Editor’s note: Rarely do we encounter such a complete archive on the life of any lighthouse keeper than what has been preserved concerning Walter White. While living, he documented much of his life experience and career through 100s of photos, reports, letters, interviews, and scrapbooks. What follows in this article are his own words, as well as reminisces and writings from his daughters, LaVerne Dornberger and Beatrice Reineke, his two granddaughters, Betty Westby and Carol Hill, with additions by Lighthouse Digest historian, Debra Baldwin. The accompanying photos, many never published before, have been generously shared from multiple White family descendants.
On October 30, 1934, the Ventura County Star ran an article on the Point Hueneme Lighthouse in California. It began: “Tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Hueneme lives a genial little man in an enormous house. Both have but a single purpose in life – to guide ships safely through the entrance to the Santa Barbara channel. The house is the Point Hueneme lighthouse station. The man is its keeper, Walter White, family man, ex-seaman, watchdog of the channel.”
This was the last location where Walter White would serve during his impressive civilian U.S. Lighthouse Service career which spanned 44 years, in which he had been stationed “in such places as Lime Point, Point Arena, Piedras Blancas, Pt. Arguello, and Point Montara, lighthouses.” Walter recollected, “I have been in all kinds of vessels. From yachts to four-masted ships, and from tow boats to liners, ending up in light vessels and lighthouses….my life has been continual sea service.” But Walter White did not start his exciting seafaring adventures here.
Beginnings at Sea 1880 – 1906
Born in London on June 21, 1880, Walter stowed away on a four-masted sailing ship when he was only 13 years old. As the ship sailed down the Thames, Walter emerged from his hiding place and the pilot, who was still onboard, took him back ashore and put him on onboard another ship, where he sailed the seven seas for the next two years. When he returned to his family in London, he was taken “by the ear” to Trafalgar Square to the Marine Society office to join the Warspite, a marine training school for young boys. He was “Warspite Boy 73.”
After his training was completed in 1897, Walter spent the next seven years on nine different British coastal and foreign trade steamships and sailing vessels, and ended up in San Francisco in August of 1903. The chief officer of his last ship, the S.S. Minnewaska, gave him a letter of recommendation, which stated that Walter “has proved himself to be sober, industrious and attentive to his duties and I can recommend him to anyone deserving the services of a good, reliable man; he leaves of his own accord to better himself.”
That betterment meant joining the U.S. Lighthouse Service by February of 1904. Walter’s first official appointment was as a seaman on the San Francisco LV-70. Within a month of being on the lightship, he was to experience a horrific storm which broke the lightship’s moorings and almost cost him and the rest of the crew their lives. They battled the heavy seas for more than a day before finally making it to shore. However, that brush with death did not deter him from continuing on. He had probably seen worse in his previous decade of long ocean voyages.
The San Francisco LV-70 was stationed three miles off the San Francisco bar. During his shore leaves, Walter would go into the infamous red-light district of the Barbary Coast where he watched an interesting form of entertainment. According to a 1951 article where Walter was interviewed, as published in the Paradise Post, “White had as a hobby watching fights, not prize fights but the fights sailors get into ashore. In the old days, he used to frequent the Barbary Coast when in San Francisco. He was not a drinking man, he says, but he liked to go into a bar, order a soft drink, and wait for a fight to start.”
The article went on to give Walter White’s account of the Great San Francisco Earthquake in February of 1906, while he was still serving on board LV-70. “White saw [the earthquake] from a lightship, which was at the dock for its monthly overhaul. Everything was shaking, even the ferry building was swaying. At 11AM there was a second quake. They could see fire break out but there were no fire engines because the water mains were broken and there was no water. Thirty or 40 refugees were taken aboard his ship.”
Two months following the earthquake, Walter left the lightship for terra firma with a letter of recommendation in his pocket from William Kenealy, master of LV-70, stating that Walter White “now leaves at his own request. I take great pleasure in recommending him as a sober, steady and industrious man, strictly honest in all matters, hoping this testimony may be of some service to him in any other business in which he may wish to engage.”
Point Arena Light and Point Cabrillo Light 1906 – 1913
Walter stayed with the U.S. Lighthouse Service in District 12 and acted as a substitute keeper at Roe Island Light and an engineer at Lime Point Light in the San Francisco area for a few months. His next assignment was as an engineer to the construction crew tasked with the removal and rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged Point Arena Lighthouse and keepers’ dwellings.
Of that experience, Walter wrote: “The concrete was made by hand and put in a wheelbarrow and hoisted by mule up an elevator. I wheeled the wheelbarrows into the forms from the ground to the top of the tower; that means I wheeled the whole concrete tower in a wheelbarrow.
