History of the Point Fermin Lighthouse

In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver stopped at the Carmel Mission near Monterey and met Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, who had succeeded Father Junipero Serra as father-president of the California missions. Vancouver was impressed with Father Fermin, describing him as “about seventy-two years of age, whose gentle manners, united to a most venerable and placid countenance, indicated that tranquilized state of mind that fitted him in an eminent degree for presiding over so benevolent an institution.” When Vancouver sailed into San Pedro Bay the following year, he named Point Fermin and Point Lasuen in honor of the Franciscan Father. Lasuen was unhappy in California, stating that only obedience kept him there, but his name will now be forever linked to California and its Point Fermin Lighthouse.

The harbor at San Pedro, which is overlooked by Point Fermin, started to boom in the late 1840s as Los Angeles grew. Southern California’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, was built in 1869 and consisted of a 21-mile stretch of track connecting Los Angeles with the bay. When the railroad went into service, a request was made to the Lighthouse Board for a lighthouse on Point Fermin to mark the harbor.

A site on the bluff was selected in 1872, and $35 was offered to the owner of the two-acre parcel, Don Diego Sepulveda. Declining the payment, Sepulveda donated the property to the government. Redwood and fir were delivered by ship, and by late fall of 1874, the Point Fermin Lighthouse was finished. The lighthouse had its inaugural lighting on December 15, 1874, when the first keepers, Mary L. Smith and her sister Ella, lit the lamp inside the fourth-order Fresnel lens and wound up the weights that rotated the lens and produced the light’s flashing characteristic.

The ornate Victorian lighthouse is similar in design to the original Port Hueneme Lighthouse, built just up the coast, and the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in New Jersey. Mary and Ella Smith had transferred to the arid climate of Southern California from the Ediz Hook station in Washington. After eight years at Point Fermin, the sisters resigned, saying the life was too lonely, something that is hard to imagine given the area’s present population.

Mary and Ella were not the only pair of sisters to care for the Point Fermin Lighthouse. Keeper Willie Austin, together with his wife and six children, took up residency at the lighthouse in 1917. The family soon added another child, Paul Fermin Austin, but after eight years at the lighthouse, tragedy struck when Mrs. Austin died following an operation. Two months later, Keeper Austin followed his wife to the grave, dying of a broken heart. Rather than leave the lighthouse, Thelma, the oldest daughter, and her sister Juanita decided to look after the light reasoning “…we had a sacred duty to perform: to promulgate the heroic work which our parents started.” Thelma kept the light until 1927, when the Los Angeles Park Department struck an agreement with the Lighthouse Service, permitting a park superintendent to live in the dwelling in exchange for looking after the now-electrified light.

The light remained active until December 9, 1941, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Most lights on the west coast were extinguished during World War II to avoid aiding Japanese submarines, which were occasionally spotted offshore. Shortly after the light was deactivated, the lantern room was removed and the top of the tower was converted into a box-shaped lookout tower, known locally as the “chicken coop” and used for spotting enemy vessels. After the war, a light on a metal pole close to the edge of the bluff replaced the lighthouse.

The Coast Guard considered tearing down the lighthouse in 1972, but Bill Olesen, who first visited the lighthouse when he was eight and had lived and worked near the lighthouse for years, came to its rescue. Olesen recruited John Olguin, coordinator of the Cabrillo Marine Museum, to join his crusade, and together they led the campaign to save the light. The Point Fermin Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in June of 1972. During the next two years, the “chicken coop” was removed from the top of the tower, and using the original blueprints, extensive restoration was carried out and a new lantern room was built. According to Olesen, “the exterior restoration was completed about 15 minutes before the centennial celebration,” held on November 2, 1974.

In 2002, a $2.6 million dollar face-lift was initiated on the lighthouse. The makeover was completed in 2004, and the before and after pictures are quite dramatic. In addition to a new coat of paint, the lighthouse also received new plumbing, electrical work, alarm systems, air conditioning, and period furnishings. The Point Fermin Lighthouse is now the crown jewel of Point Fermin Park and has opened its doors to visitors after having served as park employee housing for years.

In preparation for the centennial celebration, Olesen and Olguin attempted to locate the Fresnel lens removed from the Point Fermin Lighthouse just before World War II. While in a restaurant one day talking about the lens, the pair reportedly met someone who knew the lens’ whereabouts. This tip led them to the real estate office of Louis Busch on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, where, sure enough, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was on display.

When contacted, Mr. Busch did not believe his lens was from the Point Fermin Lighthouse. From what Busch knew, the lens had been displayed in a nautical museum on the Santa Monica Pier established by “Cap” George Watkins, who worked as a lifeguard captain in Santa Monica. When the pier was damaged in a storm, Watkins took the lens to his home near Malibu for safekeeping. Then, after Cap Watkins died, his son took the lens to the real estate office of Mr. Busch, a family friend, and presented it to him.

Whether the lens had been used at Point Fermin remained unresolved for several years. When Kristin Heather was made curator of the lighthouse settling the matter was one of her goals. “Is it ours or isn’t it? If it is, let’s prove it and not have to worry about it anymore. I don’t want to have to deal with this for the rest of my career,” said an exasperated Heather.

Joanna Nevesny, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, stepped in to serve as an intermediary in settling the issue. Armed with a historic 1912 photograph of the Point Fermin lens along with a digital picture of the one on display in Busch’s office, Nevesny and Jim Woodward, a Fresnel lens expert, set out to positively identify the lens. As the lens had been crafted by hand, the slots in the screw heads ended up in somewhat random positions. Woodward found that “every screw slot was exactly the same” in the two photographs. “It was like the fingerprint, or DNA, of the lens. There is no other lens on the entire planet that has their screw slots in this same arrangement,” stated Woodward.

Presented with the evidence, Busch was convinced his lens was indeed from the Point Fermin Lighthouse and consented to allow it to return home. On November 13, 2006, Nevesny and Woodward, accompanied by members of the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society, journeyed to Malibu to retrieve the lens. After having been on display in Busch’s office for more than thirty years, the lens was inspected and cleaned by Woodward, and then placed on display on the ground floor of the Point Fermin Lighthouse.

On December 16, 2006 a homecoming celebration for the lens was held at the Point Fermin Lighthouse. A parade, free cake and ice cream, and fireworks were part of the festivities. Councilwoman Janice Hahn presented a congratulatory plaque to the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society, and John Olguin told of the quest to recover the lens. After the program, the public was invited inside the lighthouse to view the lens.

On May 2, 2012, Point Fermin Lighthouse was made available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 to eligible federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations to be used for educational, recreational, cultural, or historic preservation purposes. Interested entities were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest expressing their desire to submit an application for ownership. Included with the lighthouse is an adjacent guest quarters and a coastal lookout. The lens on display on the first floor of the lighthouse will remain the property of the Coast Guard. The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has managed the site for numerous years and is the most likely candidate to be awarded ownership, though the availability notice states that no preference will be given to government agencies.

Source: Lighthouse Friends