Over a half century ago, a grizzled, old civilian lighthouse keeper, along with his wife, tended the light out on Anacapa Island, 13 miles off the coast of Southern California. For several decades, they had lived an idyllic existence there, but the lighthouse was on the list for automation by 1970, which meant the keeper would face mandatory retirement from service with nowhere to go. In 1967, he gave the following account, reminiscing fondly on his island existence until the day he was forced to give it up.
A Lighthouse Yarn
“This little adventure I want to tell you about had its beginning, and its ending, too, for that matter on the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Southern California. Excepting for Catalina, they’re lonely islands, most of them – no people to speak of – nothing but sea birds, sea otters, sea lions and a few maverick goats gone wild.
“It was kind of a graveyard of ships because the ocean currents were mighty treacherous and the rocks were something to watch out for, especially if you were a seafaring man. That’s why they built a light station out there for as long as I can remember and that’s where I come in. I was the lighthouse keeper. Every night, come rain, come stars, come full moon or fog, I made it my job to see that my light was burning bright.
“For nigh on 40 years, I’ve been at it – guiding ships in the night like this. Then in mornings, if the sun burned through, I’d shut her down to save power. I sort of prized the old light. She was Paris-made, 1883, with the finest set of prisms you ever did see. Her beam carried better than 20 miles to sea. My name’s Haskell – Captain Moses McGonagall Haskell. I guess I was known as the old, peg-legged lighthouse keeper by just about every master mariner afloat.”
Captain Haskell next related how on sunny days when the work was less for the light, he would go visit his local friends – Ajax the goat, Petunia the pelican and Rosie the seal. He would feed the seagulls and go island-hopping to see the nesting cormorants and terns, fur seals and sea lions as they basked on the beaches and played in the surf. Then, it was time to do the grocery shopping:
“One of my routine chores on days like this was to take my wife’s shopping list and go marketing. We had a seagoing supermarket set up in business just for the two of us. The address was six fathoms under and you could get just about any marine delicacy you might have, starting with fresh caught lobster right out of the briny deep.
“If I’d timed my trip with the tide and do my shopping when it was low and the rocks exposed, I’d find abalone sitting right there for the taking. There’s nothing more tasty than an abalone steak. Fish were like staple goods, available any day of the week – sea bass, cod, halibut, yellow tale, red snapper – you name it. I guess we just about had them all.
“Speaking for myself, I sort of favored some of the more unusual items from the bill of fare – such things as sea urchins. Not much to look at, but if you knew how to cook them as well as my wife did, they could be quite a succulent dish.
“Of course, no meal was complete without greens, and I knew just where to find some. Call it seaweed or call it kelp, I’d like to think of it as saltwater spinach and when its cooked up right, it’s better than the original.
“My, the meals we would have, my wife and I: lobster, shellfish and clams, baked, boiled and barbequed, chowder, seafood salad and fish patties – the whole works. Some things like sea urchin, you might not like until you taste them. That’s how I was at first, but when I caught on to the technique and knew what to look for, I couldn’t get enough of them. Sometimes, I’d stuff myself as bad as Petunia, but I was a happy man, contented with my lot.
Captain Haskell next recounted a rescue of a sinking boat in the fog that ran aground on the island, and how Rosie the seal was able to pull a ring buoy with a line out to the men onboard who offered her fish. The sailors snapped up the line with the grappling hook and used it to set up a breeches buoy to get to shore. But within a short time following the exciting rescue, the Captain’s life at Anacapa Island Lighthouse came to an end.
“A couple of weeks after the shipwreck, I spotted a familiar vessel in the channel. It was the Coast Guard cutter come to pay us a visit. My wife always appreciated these calls. The boys brought her dress patterns, and things like needles and thread, what my wife called the necessities. The cutter came on a regular schedule like this, bringing us all our supplies. I was always glad to see the boys. It gave me a chance to talk to somebody and hear the news from the mainland.