“I worked nearly two years for the Engineer Department on Point Arena Light station. After completion I had a pick of going to Point Cabrillo Light station or Alcatraz Island to build new lighthouses, so I preferred Point Cabrillo Station, Mendocino County, and worked on the new station.”
Walter also served back on San Francisco LV-70 for fifteen months starting in December of 1907. His seafaring days were drawing to a close, however, because while working at Point Arena, Walter had met Frances (Frankie) Willits, who was a telephone operator there. He courted her for over two years, mostly while he was still on LV-70, and they married on April 12, 1909, within a month of his leaving the lightship for good. He remained with her at Point Arena, still working on various lighthouse-related engineering jobs in the area for the next four years. During this time, his two oldest children were born: LeRoy in 1910 and Richard in 1912.
Apparently, with the expansion of his family, Walter White decided it was time for a more settled life, so after almost a decade of many different types of jobs in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, both on land and sea, Walter received his first permanent appointment as a 3rd assistant lighthouse keeper at Piedras Blancas Lighthouse near San Simeon, over 300 miles down the California coast from Point Arena.
Piedras Blancas Light
1913 – 1916
San Simeon was the location of the Hearst family ranch, where newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst would eventually build Hearst Castle from 1919 to 1947; but back in 1913, it was still just a 40,000-plus-acre, windswept ranchland where William’s parents, George and Phoebe Hearst, had taken William for vacations on Camp Hill when he was young. In fact, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse shares its name with the Piedra Blanca Rancho, the name Spanish explorers had given the location with “white rocks” prior to George Hearst’s purchase of the land in 1865.
Walter White’s granddaughter, Betty, remembers him talking about using binoculars from the lighthouse six miles away to view the various camping caravans the Hearst family would take up to the site. Walter was friends with Phoebe Hearst and the Whites bought eggs and milk from her at the ranch when she was there. She taught Walter how to deliver a baby just in case the doctor was late, which ended up being a reality as Walter brought his third child, Beatrice, into the world at Piedras Blancas Lighthouse in 1914.
Point Arguello Light
1916 – 1920
In 1916, Walter received a promotion to 2nd assistant keeper upon transferring to Point Arguello Lighthouse, 50 miles back up the coast, north of San Simeon. Family lore says that it was Walter who coined the name “Arlight” for the small community that sprung up near the lighthouse, and among his normal lightkeeping duties, he served as the postmaster there for three years.
Walter’s daughter, Beatrice, recounted to the Chico Enterprise-Record in 1986 that it was a restricted area when the family first arrived, as World War I was imminent. “We had a radio station and sailors and soldiers stationed there.” Beatrice remembered the electric barbed-wire fence around the perimeter of the station with guards on duty twenty-four hours a day.
“I remember walking with my folks one day and Richard and our dog ran ahead and crawled under the electric fence. My parents didn’t dare yell at him as he probably would have stopped and looked up and electrocuted himself. I remember the tears of joy when they had him in their arms again.”
A fond memory Beatrice recalled at Point Arguello Lighthouse centered around family picnics. Relatives from San Francisco would make the 300-mile trek down the coast by train to join in the fun. “The picnics were mussel bakes on the beach. The men would collect the mussels and boil them in a large pot over a hot fire. The meat was delicious.” One of the games the kids played was “Chicken on the Rocks.” Beatrice explained, “When the tide went out, we would go all the way to the end of the reef and then race the waves back. One slip and we could have drowned.”
Beatrice also spoke of the grocery delivery once a month by train from San Luis Obispo. “The family would gather around, while the boxes were being opened. There were always a lot of goodies. Strawberry ice cream in long cylinder-shaped boxes, a gunny sack of walnuts, sacks of flour – everything to last a month. . . Christmases at Arguello were always a big event for us. I think we had about every toy available from the ‘Monkey’ [Montgomery] Wards catalog.”
After four years, it was time for another promotion and change of venue. Walter White accepted a transfer as 1st assistant keeper to Point Montara Lighthouse, which was only 20 miles south of San Francisco. This must have been a highly anticipated move, since it meant being closer to all the conveniences and commerce of a large city besides being closer to extended family.
Point Montara Light
1920 – 1927
At Point Montara Lighthouse, the head keeper, Patrick J. Dempsey, lived on the first floor and Walter White and his family lived on the second floor. Beatrice remembered that all the family had to take their shoes off at the front door and wear house slippers while inside. There was no running through the rooms, loud talking or slamming doors allowed. “If there was any noise, the head keeper would use a broom handle and bang on his ceiling. To this day, if anyone slams a door, I about go out of my mind,” she recalled.
