Captain Joshua K. Card here, tending the light and fog bell at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station here in my hometown of New Castle, New Hampshire. I apologize for not writing any of these columns lately. I’ve been with visits from family members and the usual summer tourists looking for an interesting excursion from Portsmouth, and I’ve also been painting the keeper’s house. Today I want to tell you about a very interesting man who was a keeper on the other side of the country, Robert Decatur Israel at Point Loma in San Diego, California.
Congress authorized lighthouses at several California locations in 1850, including San Diego. The area was sparsely populated at the time, and San Diego was no more than a small village. The city became a popular stopping point for men bound for the Gold Rush to the north, and developers began to realize the potential of the area in the 1850s.
A lighthouse was built on a high bluff at the end of Point Loma on the west side of the entrance to San Diego Harbor, more than 400 feet above the sea. The style chosen was a “Cape Cod-style” building, a one-and-one-half story keeper’s dwelling with a cylindrical lighthouse tower mounted on top. Construction began in April 1854.
Materials were transported by schooner from San Francisco to San Diego. Eighteen men labored for 35 days to construct a road to the work site, and the materials were hauled to the top using beasts of burden. The dwelling was constructed of sandstone quarried nearby, and the tower was made of brick. Tiles salvaged from an old Spanish fort were used for the basement floor. A third-order lens was installed, first lighted by the keeper just before sunset on November 15, 1855.
The light’s best-known keeper was Robert D. Israel, who arrived as an assistant in 1871 at a yearly salary of $300 and advanced to principal keeper two years later. Israel had an eventful life before his light keeping days. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1823. As a young man he apprenticed as a chair maker, but his career was sidetracked with the United States went to war with Mexico.
Israel joined the United States First Regiment of Mounted Riflemen in New Orleans. In 1847, Israel’s company sailed to Lobos Island, Mexico. He took part in the five-day siege at Vera Cruz, defeating General Santa Ana. Israel was honorably discharged after less than two years of service and was granted land in southern California, near San Diego.
Israel arrived in San Diego in early 1850, the same year California became a state. For the next few years Israel worked as a blacksmith, constructing wagons and carriages. He and his Mexican wife, Maria (Alipas), lived in an adobe house on the edge of San Diego’s Old Town.
When he won the assignment as an assistant keeper at Point Loma, Israel moved into the lighthouse with Maria and their three sons. To get drinking water and other supplies, the Israels frequently made a two-hour horse and wagon trip to Old Town. They would fill barrels with water and load them on the wagon. The children rowed to San Diego each day to attend school.
During their time at Point Loma, Robert and Maria Israel made several thousand dollars profit as land speculators, buying and selling property in San Diego. Maria Israel also served as an assistant keeper for about three years, 1873 to 1876. It’s said that she would do her knitting while on watch. She also created delicate flower arrangements and fancy frames made of seashells, which she sold to visitors to the lighthouse in the late 1800s. Three of her creations are on display in the lighthouse today.
Israel found himself in the middle of a local controversy in 1865. A local schoolteacher, Mary Chase Walker, had a black woman friend meet her for lunch at a San Diego hotel. Some of the hotel’s patrons were outraged. Israel, who was a Lincoln Republican and served a school trustee, sided with Walker, who was allowed to keep her job.
In 1891, when a new lighthouse was erected on lower ground because the original light was often obscured by fog, Israel was the first to light the lamp at the new station. At the original station, Israel would sometimes fire a shotgun when it was foggy as a warning to mariners to avoid coming aground as they entered San Diego Harbor.
In 1892, an inspector gave Israel poor grades, writing, “Since the station was moved to its new location, it appears to have gradually gone down.” Israel claimed the report was payback after he didn’t highly recommend the work of a workman the inspector had sent to the station. In any event, Israel was dismissed as keeper in December 1892. He died in early 1908.
Today, after being threatened with demolition at one time, the beautifully restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a popular attraction within the National Park Service’s Cabrillo National Monument.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org