carry a sort of crutch around to rest it on; we loaded the shells -- they were brass -- ourselves. In those days, Point Loma reached far out beyond the lighthouse, a lot further than it does now, and there was a cove east of it that we called the Swimming Hole. We could paddle around in it, and pry abalones off of the rocks. Tally-ho parties of tourists came out frequently, with George Minter driving, and we kids used to sell them the shells. And every few months the lighthousetender Madrono would come down from San Francisco, to bring us our kerosene and coal, and other strictly lighthouse supplies. That was always a big day, when the men came in through the breakers in a big pulling-boat, with the casks and the sacks to be carried up the cliff.
Bill Laney was the assistant keeper -- there were only two keepers at the light, then -- and during my father's last illness, around 1902, I tended the light for a while myself. Toward sunset, the keeper would climb up the winding stairway and get ready for the night. The weight that provided the power to turn the big revolving red-and-white lens was wound up to the top of the tower, the reservoir was filled, the linen cover taken off of the lens, and the yellow window-blinds raised, around the lantern. Then the three wicks were lighted and adjusted, and the lens was started turning on its brass rollers. You checked the wicks to see that the flame wasn't too high or too low, and watched the machinery to be sure that the lens revolved at just the proper speed. At midnight, the weight would have fallen to the bottom of the tower, and you'd take the big crank and wind it up again -- 175 turns of the crank did the trick.
When morning came, you'd put out the light and tidy the place up again, I suppose it was a monotonous life, but if it was, we didn't even notice the fact.
"New" Pt. Loma Light originally showed alternate flashes of red and white, the red being abandoned some time around 1911. Ballast Point, which started out with a fixed white, oil light, was changed to flashing green (acetylene), and shortly after to fixed green (electric) some time between 1921 and 1925.