At Point Montara, there was a private beach and Beatrice’s school friends would come visit to collect shells and play with crabs on the rocks. Beatrice collected sea urchins that she used to make a plethora of pin cushions out of for her mother. She would dry, clean and stuff them; she laughed as she recalled, “My mother sure had the pin cushions. She didn’t have the heart to say, ‘no more.’”
There was a lot of sea life in the area and Beatrice once made a pet out of a baby octopus. Another time, an Alaskan northern fur seal pup was stranded on the beach with its mother calling for it from the ocean. The pup was not strong enough to make it back to its mother, so Beatrice rescued it and fed it milk from a bottle. Her family later took it to the Golden Gate Park where it later died, unfortunately.
Walter’s granddaughter, Carol, remembers that Beatrice once found a wolf cub in some bushes while on a family vacation trip to a lumber camp in Mendocino. Beatrice pulled the cub out and they brought him home where Walter kept him tied to the back steps of the keeper’s house. The cub would only accept food from Beatrice and Walter. However, “the wolf had to go when it tried to bite the district inspector.”
Walter White’s youngest daughter, LaVerne, was born at Point Montara in April of 1921. One of her earliest memories was of Walter dressing up as Santa at Christmas. He had on an artificial beard and somehow it caught fire, perhaps as he was lighting the candles on the tree. Shortly after putting out the fire, LaVerne heard Santa running across the roof of the keeper’s dwelling.
While Point Montara was a place of many happy memories for Walter’s young family, it was also a place of tragedy. Granddaughter Betty records, “In May 1922, nine-year-old Richard caught diphtheria. There was not an epidemic at that time. Everyone caught it except Walter and one-year-old LaVerne, who was whisked away to her aunt’s in San Francisco; she stayed there until it was safe to come home. Walter took care of the family. Food was dropped off at the gate because they were in quarantine. Richard died on May 24, 1922 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery, San Mateo County, California.”
Beatrice, who was age eight at the time, later recalled, “The doctor said if he hadn’t arrived when he did, I wouldn’t have made it either.” From that point on, Walter’s wife, Frankie, wanted to move from Point Montara, but it was not until July of 1927 that Walter White was transferred for the last time to Point Hueneme near Ventura in Southern California, where he received a promotion to head keeper.
Point Hueneme Light
1927 – 1948
This was a very enjoyable assignment for Walter and his family. LaVerne was six years old at the time of the move and had many fond memories of growing up there.
She recalled that during high tides, the front yard would flood, so sand was moved to create a dune between the sea and the lighthouse. The hole that was left would fill with saltwater and made the perfect swimming hole. When the grunion were running, they would get trapped in the hole and could be easily caught and then cooked in the barbeque picnic area that Walter and Frankie had made in the sand dunes near the lighthouse, complete with tables. There, they had many memorable gatherings with family and friends over the years.
Parties, especially musical ones with dancing, also took place in the lighthouse. LaVerne recollected that Walter was a very good piano player in addition to playing the concertina, accordion and mandolin, on which he was self-taught. Frances played the mouth harp and harmonica.
LaVerne later wrote, “The old kitchen was huge with plenty of room for an arm chair by the stove, table, chairs, daybed, desk, etc. We did 90% of our living and entertaining in the kitchen. The other two rooms (living and bedroom) were dark, damp and chilly by contrast – the only heat was a fireplace, which was seldom lit.”
Dances would take place in the kitchen since it was warm from the stove and they had the kerosene lamp. Walter’s son, LeRoy, made a table out in the lighthouse carpenter shop and hooked it to the wall so it could be pushed up and out of the way when they wanted to dance.
The grounds of the Point Hueneme Lighthouse became a show place during Walter White’s tenure. He created a park-like atmosphere and landscaped the reservation with whitewashed rocks that he used to line paths and ring trees, flower beds and ponds. As at any lighthouse, painting was a requirement for upkeep and part of the expected duties of a keeper, but Walter excelled in it. He whitewashed everything.
LaVerne wrote, “From the time my dad took over, the buildings were painted white and, as it seemed to me, everything else – rocks, fences, etc. All the fencing around the reservation, as well as the tall solid board fence enclosing the immediate yards were whitewashed at least once or twice a year. The whitewash was made in a large vat in the assistant’s yard.”
