San Diego Attraction Spotlight: History & Importance of
Cabrillo National Monument and Old Point Loma Lighthouse
When the first European, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, stepped ashore here in 1542, he was searching for gold. Instead he found something even better- what is now San Diego.
Today Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma is the most visited national monument in the United States next to the Statue of Liberty. Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Cabrillo’s voyage, but the park also plays a major role in the protection and preservation of the unique elements of the San Diego coast.
Although many people think of Cabrillo National Monument as synonymous with the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, within the park’s 144 acres are a number of plant and animal communities native to San Diego. The best way to see these is to hike the Bayside Trail, a hilly two-mile trek that winds through the coastal chaparral zone. Before you set out on your hike, be sure to pick up the park pamphlet describing the trail and the plants, animals and birds common to the area.
In addition, San Diego visitors take note that Cabrillo National Monument’s park rangers conduct park orientation tours and present programs on Cabrillo’s voyage, tide pools, nature walks and the winter migration of the gray whales.
The park is open 364 days a year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and closed only on Christmas Day! The entrance fee is $5 for a private vehicle and $3 per person for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. Your entrance receipt is good for the entire day plus the following 6 days so you can return as many times as you like in a week.
Visit Cabrillo National Monument Online for more information.
In 1854, San Diego could barely be called a town. And Point Loma? It was a desert peninsula with one windy, dirt road traced along its spine, eventually leading to the recently built Point Loma Lighthouse.
At the time, the Point Loma lighthouse stood as a symbol for what “the city” was –a small port and fishing outpost that received just enough ocean traffic to warrant the guiding beacon of a lighthouse. Today, a look back on the history of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse offers a brief reflection of the new burgeoning city of San Diego.
On November 15, 1854, the Point Loma Lighthouse’s first keeper officially lit the beacon. Captain James Keating was a ship builder whose duties as a lightkeeper could help prevent the sea from wreaking havoc and destruction on the boats he labored over.
It was not an easy life for Keating and the other lightkeepers who followed. With a rough, unpaved ten-mile journey to and from San Diego, no fresh water, and no form of entertainment aside from month-old newspapers and twice-read books, it is no mystery why 11 different men served as the Point Loma Lighthouse lightkeeper from 1885 to 1891, and that was just a short portion of the total operational period.
Originally built by the United States government, the Point Loma Lighthouse was one of the first eight West Coast lighthouses authorized by the United States Lighthouse Board. It was designed as a four-room, live-in Cape Cod style structure and was contracted by a Washington, D.C. firm.
Built on the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula- 88 feet above the rocky Pacific shoreline- the Point Loma Lighthouse served as a warning beacon to incoming ships from 1854 through 1890. Although it was until recently nicknamed the “Old Spanish Lighthouse,” the lighthouse has no real Spanish origin or heritage.
When in use, the Point Loma Lighthouse was the highest situated lighthouse in the United States, reaching 510 feet from surf to focal plane. Ironically, it was the structure’s lofty position high atop the cliffs that obscured its light in dense fog. In 1891 the old lighthouse was abandoned for that very reason, and the official operating light was relocated to the lighthouse at Ballast Point which still operates today.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson declared Point Loma Lighthouse a national historic landmark, but this proclamation alone did not preserve the structure. By 1931 the lighthouse was in such poor condition due to vandalism and exposure- smashed windows, a rusted iron railing surrounding the light, and the wood siding being torn off for firewood- that many called for the structure to be condemned and demolished.
But not all were ready to dismiss the importance of the Point Loma Lighthouse. One man in particular, a Captain Fenton S. Jacobs of the 11th cavalry stationed at Fort Rosecrans, led these objectors. Captain Jacobs not only gathered public support for the restoration, but also encouraged troopers to spend their off-duty hours assisting in the work.
Today, the Point Loma Lighthouse is part of the Cabrillo National Monument, the third most visited attraction in Southern California. Visitors can tour the newly restored living quarters at the Point Loma Lighthouse, and imagine what it was like to lead the solitary life of a lightkeeper.
For more information, visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse Online.