Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas #13: Little Known Cape Mala Light Station

Where was the southernmost light station operated by the United States? Most people would guess the Florida Keys or Hawaii. Lighthouse buffs might guess Navassa Island. Harbour Lights collectors might have the edge in guessing the Panama Canal, if they’re aware that the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard were responsible for aids to navigation there before 1999. But while the answer is related to the Panama Canal, the answer lies nearly a hundred miles further south at Cape Mala. (As far as I can tell, American Samoa only ever had minor aids to navigation and not anything that would be considered a true “light station.”)

Due to the S-curve of the Isthmus of Panama, most ships headed to or from the Panama Canal pass Cape Mala, a.k.a. Punta Mala (Spanish for “Bad Cape”). It is the southeastern corner of the Azuela Peninsula, marking the beginning of the Gulf of Panama. Even today it is in a rural area. Four miles on a dirt road will bring you to Panama Route 2 and a couple more up that road is the nearest town, Pedasi, with only about 2,500 people as of 2020. Yet this is a substantial improvement from the 1950s when the pavement ended at Las Tablas, and the 40 miles of dirt road to Pedasi were only passable by vehicles during the three-month dry season. Back then the last eight miles to Cape Mala were covered on horseback!

Map of Panama, with Cape Mala marked by author. (Wikipedia)

The need for a navigational aid a place called “bad cape” seems self-evident, but the Canal Record newspaper detailed the danger to mariners anyway: “The coast in the vicinity of Cape Mala is low, difficult to see, and devoid of any distinguishing characteristics; besides which there are dangerous outlying reefs and varying currents, which sometimes reach a velocity of 1.5 knots.”

The Panama Canal opened in 1914 and the following summer the Canal Record announced work had begun on the light station, “to be the largest as well as most important of the new aids to navigation” related to the canal. The tug Cocoli transported a barge from Balboa with a work force consisting of five white and 32 “silver” workers. The contractor was American Gas Accumulator Company of Philadelphia, a subsidiary of AGA AB of Sweden. The Cape Mala Light was a 100-foot prefabricated skeletal steel tower with a focal height of 140 feet. It’s unclear if the original tower was enclosed and thus a traditional lighthouse, or if it was more like a very large beacon light. The tower was topped by a lantern that apparently held a first-order Fresnel lens. An acetylene flasher created the characteristic of a five-second flash followed by a fifteen-second eclipse. The lens covered a 270-degree arc, with two red sectors covering the 40 degrees on either edge of the light. The northern red sector also covered Iguana Island and its dangerous reef while the western red sector covered the Fraile Rocks.

With an acetylene timer, the light station may not originally have been manned by the Lighthouse Service. The first keeper was Samuel Donovan, but his dates of service have not yet been determined. He may not have been assigned until a radio beacon was established at the station on September 11, 1929. Donovan married a local woman and settled not far from the light station.

In addition to the light station, the U.S. Navy established Naval Radio Station Cape Mala (call letters NNT) in early 1919 with a five-man crew. This communications, and later direction-finding, station was one of seven naval radio stations in Panama and appears to have been active through the end of World War II.

Cape Mala Light Station
Cape Mala Light Station, circa 1950s.
Radio beacon in the foreground.
Light tower and dwelling further away.
Contrary to the USCGHO caption, there was never a
loran station here, although one was considered.
(US Coast Guard Historian’s Office)

A new 110-foot open-frame steel tower was erected in 1947, featuring a modern aerobeacon with 14,000 candlepower. As of 1954, the light station reservation encompassed 13.7 acres. When operated by the Coast Guard, the light station had a crew of six: four Coast Guard enlisted personnel on one-year of isolated duty and two native civilians. Generators provided all of the station’s electricity.
The Coast Guard crew lived in a large three-story wooden barracks building. Given its size, this was probably originally built for the Naval Radio Station.

The Coast Guard 7th District, headquartered in Miami, was responsible for aids to navigation related to the Panama Canal, including Cape Mala. The result was a light station on the Pacific Ocean being serviced from the Atlantic.

ET2 Archi Smith described his experiences at Cape Mala in the December 1955 issue of Coast Guard Magazine (reprinted in the May-June 2011 issue of Lighthouse Digest). No television or even newspapers. The mosquitoes, sandflies, and especially the snakes were constant problems but “the hunting and fishing can’t be beat.” Smith praised the kindness of the people in Pedasi, which at the time was only a “little village.” The officer in charge (head keeper) in 1955 was BM1 William B. Sparks, who had formerly served on two lightships: St. Johns (Florida) and Savannah (Georgia).

The light station was automated in 1961. The light is apparently still an active aid to navigation – see this modern photo by Theo Hinrichs (thanks to The Lighthouse Directory). Google Satellite Maps shows the old barracks has apparently been remodeled and is still in use, probably as part of the nearby is the Punta Mala Marina. It seems tourism has changed things since the 1950s!

I first became aware of Cape Mala while researching Coast Guard personnel assigned to Jupiter Inlet Light Station. BM1 J Warren Alexander (the J didn’t stand for anything) was Jupiter’s officer in charge (OIC) in the early 1950s and may have been the last OIC at Cape Mala in 1961.

The National Archives should have records on Cape Mala Light Station, particularly in RG 26 Entry 50 Bureau of Lighthouses Correspondence and
RG 26 Entry 381 USCG Station Files. The Coast Guard Historian’s Office apparently has a file as well. Records for the Naval Radio Station will mostly be under Navy records in RG 77 and RG 80.

For all the grand and famous lighthouses we all know and love and try to preserve, there are also many obscure stations like Cape Mala that have a story worth telling.

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