“I was telling the young lieutenant about the rescue, and suddenly, I could see that he wasn’t easy about something. Then, he handed me some official-looking papers. Well, I didn’t need my telescope. RETIREMENT, it said, in big black letters. I have to confess, that sort of took the wind out of my sails. The old help was about to be beached at last.
“I had one small consolation. They weren’t getting rid of me for someone else. They were bringing in a new kind of light. One that didn’t need a keeper – a fully automatic thing that didn’t have to think. I wondered if it would ever rescue anybody like me and Rosie did?
“I swear I had no hand in it but you’d have thought I organized a campaign of outright sabotage, the things that happened after that.
Captain Haskell clearly enjoyed narrating how Petunia flew in and hit the switch to reverse the derrick boom that was lifting the new light, which caused it drop down in the ocean. Ajax the goat ate the survey marker flags and knocked over the surveying tripod. He then butted the service cart filled with lumber down one of the rocky slopes, which sent the Coast Guard crew chasing after it. But eventually, the new light was installed and it was time for everyone to depart, including the Haskells.
“My wife and I knew our days on the island were numbered. The new light was finally finished and that meant our departure was near. It was kind of a sad moment to think on and I knew my wife felt it, too. I made one last round on the island just to say goodbye to my friends. Moving day came at last. We were picked up bodily you might say, the whole kit and kaboodle and plunked down aboard ship, and off we went to our new life on the mainland.
“And that’s how the old light was shut down- the original lighthouse that had been there for so long. I guess you could say it’d been retired, too. The new one worked all alone in the darkness with nobody around to take care of it- that thing without a soul- kind of like a mechanical heart.”
A True-Life Adventure
Such was the tale narrated by Captain Moses M. Haskell of his years at Anacapa Island Lighthouse, as shown in the Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color episode titled, “The Not So Lonely Lighthouse Keeper” that aired on September 17, 1967.
Anyone who saw that episode might have thought it was a nice story of fiction, but in reality, the storyline was mostly true. There was even a real lighthouse keeper named Captain Moses M. Haskell, who served at Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine from 1844 until sometime prior to his death from tuberculosis in 1849 at the young age of 44. Why the character in the Disney episode was named after him is entirely unknown, and there is no evidence that his middle name was McGonagall, but clearly, whomever wrote the script wanted to pay homage to him.
The show, filmed almost entirely on Anacapa Island, appears to have been a collaborative venture between Walt Disney Productions and a small film company, Grey Owl Productions, whose producer-director, Jack Couffer, was known for making animal documentary television shows. While Couffer and his crew captured two seals from the waters near San Miguel Island and trained them for their part in the show, Disney sent a crew to Anacapa Island where the lighthouse and Coast Guard sequences were filmed. Actual keepers, who were stationed at the lighthouse, were used for several scenes in the story.
Seaman Ralph E. Lewis, who was 20 at the time and on his first assignment out of boot camp, was chosen to appear in five scenes during the lighthouse automation sequences. When he was interviewed by the Independent Press Telegram in 1967, he recounted how, “In one scene, I’m at the controls of the main cargo boom above our boat landing, hoisting what is supposed to be a standby light, when one of the stars of the show – a trained pelican – arrives on the set.
“Well, just as the script called for, this little character wings over my shoulder and deposits himself right in the middle of the control panel, and the light is promptly deep-sixed. If that ever happened while I was actually on duty, I might have a rough time explaining myself at a mast.”
There were several scenes filmed of lightkeeper Haskell at the lighthouse, both inside the keeper’s dwelling and up in the tower, using a telescope out on the lantern deck and cleaning the 3rd order Fresnel lens, which actually was manufactured in England in 1931 and not in France in 1883 as was mentioned in the script.
But just like in the film, there were days in real life that the workload was quite light for the Coastguardsmen stationed there. According to Seaman Lewis, “Surprisingly, the light, itself, demands little upkeep. I did have to repaint the interior of the tower recently, but usually, it’s a matter of keeping the brightwork (brass) around the lens polished, and replacing a bulb now and then.”
