Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2012

A Light With A View

By Chuck Graham


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The current Santa Barbara Lighthouse in ...
Photo by: Chuck Graham

Kayaking from Santa Rosa Island 30 miles across the Santa Barbara Channel, I kept a row of oil platforms on my right and searched for the white metal Santa Barbara Lighthouse hovering on the edge of the bluffs. Now only five miles from shore, I pulled out my binoculars and found the lighthouse west of the Santa Barbara Harbor, a unique look anyone could get of this hidden light station tucked away in one of Santa Barbara’s coastal neighborhoods.

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Julia Williams, keeper of the Santa Barbara ...

The Santa Barbara Lighthouse has one of the most spectacular views along the California coastline, though most folks probably don’t know that it even exists. That’s because it is so well hidden within a U.S. Coast Guard compound along Shoreline Drive. It’s barely visible just east of La Mesa Park, fenced off and surrounded by housing and a playground along the bluffs overlooking the shimmering Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands National Park. From La Mesa Park, there’s a riparian corridor that leads to a bridge and a scenic beach below. The best look at the lighthouse is from the bridge looking southeast toward the lighthouse. It’s the best accessibility on foot to get a clear view of the light station.

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The original Santa Barbara Lighthouse looking ...

The Santa Barbara Lighthouse is 24-feet-tall, and is a white metal tower that sits 142 feet above the Pacific Ocean; however it does not look anything like its original predecessor when the light station was established and lighted for the first time on December 1, 1856. In fact, the current Santa Barbara Lighthouse, which is still active, although automated does not look like a traditional lighthouse.

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This image appears to be the Santa Barbara ...

The location for the Santa Barbara Lighthouse was selected so that the light could serve the important dual purpose of a sea coast light and a harbor light. The harbor and the light tower are about two miles apart as the crow flies.

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Below: Vintage postcard showing Julia Williams in ...

When the Santa Barbara Lighthouse was established, it was typical of the other pioneer West Coast lights at the time, with the tower rising through the center of the dwelling. The builder was George D. Nagle of San Francisco, who received $8,000 for his efforts. The tower lantern was fitted with a fourth order lens and originally displayed a fixed red light, which in later years was changed to fixed white.

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Ruins of the Santa Barbara Lighthouse after the ...

At the time, women lighthouse keepers were not uncommon in early American lighthouses. The Santa Barbara Lighthouse was a perfect example. When the lighthouse was officially established in 1856, Albert Johnson Williams was appointed as the initial keeper. Although Williams was the keeper, he rarely spent any time attending to the job; instead, he left the light keeping duties to his wife and son.

In Christmas of 1857, Mrs. Williams hosted a Christmas dinner for all thirty people who lived in the area. Reportedly after dinner, the first game of baseball ever played in Santa Barbara took place.

Then one day a man showed up at the door and, with papers in hand, announced that he was the new keeper, that Williams had been fired. So, the family moved into a ranch house that Williams had been building nearby. For whatever reason, the new keeper apparently did not like the job and quit. Williams was asked to return as the keeper; the government claimed that Williams firing had been a mistake.

Although Williams accepted the position, he refused to set foot back in the lighthouse and hired someone to tend to the light. However, his wife, Julia, said she liked the lighthouse and requested the job. Commodore James M. Watson, the Lighthouse Inspector, appointed her as the keeper, which was later officially confirmed in Washington D.C. on June 5, 1865 and her appointment received a great amount of publicity in the Santa Barbara area.

Taking great pride in her new appointment, Mrs. Julia F. Williams was a stalwart lighthouse keeper diligently performing her duties for more than 40 years, during which time she was only away from the lighthouse for two nights and those times were to attend the weddings of two of her children. During her faithful vigil, only one shipwreck of consequence was recorded, the cause of which was carelessness on the part of the skipper who allowed his vessel to drift onto the rocks just off shore of the bluffs.

Julia Williams was a descendant of a Maine family; she had been born on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, but grew up in Eastport, Maine. Soon after the discovery of gold in California, Albert Johnson, a native of Waterville, Maine, travelled to California. But it was two and a half years later before Julie followed him, making the trip by herself. She raised three boys and two girls at the lighthouse. She was quoted about her ability to survive and raise a family in the originally remote location of the lighthouse because of her “Maniac” blood. In 1905, her vigil finally ended when she fell and broke her hip. Amazingly, she was 81 years old when she was relieved of her command. Interestingly, her replacement was another woman; Caroline Morse.

During her tenure as a lighthouse keeper, Julia Williams became famous all over California. Thanks in part to some ingenious newspaper stories and magazine articles, she was widely known as “The Lighthouse Lady.” Her death in 1911 brought bold headlines and lengthy obituaries in newspapers across the region.

On June 29, 1925, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake jolted Santa Barbara and the aging lighthouse was unable to stand up against the quake. It was 6:45 a.m. and the keeper at the time, Albert Weeks, was asleep in one of the out-buildings. Albert had become the keeper after the death of his father, Harley Weeks. The keeper’s house was full with visiting relatives. Suddenly and rudely awakened, he rushed outside and into the lighthouse quarters to rescue his mother, sister, and brother. Moments after getting the family out of the damaged house, an aftershock caused the tower and the lantern to come crashing down. Amazingly, nobody lost their lives, but the lighthouse had literally been reduced to a pile of rubble. A temporary frame tower was erected afterwards until a new lighthouse could be built.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 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.

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