A light and fog-signal on the outer end of the breakwater will be useful to coasters as well as to commerce to and from the present harbor of Wilmington (San Pedro) and which will spring up under the lee of the breakwater. It is expected that the concrete block forming the outer end of the breakwater will be finished in about one year, and it is recommended that the block be subjected to the storms of one year before the superstructure be commenced. The Board estimates that the proposed light and fog-signal, including quarters, can be built for $36,000, and it recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
Congress appropriated the requested amount on March 4, 1911, and by July 1912, the structural steel framework, provided by Llewellyn Iron Works of Los Angeles, was ready for erection on the forty-foot-square pierhead. The lighthouse was built around twelve steel columns and sits at the end of the 9,250-foot San Pedro breakwater. The base of the structure is octagonal and covered with steel plates, while the upper section is cylindrical and built using cement plaster on metal lath. Champion Iron Works of Canton, Ohio provided the helical-bar lantern room and cast-iron parapet for the tower. The twelve columns, covered with pilasters, give the lighthouse a Romanesque feel. Edward L. Woodruff, assistant superintendent of the eighteenth lighthouse district, designed the lighthouse and later received a Phebe Hobson Fowler Architectural Award for his work. No other lighthouse was ever built to this design.
The bottom story of the lighthouse originally housed the station’s fog signal equipment along with water and fuel tanks, and the floor above this contained storage space and a bathroom. The third story housed a kitchen, pantry, and living room, while the fourth story had a bathroom and two bedrooms for the keepers, whose families were housed on shore, and the fifth story had a third bedroom and the watchroom..
A fourth-order bivalve Fresnel lens, purchased from Barbier, Benard, and Turenne of Paris, France, was placed in operation inside the tower’s cylindrical lantern room on March 1, 1913. The lens produced a white flash every fifteen seconds using an incandescent oil-vapor lamp as its illuminating apparatus. The light had a focal plane of seventy-three feet and could be seen for fourteen miles.
The station’s fog signal was a siren connected to a compressor powered by a gas engine. The siren originally emitted three blasts every sixty seconds in this manner: two-second blast, sixteen seconds silence, two-second blast, sixteen seconds silence, four-second blast, twenty seconds silence.
The original plan for the lighthouse was a wooden, square, two-story building like those constructed for Oakland Harbor and Southampton Shoals. Fortunately, the plans were changed and a more stout structure was built, as a wooden structure never would have survived the various forces that seemed bent on destroying the breakwater lighthouse.
Keeper John Olson was the first head keeper placed in charge of the station, and he was helped by two assistants. On November 24, 1913, just eight months after the lighthouse commenced operation, Olson recorded in the logbook: “Second assistant keeper [Philip] Hughes suspended from duty for assaulting the keeper. All keepers are instructed that in the future no distilled or malt liquors are to be brought to this station.”
While multiple head keepers remained at the station for several years, there was a high turnover rate with the assistants. William Stokes spent just two weeks at the station according to Lighthouse Superintendent H. W. Rhodes: “Mr. Stokes, who began work July 1, 1933, is resigning July 15, 1933, for the purposes of returning east with his wife who does not like California.”
An oil house, built of reinforced concrete and anchored to the breakwater, was completed on December 26, 1913, and just a few days later it received an awful pounding. Keeper George D. Jeffrey provided the following account on Monday, January 19, 1914 of a storm that struck the station.
Saturday night and early Sunday morning, during a terrific wind and sea which dashed over lantern, the watch room, living room, and engine room were flooded, and everything movable washed overboard, including launch and skiff. The new oil house is apparently undamaged, though entirely submerged all night.
There is no damage to this building as far as I can see, though it received an awful shaking. So severe were the shocks that it broke two mantles on light...and about half emptied the base of lens of mercury, spattering over lantern and downstairs. Expected any minute to have lens topple over, and at one time had grave doubts of building standing. By keeping one man as near lens as was safe, managed to keep light burning and lens moving.