So, as depicted in the film, on easy maintenance days, the men could go out and about the island to do some of their own “marketing” as Captain Haskell called it. Lewis commented that, “For fishing, you couldn’t ask for a better locale. Once you find your spot among all the seals and other assorted sunbathers, the perch and bass reel in nice and easy. I also put out a couple of homemade traps when lobster is in season.
“The water is deep and crystal clear around most of the island. It’s ideal for skindiving, and two of us go out spearfishing perhaps two or three times a week off Batray Cove. Halibut and rock cod are especially plentiful between 25 and 30 feet.” However, Lewis did note that the diving could be hampered by the sea lions. “They invariably move in and snuggle up just when you’re ready to make a kill. Those are the times you’re tempted to give filet of sea lion a try.”
When back on normal duty, the Anacapa Island Lighthouse crew would take shifts monitoring the marine distress frequencies from the station’s AM-FM transceiver and relay the message to the Coast Guard base at Port Hueneme, who would send rescue boats out. According to EM3 Robert Imhoff, another Coast Guard keeper stationed there at the time, the Anacapa crew could not participate in watercraft rescues at sea because all they had was a small station dinghy which was not suitable to take out during adverse weather.
However, that didn’t stop the keepers from swimming out near the shore to offer assistance, if absolutely necessary, even if they had to rappel down the 250-foot cliff face to do it, such as had actually happened during one memorable rescue in 1964. Seaman Ralph Lewis further mentioned that in the previous two years he had been there, the crew had monitored perhaps a dozen search and rescue cases and the keepers were able to directly assist in nearly half of them.
So, the shipwreck scene in the film was somewhat accurate in that the only boat Captain Haskell had at his disposal was the small station dinghy, but he was still able to assist in making rescues. He is shown in several scenes rowing around in the real one that Disney borrowed from the station, with “Coast Guard” clearly seen on its stern and its hull identification number on the prow.
An Automated Ending
But perhaps the biggest similarity between the fictional Disney episode and real Anacapa Island Lighthouse existence was the portrayal of automation that was actually happening during the time the film was being made. Anacapa was one of the two dozen or so lights across the country that was targeted to be automated by 1970 as part of the U.S. Treasury’s cost-cutting program.
An article in The San Francisco Examiner on April 23, 1967 stated: “Presently our boys are withdrawing from a number of remote Coast Guard lighthouses across the nation as the federal government automates stations, leaving only machinery and electronic gear amid birds and weeds . . . The Anacapa story will soon be paralleled at nearby lighthouses. The Farallon Islands, Point Sur, Point Reyes, Pigeon Point and Point Montara are stations scheduled to be automated and thereupon handed back to the sea lions by 1970, assuming that fog detected equipment has been perfected and finances arranged by then.”
In the 1967 Independent Press Telegram article, BM1 David M. Homchick, officer-in-charge of the station at Port Hueneme, confirmed that “the five-phase automation program for the station is moving along at a brisk pace. Begun by 11th Coast Guard District engineers in last May, the project is expected to cost $70,000. Already installed are two new generators to power the main light and fog signal, a marker radiobeacon, remote controlled monitoring hardware beamed toward the Port Hueneme rescue station and alarm-activated chain link fencing enclosing the 85-foot light tower and fog horn structure.”
“Our engineering people in Long Beach estimate we’ll save $30,000 the first year after automating and $20,000 a year thereafter,” revealed Homchick. “At that rate, they figure the actual automation will pay for itself in seven years.”
Yet to be completed at that point was the additional fencing around the island’s boat landing and cargo boom, along with the demolition of all structures on the island with the exception of the light, fog signal and small oil storage building. Two of the four keepers would be permanently reassigned to the Port Hueneme station, where they could monitor Anacapa’s remote-control equipment. There would be no need for the station’s 3000-gallon-per-week fresh water to be brought out in addition to saving 10,000 gallons on diesel fuel delivered biannually.