Besides the whitewashing, Walter loved to paint everything with aluminum paint – including tools and especially car engines. He painted the grill on LaVerne’s car which she wasn’t too thrilled about. And when Beatrice had a boyfriend over visiting, Walter even painted the engine block of her boyfriend’s car with the paint.
And, of course, his own car got the same special treatment. Walter’s pride and joy was his last car – a 1941 Special Deluxe Chevrolet Coupe, which he bought brand new in Oxnard before he retired. He kept it until the day he died, 27 years later. Walter’s granddaughter, Betty, remembered that the car was always spotless, and that was because Walter dusted it off with a dustmop before taking it out for a spin. He always wore driving gloves when behind the wheel and he didn’t like to drive off main roads or in the rain for fear that the car would get dirty. He always wiped it down at the end of the drive. He maintained it himself; the engine was kept grease free and, of course, was painted with aluminum paint.
Walter’s personality was well-suited to such fastidiousness. He was very outgoing and full of energy, but he was also soft-spoken. LaVerne recollected that he never drank or smoked and he used few swear words. “He had a good work ethic and a fun sense of humor. He was neat and tidy. He was a proud man, a good man!” However, he did love to play practical jokes on the family and visiting boyfriends.
Walter’s granddaughter, Carol, mentions that he had a very “English” type of humor. “I never heard him raise his voice. (I must have behaved myself.) One time, while the family was at the lighthouse for the weekend, I went into the kitchen, and there lay Grandpa on the floor. He had smeared flour on his face, poured ketchup on his shirt, and had his dentures half out of his mouth, just waiting for someone to enter and scare them. He did! He scared me! Oh, what fun!”
Another time, the family was all seated at the kitchen table to eat and Walter brought in a bowl of spaghetti and put it down Beatrice’s back and told her it was worms; and when Beatrice had her boyfriend coming over for dinner, Walter set the table with a roll of toilet paper as a centerpiece to wipe hands on. Beatrice was embarrassed and really mad over it.
But Walter White also looked after his daughter’s best interests. Beatrice recollected one time, when she was about sixteen, “a good-looking young gentleman came by and dad said for me to take him up the tower. At the top of the stairs, there was a trap door you had to close behind you so you wouldn’t fall back down while up there.
“He asked to try on my school ring. I let him and then he grabbed me and started kissing me. He wouldn’t give me back my ring, so I opened the trap door and went down and told my dad. He grinned and waited for the young man as that was the only exit. I got my ring back and that was the last time I ever took a visitor up.”
Keeper White’s pranks didn’t just extend to the family. Granddaughter Betty recounted what Walter did to his assistant, Lewis Oppel, who served at Point Hueneme Lighthouse from 1933 to 1935. “Lew loved to watch the women. He lived upstairs and would watch the nudists and the women on the beach. He also liked to take the women on a tour through the lighthouse. Knowing this, Grandpa would dress up in women’s clothes (big coat, high heel shoes, etc.) and walk up the walk; Lew would rush down to escort him through the lighthouse. Grandpa would give himself away by breaking out laughing.
“Another story is that the nudists liked to come to the large sand dunes that were built in front of the lighthouse, out by the fog signal. The waves used to come up in the yard and the new dunes would help block the waves. The nudists would sun bathe out in the dunes. Grandpa would sneak out and start the fog horn which would scare the nudists and they would jump up and run away. Lew would get out on his balcony with his binoculars to spy on them. Lew’s wife would also come out on the balcony and Lew would tell her ‘get down; get down!’”
Beyond the nudists, the lighthouse had many visitors – so much so that there was signage posted notifying them of designated visiting hours – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 2 to 4 PM. Walter, or whomever his assistant was at the time, would show them through the lighthouse; no family members were allowed to act as guides.
Betty recounted: “The visitors were an intrusion to the family’s privacy as they walked through the house to go up to the light; they also peeked in the windows. And people below needed to be careful on visitor day because the children who went up into the tower to see the light liked to spit over the railing.” In fact, one newspaper printed that “White’s greatest grief is to have a bunch of school children as visitors. They rush up the tower, but don’t look at the light. They want to see how far they can spit.”
Since it was frequented by the public, the lighthouse needed to be inspection-worthy at all times. Formal inspections were always announced, but the family did extra cleaning and polishing to be ready for those visits. Betty wrote that there were three different inspectors, though Captain Rhodes, the district superintendent, was the main inspector. “There were two others under him that took turns visiting. One was a white glove inspector, actually wearing white gloves and wiping over the doors, window sills, etc. They also checked in the refrigerator just making sure everything was clean.”
