Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2009

Pacific Coast Lighthouse Veteran Peter C. Nelson

By Timothy Harrison


The January 3, 1931 edition of the San Francisco Examiner made a big deal about Capt. Peter C. Nelson being transferred after nearly 30 years as the lighthouse keeper at California’s Lime Point Lighthouse. Since he had served for so long at Lime Point Lighthouse, the newspaper said he had one of the loneliest jobs in the world, but he would be continuing his dedicated work at the Point Pinos Lighthouse. The newspaper said those that knew him at Lime Point considered him a “Straight Shooter.”

By the time he was transferred from Lime Point Lighthouse to Point Pinos Lighthouse in Monterey, California, Nelson had already served for 39 years in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He had enlisted in 1892 and was appointed a 3rd assistant keeper at Point Sur Lighthouse.

The fact that the newspaper had described his job as one of the loneliest jobs in the world amazed him, since he never felt lonely and always had plenty of family members and friends around him. He was quoted as saying, “They must have been thinking about those other lighthouse keepers stationed way out to sea.”

In 1963, for his 92nd birthday, the Masonic Grand Lodge of California honored Nelson, when he was awarded a gold pin honoring his half-century of membership in Amity-Seal Rock Lodge No. 370, F. & A.M, which he was the oldest of its 555 members. As proud as he was of the award, he was also proud of the fact that he was the oldest living veteran, at that time, of the United States Lighthouse Service.

While stationed at Lime Point Lighthouse in 1906 he and his family watched in horror and sick hearts as San Francisco burned from the many fires caused by the great earthquake. He recalled how the water in San Francisco Bay turn a muddy brown from the force of the earthquake and tons of debris floated by the lighthouse.

His early years as a lighthouse keeper were filled with excitement that was due more to family matters than lighthouse keeping. Both of his children were born at Point Sur Lighthouse. Dr. J.L.D. Roberts, a famous old doctor who tended to the coast people, brought both, his son Ernest, and daughter Myrtle, into the world in the assistant keeper’s house at Point Sur Lighthouse Station. The doctor, who was used to covering rugged terrain, had no trouble getting to the lighthouse in time for the births. When the steamer Los Angeles wrecked on the rocks by the lighthouse, it was also Doctor Roberts who came and spent two days and nights caring for the injured as the keeper’s homes were turned into a makeshift hospital.

“It was at Lime Point Lighthouse,” Nelson said, “where you really see the ships, especially, since we were so up close.” He continued by saying, “But, it’s the Pacific Grove Lighthouse, (referring to the Point Pinos Lighthouse) that’s the cream of the lighthouse crop of the Pacific Coast.”

As well as having served at Point Sur, Lime Point, and Point Pinos Lighthouses, Nelson had also been a keeper at gingerbread style Ballast Point Lighthouse that once stood at Ballast Point in San Diego Harbor.

In a December, 1937 interview about his retirement that was about to take place on January 1, 1938, he said he had seen lots of changes and innovations at the lighthouses. He recalled at Point Sur Lighthouse how he had to haul the kerosene by hand up to the peak where the lighthouse was located. He said, “But it wasn’t so much the fuel, but the task of watching the light that was tough in those days. The kerosene lights had a habit of going out or getting ailments that would smoke up the lenses and cause hours of work cleaning them.” He continued by saying, “Now there is seldom a failure in the electrically operated lights, but there is always a chance that something might happen, so the keeper must always be ever alert just the same.”

One amusing story that was passed down by his children related to the Great San Francisco Earthquake. It seems he still made his children walk the six miles to school, and of course nobody was there.

He found it amusing how the newspapers never paid much attention to his duties as a lighthouse keeper, until that is, when he was transferred from Lime Point Lighthouse to Point Pinos and then again at his retirement. And after his retirement, it seemed people would always ask him questions about lighthouse life. The main thing he would tell them is that it was good life and he was proud of the Lighthouse Service that he served so faithfully.

When Nelson died in April of 1964, at the age of 93, his wife Ida Belle had preceded him in death. His daughter, Myrtle, a sister, four grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild survived him. On his death, the newspapers mentioned how many lighthouses were now automated and required infrequent visits, unlike the days of Capt. Peter C. Nelson, who had been a “Legendary figure in the history of Pacific Coast Lighthouses.”

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This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2009 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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