According to Seaman Lewis, “Our engineering people say if all the gear continues to perform without incident for another few weeks, the need for watchstanders will be terminated. I suppose it’s just another example of machine replacing man.”
And just like in the film, Lewis joined Captain Haskell in his sentiments on having to leave his island home and wondering if he would be able to adapt to life onshore once again. “I’ll really miss this place. The peaceful atmosphere, fresh air and an ocean on all sides can’t help but change your style of living after nearly three years. I only hope I can adjust to civilization again.”
Unfortunately, the fictional Captain Haskell wasn’t able to. He related in the film that he and his wife rented an apartment “in one of those stone beehives you’d find, but we couldn’t stand to stay cooped up in it. My wife had her errands- the beauty parlor and all that sort of thing and I had mine, such as they were. I’d meander along the beachfront like a ship without a sail. I tried to get interested in the checker games but my mind was back on the island. I studied the college kids getting their suntans, the beach athletes doing their stuff but I didn’t find much that was for me. All these people in the water- I kept wishing they were sea lions. They didn’t know the half of surfing. I realized I was surrounded by people- a whole swarming sea of humanity and I’d never been lonelier in my life.”
But a Disney film couldn’t end on such a negative note. So, in a rather bizarre twist that made for a happy ending that turned out to be prophetic as far as the lighthouse and island were concerned, Captain Moses M. Haskell was brought back to Anacapa Island as a ranger for the National Park Service, where he could live with his animals indefinitely and take care of them.
In real life, according to a National Park Service historic survey, orders had been drawn up “for work to begin October 7, 1968 on such tasks as burning the hoist house on the lower landing, disposing of the lower derrick and hoist equipment, burning the Service Building, converting the power building to emergency quarters for servicing personnel, and burning the Quarters building.”
But two weeks prior to the start of the demolition, N.S. Merrill from the Coast Guard, “received a call from Superintendent Donald M. Robinson, Channel Islands National Monument. Merrill informed him of the Phase Two schedule, and Robinson said the National Park Service would like to assign personnel to the Island and to use the buildings then scheduled for destruction.
“Merrill explained that in the original review of the Board of Survey for the three [keepers’] quarters buildings, the Department of the Interior, U. S. Navy, and other agencies had been contacted and none of the agencies showed any interest in Anacapa. Robinson replied that the administration had changed and that the NPS was now very interested in maintaining personnel in those quarters at Anacapa.”
The island was officially unmanned by the Coast Guard on December 9, 1968 and an agreement was signed in 1970 for joint custody and use of the land, remaining equipment and structures. NPS Rangers, who had been working on Anacapa sporadically up until then, were to live on the island in the keeper’s quarters and the rest of the buildings would be rehabbed.
There is no way that Walt Disney or anyone associated with the production companies could have known all this back in the summer of 1965 when the show was filmed, or even prior to that year when the script was being written. Who knows what influence the show had when it debuted in September of 1967? Perhaps, it gave people working for the Channel Islands National Monument and National Park Service at that time an idea of what could be done with the island’s lighthouse station buildings and equipment for the future if they were saved from destruction.
Anacapa Island officially became part of the newly formed Channel Islands National Park in 1980. The buildings are still there today, housing park personnel, equipment, storage and a visitor center, in which the original Fresnel lens is displayed.
And, as for Captain Moses McGonagall Haskell? He summed it up nicely when he said, “My wife in her best dress and me wearing my new uniform – we rode home in an official Coast Guard helicopter. I was keeping a sharp eye out to see if the old gang was still there because I’d just been made the ranger for a brand-new national monument. Now, these critters were my official responsibility just like old times but with the U.S. Government’s approval.
“There it was – the little old lighthouse – the one landmark you couldn’t miss. It was sure good to see it again. We were home!”
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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