Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2022

Point Conception Light’s Shocking History

By Debra Baldwin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
In 1947, the crew at the Point Conception ...

The August 17, 1948 Los Angeles Times newspaper headlines ran:

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
A linesman from Southern California Edison is ...

“POINT CONCEPTION LIGHT CHANGE-OVER BEING MADE. After 92 Years, Lighthouse Finds Out About Electricity. Point Conception’s Great Beacon Will Go Modern.”

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Brand new power lines are finally installed at ...

The article, written by later-renowned Times columnist, critic and feature writer, Cecil Smith, proudly proclaimed that “the famous lighthouse at Point Conception is catching up with the 20th century – it is being converted to electricity.” That conversion had actually started a year earlier when the Southern California Edison Company set up utility poles and brought power cables to the keepers’ dwellings. But it would take until the following year before the illuminant in the light would finally be converted from the old-style kerosene incandescent oil vapor lamp to anything run by electricity.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Until the lens rotation and light could be ...

Known by its keepers as the “Dreadful Promontory of Desolation,” the Point Conception Lighthouse is only 14 miles as the crow flies from the nearest town of Lompoc, California; but a look on any satellite view of the wilderness terrain that lies in-between will confirm the reason for the moniker and show why it was the last California station to be electrified following the Edison Company’s difficult project to bring the power lines out that far.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Charles E. Hellwig (right) looks on while one of ...

According to the newspaper article, “Coast Guard workmen have replaced its squat brass kerosene burner with a 1500-watt electric globe. This is temporary. A new double-action electric system is being installed now. In its squat white tower where a grilled steel circular staircase rises to the light, a tiny whirring electric motor has already replaced the winch and cable and weight that for almost a century slowly turned the lens its seven and one-half revolutions an hour.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Head keeper Charlie Hellwig shows off the ...

“And Charlie Hellwig, the grizzled, one-eyed lighthouse keeper says, ‘It’s a good thing. A lot less work. When they first built this light, they used sperm oil to light it. In the 10 years I have been here, we have been using kerosene. That gives us 143,000 candle power. Electricity will put us up to over a million. Of course, you don’t see it any farther. The horizon is 18 miles away—that’s as far as a ship sees the light. It will just increase the intensity.’

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Charlie Hellwig shows how the fly wheels on the ...

“Charlie, who is 54, has been keeping lighthouses along the California coast for 17 years. He has been in charge at Point Conception for the last three. He stands down on the ledge the light is built on. 131 feet above the foaming, fretful water that lashes itself into a whirling fury as it rounds the point. A suntanned man, quick and agile, with a thin, twisting grin and a bright twinkle in his one good eye, bluer than the sea, he squints out at the sun-drenched ocean to where a blanket of fog lies blue-black about 10 miles off the coast.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The 1st order Fresnel lens shines brightly in the ...

“‘Little fog here,’ he says. ‘We get less than 500 hours a year. It lies off there. Black and ugly. But feel the wind. Whips up to 30, 35 knots nearly every afternoon here on the point. Seen it up to 70 knots and the waves piling in and breaking over the compressor building down there and the light itself. We couldn’t stand up and walk between the buildings. Had to crawl on all fours.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
This photo, taken by BM1 Brittany Barlow of the ...

‘It’s a treacherous sea – under that sleek green, there’s jagged points of rock that can tear a ship’s guts out. The graveyard is really farther north, above Point Arguello. About 20 miles from here is where the squadron of destroyers cracked up in 1923 – and gave this section the name of Graveyard. That’s where the Harvard broke up.

‘Since I’ve been here, we’ve only had one serious accident. The Iowan.’ He gestured toward a ledge of rock a mile south with angry waves breaking over it. ‘That’s Government Point,’ he says, ‘where the Iowan hung up for 17 days before they could pull her off. June 12, 1941. The fog was thick that night.

‘Fellow come to me and said, “There’s a ship gone aground out there. Got it on the short wave.” I said, “You’re nuts.” But we went over and there she hung up. American-Hawaiian Lines freighter. Wind blowing so you couldn’t hear the foghorn. Couldn’t see the light. Seventeen days before the Navy tugs could pull her off. Sat up there on that ledge.’

“Charlie is a civilian employee of the Coast Guard with guardsmen under him. Ordinarily, he has a crew of three men and their families. During the war, 46 men patrolled the area and now there is just Machinist Mate Ray Wollett, his wife and 5-year-old son, and a crew of men converting the light.

“Behind Charlie and the white tower of the lighthouse, steep stairs run 100 feet up to the huge white house that serves as living quarters and barracks. The living quarters are a huge white frame house with a green roof that can be seen for miles. Beside it now, Mrs. Wollett, a tall brunette in green slacks, is hanging out her husband’s laundry. She occupies six rooms in the house.

“The home that Charlie shares with his 76-year-old mother is a smaller concrete structure beyond the big house. Down the long flight of wooden stairs, tripping nimbly, comes Ray Wollett Jr. – Mike, the men call him. ‘Kid’s all alone,’ Charlie says. ‘We’ll get some more families in here soon. Plays too much with grown-ups now.’

“Charlie clambers up the steel ladder into the lens itself. He stops a moment, pointing out the brass plate. The lens was made in France by a man named Henry Lapaute in 1854. On the plate, his name and the date can be barely made out now. The plate has been polished by so many Coast Guardsmen that the words in French are almost worn away.

“The steps going up to the main house are a long climb that stabs the calves and thighs. Mike strays out onto the bluff itself and plucks a handful of dull-red moss for his mother’s table. She finishes hanging the wash, saying, ‘If that wind gets any stronger, there’ll be clothes spread from here to Government. It happens every time.’ She laughs. ‘It’s a good life up here,’ she says. ‘It’s healthy. A little lonely sometimes. By the road, we have to go nearly 70 miles to Santa Barbara to see a show.’

“Charlie’s mother is small and plump, with a round smiling German face. ‘What do we do?’ she shrugs. ‘Oh, there are always things a woman can do in a house. Whether it’s a house like this or a house in town. I’m not a light housekeeper,’ she laughs. ‘I scrub. I keep it clean. Nights, I work the jigsaw puzzles and Charlie reads or works on his fishing equipment. Ach, we’ve been doing it for so long now.’

“Across the sand, away from the house, lie two long wooden tracks of a plank roadway. Beyond, the road curves and turns and twists through the isolated Santa Barbara Mountains, filled with their moss-bearded scrub oak. And 40 miles beyond lies the highway, furious with the rush of cars, the scream of tires and the blasts of horns of the city-bound.

“In the distance, across the churning waters, the long arm of light swings its warning arc.”


Charlie Hellwig remained head keeper at Point Conception until his retirement in 1954. The lighthouse was fully automated, several buildings demolished and all personnel removed by February of 1973. In 2000, the 1856 first order bullseye Fresnel lens was no longer in use and a rotating VRB-25 served as the optic starting in 2001. The Fresnel lens was disassembled and moved to a display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum in 2013.

Today, the optic operating at Point Conception Lighthouse is a solar-powered VLB-44 (8-tier), with a signature of a single white flash every 30 seconds and a nominal range of 14 miles. It replaced the VRB-25 in 2015. While solar energy and advanced technology have replaced kerosene, flashing panels of Fresnel prisms, and even electricity, it is sad to contemplate in our day that the “warning arc” of sweeping light will never again be seen from Point Conception Lighthouse.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2022 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