Keeper Irving Conklin was head keeper at the lighthouse in the 1930s, and during this decade, he provided curious reporters numerous stories, some of which might be exactly that … stories. Conklin related that the tower could be a bit spooky with gales creating sounds similar to shrieks and screams, and waves around the base of the sounding like unearthly sobs and moans. “One time about 4 o’clock in the morning I thought there really were spooks here,” Conklin said. “I was sitting up in the watchroom reading a magazine. Suddenly I heard a voice, or thought I did. Then another voice came on, as if it was answering the first. I went down below and looked at the radio, and it was turned off. The other keepers were asleep and there was no one on the breakwater. I went back to the watchroom and started to read. Pretty soon I heard a noise as if someone were laughing and another voice chimed in. They sounded like high feminine voices. This went on for five minutes and then I gave up. I was going to find out what the noises really were.”
After hunting around, Conklin discovered a half dozen women talking and joking around the base of the tower. Turns out they were sailors’ sweethearts who had come out to watch the fleet steam into port at daybreak.
For five days in February 1931, the lighthouse was battered by large breakers, spawned by a gale. After being trapped inside the tower for ten days, Keeper Conklin and his assistants reportedly dropped a plumb line from the lantern gallery, proving their suspicion that the storm had given the tower a slight lean shoreward. The tower’s lean is more likely due to the uneven settling of the land beneath the foundation block.
In another incident, Conklin claims that a keeper was startled one night, when a tremendous blow was delivered to the base of the tower. Scrambling to the window, the amazed keeper saw the silhouette of a large Navy ship, which had rammed the breakwater. The ship was said to have received damage to its hull and propeller and had to make a trip to Mare Island for repairs. While several vessels, including the errant battleship Oklahoma did strike the breakwater, it hasn’t been verified that any of them actually struck the lighthouse.
Long Beach was hit by an earthquake in 1933 that killed 115 people. Keeper Conklin reported that during the magnitude 6.4 temblor the lighthouse shook violently for about twenty seconds and that mercury slopped out of the pool used to float the lens, but no significant damage was done to the tower.
In 1965-1966, Raymond Wlascinski was stationed at Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, where he was in charge of equipment maintenance. Wlascinski provided this black and white photograph of the lighthouse, noting that the building on the far left was used for paint and oil storage, while the two-story building adjacent to the lighthouse contained sleeping quarters for the crew. According to Wlascinski, the foghorns mounted atop the building would “shake your innards,” if you got too close.
A welcome relief to the keepers’ daily chores arrived at the lighthouse one day in the form of a frisky California harbor seal that the crewmen named Charlie. The three-foot-long seal, probably about eight or nine months old, just climbed up the rocks one day, shortly after New Year’s in 1966, and made his way into the engine room.
In a newspaper article entitled “Charlie Good (Light) Housekeeping Seal,” Wlascinski was quoted as saying, “Lighthouse keeping can be lonely and tedious at times and spirits sure do peak up around here when that little critter comes calling.” During off-duty hours, the keepers would fish from the breakwater rocks to provide Charlie his next meal. Charlie was fond of bonito and rock bass, but when fresh fish wasn’t available, he quickly acquired a taste for bread, ham, and frozen fish sticks. In this photograph Raymond Wlascinski has his hand on Charlie, while Dave Aikens offers the seal a tasty morsel.
Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse has experienced several changes over the years. A radiobeacon was placed in commission at the station on May 21, 1926. As the community and “light noise” on the hills behind the lighthouse grew, a green translucent cover was placed over the lens in 1932 to change the characteristic from flashing white to flashing green. The old deep-throated two-tone fog horn, affectionately known to locals as “Moaning Maggie,” was replaced by a higher-pitched single-tone horn in 1959. The new horn, nicknamed “Blatting Betty,” was disliked by local mariners for years. The last major change for the lighthouse came January 1, 1973, when the lighthouse was automated. The final keepers departed thirty days later.
The original fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in September 1987, when a modern beacon was installed in the lantern room and the lighthouse became the first in the state to run on solar power. The lens was donated to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in February 1990 and can be seen on display there today.
Not wanting everyone aboard the cruise ships and other vessels that sail into the harbor to be welcomed by a “rust bucket of a lighthouse,” the Cabrillo Beach Booster Club launched a project to restore the tower. The group applied for and received funding from the Port of Los Angeles, thanks to a large settlement with a Chinese shipping company. Under a $1.8 million renovation that started in October 2011, the tower was encapsulated and sandblasted, and a zinc coating was added to reinforce the tower's steel base. The stucco that covers the upper two-thirds of the lighthouse was also repaired and painted. This work wrapped up just in time for the lighthouse’s centennial.