Although a bit down the pecking order in San Diego’s tourist promotions, Point Loma’s lighthouse and national monument attracted 800,000 visitors last year.
“We gain attention through the National Park Service’s website, some magazine features and, generally, by word of mouth, but we get visitors from throughout the world,” said Jason Richards, chief of interpretation and education at Cabrillo National Monument.
Richards said park officials get many visitors from Germany in the fall to see the Cape Cod-structured lighthouse and to learn about Portuguese navigational explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition.
From atop the point, a tourist’s eyes can span a broad spectrum from San Diego Bay’s ocean entrance, a sprawling North Island and a city skyline. Then there’s a short hike to the old lighthouse and a museum next door.
The seaman’s old beacon of hope didn’t fare well at the start. Over-budget construction costs soared past $30,000. Then, builders couldn’t fit a Fresnel lens into the tower and a smaller one had to be substituted for the original.
Finally, because of its elevation, the light was often shrouded in fog. It was no match for May gray and June gloom.
But for 36 years, its beacon labored at the entrance to San Diego Bay, at times of little help. The initial 422-foot-high location above sea level was thought to be adequate. It was abandoned for another closer to the water and at the tip of the Peninsula.
The second lighthouse was built near the Coast Guard station in 1891 and is now powered electrically to reach out 39 miles to incoming vessels.
Not forgotten, the old lighthouse remains as the centerpiece of the park. The National Park Service refurbished the interior to its historic 1880s appearance. Check at the visitor center to find out about ranger-led talks about the structure.
The park, proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson as a national monument, will celebrate its centennial in 2013 with a series of events.
“We’ll have all kinds of stuff going on all year,” Richards said.
Richards indicated that history will come alive at the build site for the replica of San Salvador, Cabrillo's flagship. The San Diego Maritime Museum, in partnership with Cabrillo National Monument, is building an historically-accurate, fully-sailable replica.
“Work will resume on the ship since they received a shipment of southern yellow oak and it should be completed in a year and a half,” he said.
School field trips are continued educational programs that include walking the ship decks as Cabrillo’s sailors once did.
Another history — Although not on the tour, there are still remenants of the old Army fortress of world wars I and II.
In 1899, the War Department dedicated Fort Rosecrans and built a series of gun batteries. The tip of San Diego had military emplacements, constructed as a sea-facing protection.
The Army incorporated searchlight bunkers, fire-control stations and gun batteries. The largest guns were at Battery Ashburn, adjacent to the park entrance station, where two 16-inch guns could fire 2,300-pound shells nearly 30 miles out to sea.
But as the old lighthouse might attest, the best times to visit are on a clear day.
— Johnny McDonald is a longtime writer and columnist for the San Diego Community Newspaper Group. He can be reached at Johnny23@cox.net.