Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2022

Living the Point Conception Lighthouse Life


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Keeper Charles E. Hellwig and his mother, Martha, ...

Keeper Charles E. Hellwig served his 23 years in lighthouse service during a very interesting time. He not only saw the transition during consolidation when the U.S. Coast Guard took over the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939, including the years during WWII, but he also experienced lighthouse life before and after electrification and the way that affected a keeper’s life.

Charles Hellwig was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 1, 1894. He married in 1921 and had two children, but was divorced by the time he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1931.

He served his first few years at an undisclosed lighthouse location, but by 1935, he was stationed at Año Nuevo Light in California. Later that same year, he transferred down the coast to Point Pinos Lighthouse where he stayed for four years until the 1939 consolidation. When given the choice, he chose to remain a civilian keeper in the U.S. Coast Guard and was sent to Point Conception Light later that year.

In 1946, he reminisced during an interview published in the Saturday Evening Post: “Fourteen years I have been working lighthouses, and there’s times I wish I had never left Brooklyn. I came in durin’ the Depression; things got kind of tough and I passed a civil-service exam as a maintenance man. Couple of years, I caught on at a station.”

Speaking of lighthouse life at Point Conception, he noted: “How we got the light is simple. They just counted the wrecks and stuck it up here. Get about four hundred hours official fog a year here, weather that has the seagulls walkin’ . . . Guess I’m getting’ to be one of those shoutin’ keepers. Man’s alone long enough he does one of two things: he shouts his fool head off, so he don’t get lonely, or he goes around mumblin’ because he knows no one’s going to hear him anyhow.”

Charlie didn’t quite live alone, however. Beyond the other crew and their families, he had his widowed mother, Martha Hellwig, with him from at least 1940 onward at Point Conception. Martha appeared to enjoy her time there and established a rhythm of daily life. In the Post article, she recounted: “Six years we have been here now, and I like it very much. But as a girl, I should never think at my age, I am to be living in a lighthouse in America. Not that I get lonesome.

“All day I have something to do. I do the cooking. I do the washing. I do the cleaning. I do a sun bath for myself. If it is too quiet, I go out and walk along the plank road; I talk with the birds; up here there are wild canaries even. It sometimes could be more lively.

“But there are other things. The moonlight nights are good, the moon it shines on the water – oh, that’s beautiful. Nights we can play rummy, pinochle, and by our battery radio on Saturday nights to the National Barn Dance I can listen. And such fish we have all the time. Bullheads, they taste so good, now I can’t eat nothing from a butcher’s icebox.”

Neither she nor Charlie seemed to mind the isolation of the Dreadful Promontory of Desolation. In another Los Angeles Times article in 1954, Charlie explained, “That’s just a myth about lighthouse keepers being lonely. Shucks, we’re too busy to be lonely.”

He then made some observations about the changes that electricity brought to the lightkeeper’s life in such remote places: “We go into town often. We do a lot of reading – newspaper, magazines, books – and we’ve got the radio and television. Good reception, too. No, it’s not like the old days. Times have changed. Just about the only thing that’s the same – we still have to keep the light burning.”

And what did Charles Hellwig see for the future? “When I retire eight years from now, do you know what I’m going to do? Settle down right around here! But I’d sorta like to get a least a mountain or hill between me and my light.” Charlie did settle down in Lompoc, but it was only four years later in 1954, not in 1958.

Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to enjoy his retirement for a long period of time as he died within two years on September 13, 1956 in Lompoc at the relatively young age of 62. Charles Ernest Hellwig is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California. His mother, Martha Junge Hellwig, lived another 12 years, dying in 1968 at the age of 96, and is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.

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.

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