Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

Forgotten Ballast Point “Lighthouse” Seeks New Home

History of other Ballast Point artifacts uncovered

By Kraig Anderson


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Current view of what once was the second Ballast ...

San Diego California’s first lighthouse, one of the first eight to be built along the west coast of the United States, was constructed in 1854 atop Point Loma, where it was hoped its light could guide mariners along the coast and into San Diego Bay. During California’s warm summer months, the low-lying fog that frequently blankets the coast rendered Point Loma Lighthouse, with its lofty focal plane of 462 feet, ineffective.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The fog bell tower at Ballast Point when it was ...

To correct this problem, two new lighthouses situated closer to sea level were required. On October 2, 1888, Congress appropriated $25,000 for a light and fog signal at Ballast Point, a tiny peninsula that juts eastward from Point Loma, to direct vessels into the protected waters of San Diego Bay. Work on this new station began in February of 1890 and was completed by the end of March. In 1891, an iron, pyramidal tower was erected on Pelican Point, the low-lying southern tip of Point Loma, where its light could be seen well out to sea.

The original buildings at Ballast Point consisted of a two-story wooden bell tower, a boathouse, and two dwellings, one of which was attached to a square, wooden light tower. An iron lantern, housing a fifth order Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris, France by Sautter, Lemonier, & Co., topped the tower at Ballast Point, and the station’s fixed white light was first exhibited on August 5, 1890.

Ballast Point derived its name from the fact that early skippers, after offloading their cargo, used stones gathered from the point to serve as ballast in their vessels during their homeward voyages, and it was near this point where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo dropped anchor on September 28, 1542 and named the spacious harbor San Miguel.

From the 1850s up until the construction of the lighthouse in 1890, Ballast Point was home to a whaling station. New England whalers hunted Gray Whales off Point Loma and then towed them to Ballast Point, where their blubber was boiled in 150-gallon cast-iron pots at the try-works.

One of the first major changes at Ballast Point Lighthouse came in 1928, when the wind-up machinery for tolling the bell was removed from the bell tower and replaced with a foghorn, air compressor, and tank. The horn was mounted on the second story next to the bell, and the first floor was enclosed at that time to house the foghorn equipment.

In a modernization step that gave little regard to historical preservation or inspirational architecture, the two keeper’s dwellings at Ballast Point were torn down in June of 1960, leaving the tower topped by the lantern room free standing. While repairs to the light tower were being made, it was found to be unstable due to the failure of its brick and mortar foundation. A third story for displaying a new light was added to the stout bell tower, and the original light tower was demolished after its lens and lantern room were removed.

The station’s new white light, a standard 375mm lens with storm panes, had a signature of three seconds on and three seconds off and went into operation on August 5, 1960. The new light, even though it used a smaller lamp, was more powerful than its predecessor due to the increased efficiency of its filament and the fact that a colored shade was no longer used to create a green light.

In 1960, the fog signal was a single-tone diaphone which emitted one blast every fifteen seconds. In the event the diaphone became inoperative, the men on station were required to ring the large bell by hand, with one stroke every fifteen seconds. A new three-bedroom and a four-bedroom duplex type dwelling were built adjacent to the light structure.

The combination lighthouse and fog signal tower was only in service for a short time when a new light was established offshore in 1961. The man hired to raze the tower informed his enterprising friend Monroe A. Platt, a telephone engineer by trade, that the tower was free for the taking. For a few hundred dollars, Platt had the tower hoisted onto a flatbed truck using a 35-ton crane and transported it to the backyard of his Lakeside home. Platt used an external steel spiral staircase left over from a work project to link the first two floors of the tower, and then converted the second floor of the tower into a shack for his ham radio station – W6ZFP. A bathroom was later attached to the lower story, which the family has used as a guesthouse.

The original Ballast Point fog bell, forged in San Francisco by Garritt and Co., ended up in a National City scrap yard after the tower was discontinued in 1961. Alva “Ollie” Oliphant, a mechanical arts teacher for many years in the San Diego school system, often picked up scrap metal for his students and was thrilled when he discovered the bell there in 1969. After paying the scrap metal price of 5 cents a pound, Ollie had the 2,000-pound bell loaded on a trailer and towed it home behind his Volkswagen van.

Ollie mounted his new possession on wooden gallows he constructed from old timbers salvaged from the old North Island ferry landing, and the bell remained at the Oliphant home until 1990, when it was loaned to the San Diego Maritime Museum and placed on display along the promenade near the ferryboat Berkeley. After a year or so, Ollie retrieved the bell from the maritime museum, and it has remained in the family since that time. Around 1999, the bell was moved to the home of Ollie’s son Steven in Colorado, and then in 2002 it was shipped cross-country to Vermont, where it is now in the possession of Ollie’s granddaughter Kyra Wilson. Kyra remembers ringing the bell with her brother while visiting her grandfather in San Diego, and now her own two children, a brother and sister, get a thrill out of tolling the bell and hearing it echo in their mountain valley.

The whereabouts of the Ballast Point lantern room was a mystery to almost everyone until it was placed on display outside West Sea Company, a nautical antiques store in San Diego’s Old Town. In early 1998, Rod Cardoza, co-owner of West Sea Company, noticed a classified ad in the local paper that read, “HISTORICAL Lighthouse, Dallas [sic] Point, 1880’s, minimum bid $15,000.” Intrigued, he called the number on the ad and shortly thereafter traveled to Bonita to view what turned out to be the lantern room from Ballast Point Lighthouse at the home of Homer Hudson. Cardoza hired a crane to have the lantern room lifted over nearby power lines and placed on a flat-bed truck. After being delivered to his store, the lantern room was placed on a cement pad, where, fitted with new glass panes and covered in a fresh coat of paint, it can be viewed today.

The nation was just recovering from the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, in February of 1964, the Cuban government cut off the fresh water supply to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. An experimental desalinization plant had been in operation at Point Loma for just over two years, and the Navy ordered it dismantled and shipped through the Panama Canal to Guantanamo Bay. Homer Hudson, who sold the lantern room to Cardoza, was working as a crane operator as part of the team disassembling the desalinization plant when he noticed the interesting artifact lying nearby. He inquired if he could purchase the lantern room and was told that he could have it if he would haul it away. Soon the lantern was serving as a gazebo in Hudson’s garden, and there it remained for thirty-four years.

Ownership of the fifth-order Fresnel lens used at Ballast Point was awarded to Cabrillo National Monument in 1966, and it is now on display in the assistant keeper’s dwelling adjacent to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

Though a few news articles have been written about the “Lakeside Lighthouse” through the years, by 2011, fifty years after the tower was decommissioned, most people had forgotten that a Ballast Point “lighthouse” still existed. That year Judy Bowen, who lives in the home owned by her father, Monroe Platt, decided that the bell/light tower, rather than face an uncertain future, needed to find a new home where it could be preserved and appreciated. Fellow Lakeside resident Dennis Richardson is leading an effort to relocate the tower and can be contacted at jarden88@cox.net.

A YouTube video covering the history of the bell tower can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7AVPfSDUTo.

There are more photographs available in the print edition of this story. To subscribe, click here.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History