The inspectors must have liked what they saw because Point Hueneme Lighthouse, under Walter White’s fastidiousness and attention to detail, won the efficiency star three years running, from 1937 to 1939, and received the commissioner’s star as a result in 1939. Walter took great pride in flying the official Lighthouse Pennant that year.
Walter’s granddaughter, Carol, remembers how neat and organized everything was during her visits there as a child every summer. When the new Point Hueneme Lighthouse was built in 1940, “garages were built with a separate room across the back for the station’s tools. There was a long work bench and on the wall behind the bench, Grandpa had named a place for each tool to hang, like wrenches, etc. He was a very tidy man and everything was in its place. I’m sure this “in its place” thing came from being at sea for many years on tall sailing vessels, where every rope and wooden pin must be in its proper spot, when not in use.”
Carol also recollected that in addition to keeping regular logbooks, Walter White kept a weather log to track and report the weather and rainfall totals to the Oxnard Daily Courier. One 1939 newspaper article commented: “And how does the keeper determine the weather conditions at night? The uncanny but nonetheless truthful explanation given by White is: ‘My 30 years’ experience as a lightkeeper has endowed me with an innate sense of feeling. I can ‘feel’ the weather just like an old sea captain can ‘smell’ an iceberg miles away, to use an old salt slang expression.”
When World War II came a few years later, there were troop ships coming in and out of Hueneme harbor, as the Navy had taken over the area. The entrance channel was narrow, so the ships going past the lighthouse were close. Carol would go out and wave to the service men onboard, and they would wave back. LaVerne mentioned that the Coast Guard “boys” taught her semaphore and patiently held “conversations” with her.
Carol recounted one of the stories Walter had told her that happened to him during WWII “that was scary. He was driving down the coast at night on an errand. There were two sailors thumbing for a ride (he had always picked up service men needing a ride), so he picked them up. They squeezed into the back seat of the coupe and he started driving. They pulled a gun and told him to keep driving.
“Grandpa had his uniform on; his cap was lying on the passenger’s seat. As he drove south, he was approaching a Navy base, so he grabbed his cap, put it on while swinging the car to the guard gate of the entrance of the base, and shouted to the guard, ‘Arrest these men!’ Grandpa and the rest of our family never picked up service men again during the War.”
Retirement 1948 – 1968
Walter White served at Point Hueneme Lighthouse until November 30, 1948. He had originally planned to retire in 1945 the age of 65, but had stayed on because of the War. He and Frankie left California and moved to their retirement home on Vashon Island in Washington to be near LaVerne.
Walter’s granddaughter, Betty, wrote: “Over the years, he planted beautiful flower gardens surrounded by rock borders, which he whitewashed. The sides of his driveway were lined with whitewashed rocks. He had a whitewashed flagpole. He flew the U.S. flag daily. When visiting his daughter on Sundays, he left to be home to take down the flag by sundown. He planted berry bushes and fruit trees. His garage was as neat as a pin and spotless; his car was spotless.
“There was a chicken coop on the property and he cleaned it out, whitewashed it, and turned it into a storage place/cabin. The inside of the outhouse was whitewashed. Yes, the outhouse. He always wore a tie and his shoes were shined. He said you could tell about a man by the shine on his shoes. And he always wore a hat…. You can see that he lived his retired life as he had lived his 35 years as a lighthouse keeper.”
Walter lost his beloved Frankie to a heart attack in 1958. Soon afterwards, he hired a housekeeper, Delores (Lorrie) Hodgson, who was a Londoner like himself, to cook and clean for him. She was many years younger than Walter, but they still had a lot in common. She cooked the dishes that he had remembered his mother cooking when he was a boy.
He ended up marrying her in 1960, however, he never got over the death of Frankie. In letters written in 1967 to his son LeRoy and his wife, Walter reflected: “It’s a very sad thing to lose a loved one, and it’s only those that really knows what it is all about, comes very hard. I had mine, sorrow cannot be explained, its everlasting…. I miss Ma very much. I have my bad days, but there’s nothing I can do to bring Ma back, so I have to suffer with my thoughts, and it’s very hard.”
When Walter White was 88 years old, he suffered a heart attack and was taken to the Marine Hospital in Seattle. He passed away a few days later on November 22, 1968. He is laid to rest in the beautiful Memorial Garden of the Episcopal Church on Vashon Island, Washington.
The 1934 newspaper had gotten it right. Walter White truly was a genial man, a family man and an ex-seaman. But he will always be remembered best for his greatest role and service to others as the watchdog of the channel and keeper of the light.
This story appeared in the
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