“When the sound of a signal on Lime Point is once picked up anywhere outside the harbor or off the city front,” the Board claimed, “it can be steered for directly, and with confidence, until it is so close aboard that it can be made in the thickest weather; and then the position can be determined with such accuracy that a straight course can be laid either to the city or to the sea.”
The fog signal was placed in operation on September 10, 1883, with Reinhold Holzhuter serving as the first head keeper and Patrick J. Quinlan as the first assistant keeper. That first autumn, it was found that the spring could not furnish an adequate water supply so a pipe was extended to a second spring. Heavy rains during the first winter triggered a landslide that damaged the water tank and led to its being moved to the top of the bluff near the springs, some 1,800 feet from the fog signal.
The hungry boilers could consume over ninety tons of coal a year, at a rate of 180 pounds per hour when the signal was in operation. In an attempt to save money, the boilers were converted in 1902 from coal to oil. The crude oil was fed into a burner at high pressure, mixed with steam, and the resulting minute particles were then set on fire. The cost of operating the signal for a twenty-four hour period fell from $25.44 to $6.91, and the oil had the added advantage of producing less smoke.
Light stations, which may or may not have included a fog signal, were much more common than fog signal stations. However, fog posed a very serious danger to vessels, especially near San Francisco, and in the late 1800s, fog signal stations were established at Año Nuevo, Point Montara, Lime Point, and Point Knox. A light was added at Año Nuevo in 1890, and a decade later, it was decided that the keepers at the remaining three fog signal stations should also exhibit a light. Accordingly, on November 26, 1900, lens lanterns were lighted at the three stations, and California now had three new lighthouses. The lens lantern at Lime Point was hung on the southeast corner of the fog-signal building’s gallery, where it was nineteen-and-a-half feet above the water.
John McKenna, who replaced Reinhold Holzhuter as head keeper in 1901, was returning to the station on December 22, 1902, after a day of Christmas shopping in San Francisco, when he fell down an embankment and was killed. “In some manner which will never be known,” read the article announcing the keeper’s death, “McKenna missed his footing and fell about fifteen feet, striking his head on the rocks, fracturing his skull.” Keeper McKenna was forty-seven and had previously served as an assistant keeper at Point Bonita and Point Reyes.
Peter C. Nelson, the next head keeper, had the longest tenure of any of the station’s keepers, serving on the point for an amazing twenty-eight years. Captain Nelson kept an active eye on the station’s surroundings with his trusty telescope. In September 1909, he spied three young men in a sailboat who had lost their sail and had been swept by the tide out to Mile Rocks Lighthouse. Using their oars, the young men were struggling to make it back into the bay, and as darkness fell they were just nearing Lime Point. Keeper Nelson cheered them on through a megaphone and told them he would call for the lifesaving crew at Fort Point. The observant keeper was credited with saving the lives of the three young men.
Keeper Nelson found himself in need of assistance in April 1913, when he lost his balance and fell into the bay while whitewashing the lighthouse. If the tide had been ebbing, Nelson would have likely been swept out to sea and drowned, but Assistant Keeper Edward Wiborg and a party of soldiers from nearby Fort Baker were able to pluck him from the water.
Each of the station’s two keepers was required to stand two alternate, six-hour shifts a day. In 1923, the keepers were given the added responsibility of maintaining a minor light placed on Point Diablo, 1.2 miles west of Lime Point.
Being located at the base of a steep cliff at the foot of the Marin hills, the station witnessed several landslides and mudslides, which caused minor damage to the station and often closed the trail to Sausalito. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake wrecked the station’s large water tank, necessitating the construction of a new 30,000-gallon redwood tank atop ten concrete piers.
When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937, a foghorn and light were placed at the base of the bridge’s south tower, making Fort Point Lighthouse unnecessary. The station at Lime Point was located just east of the base of the north tower and remained an effective position for a light and foghorn. Even with the massive, lighted bridge and active fog signals, navigating the Golden Gate in foggy conditions could still be tricky. On June 3, 1960, the 440-foot freighter India Bear wandered off course and rammed the concrete causeway leading to the station, even though the fog signal was sounding. “I thought the bridge had come down,” said Nieves Saldate, the coastguardsman in charge of the station who was busy clearing his dinner dishes when the collision occurred. The ship received $60,000 of damage in the form of a crushed bow, while the station just lost an outhouse, which the Coast Guard was already planning on removing. After assessing the damage, the India Bear headed back to the Todd Yards in Alameda where it had just undergone repairs.
In 1959, the station had received another unexpected visitor just a week before Christmas, and it wasn’t Santa Claus. I’m not sure exactly what a burglar was expecting to steal from a light station, but the coastguardsmen manning the station that night found themselves looking down the barrel of a .22 caliber pistol. The robber shot the top off a ketchup bottle and put a slug into a wall telephone to show he was serious before ordering the men to hand over all their cash and taking a .45 automatic from a desk drawer. Prior to retreating down the station’s dark road, the intruder warned “the first one who sticks his head out gets shot.” Willard Salberg, the perpetrator, was arrested about an hour after the incident in a San Francisco bar where he was threatening an Army captain with his newly acquired .45.
Lime Point was automated in July 1961, and the three-story dwelling and other outbuildings were torn down. All that remains of the station today is the pocked fog signal building, which mostly goes unnoticed by the throngs of tourists that come to admire the impressive art deco bridge towering overhead.