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Lighthouse in the clouds above San Diego | Bartell's Backroads

The lonely life of a lighthouse keeper and why the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was decommissioned.

SAN DIEGO, California — The first thing you will notice about Old Point Loma Light House is that it was built on the tallest hill at the Cabrillo National Monument. In 1855, the construction of the Lighthouse was an engineering feat. A long road had to be built just to get supplies to the top. 

“When it was built, it was the highest lighthouse of all the lighthouses built at the time, which was a pretty cool claim to fame,” says Park Ranger Amanda Gossard, but that didn't necessarily make it more effective. 

“Eighty days out of the year, San Diego is socked in with fog rendering the lighthouse useless.”

A new lighthouse was built at the bottom of the hill and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1891. Today, the old lighthouse gives tourists a look into the life of Robert Israel, the longest residing captain. 

“Captain is the title you get when you run a lighthouse,” says Gossard.

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The location of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse has some historic significance to it. The lighthouse overlooks the landing spot of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. 

In 1542, he became the first European to set foot on what is now San Diego, at the site of the monument. Unfortunately, this historic spot was a boring place to live back in Captain Israel's time. 

“I am sure cabin fever was something the family experienced,” says Gossard. "Lighthouse keepers live a life of solitude.”

The lighthouse was miles from civilization and Captain Israel and his family could not leave their post. Someone had to frequently walk up and down the lighthouse steps because If the flame went out, ships might crash and that flame didn’t always burn well.

 “The fuels used started out as rendered down animal fat, like whale fat. Then went to kerosene, then electricity,” says Gossard.

To survive, Captain Israel’s family had to grow their own food and collect rainwater for drinking and the five children were homeschooled. They lived in the Old Point Loma Lighthouse for 18 years, then transferred to the new Point Loma Lighthouse and stayed one more year. 

Through time, other structures were added around the old lighthouse, including a barn, a chicken coop, a wood and oil shed, additional cisterns, and a catch basin.

Today, visitors can enjoy miles of walking trails that will lead to some of the best views overlooking San Diego.

MORE TO EXPLORE FROM BARTELL'S BACKOADS: The view is great but if you take the 313 steps down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the walk back up will have you gasping over more than the scenery and passing whale migration. 

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