January 30, 2014

Photo Essay: Point Fermin, Keeping Watch Over the San Pedro Bay

I first came upon Point Fermin, at the southern tip of San Pedro near the Port of Los Angeles, when scouting out Sunken City.

You can see Sunken City from Point Fermin, which is essentially right next door.

And Point Fermin is sinking, too. A year after my first visit there*, the old Coast Guard bunker near the edge of the cliff is now pretty much condemned, and fenced off.

That doesn't detract families from coming to the lovely, manicured Point Fermin Park...

...and the landmark Point Fermin Lighthouse is far enough inland to not be in danger...yet.

Built as the first navigational light in the San Pedro Bay, the Point Fermin Lighthouse used to be situated out there all by itself, in a vast expanse. Miraculously, it has been spared from development, and the original lighthouse - as well as the stables and a couple of original cisterns - still remain.

But that doesn't mean the lighthouse hasn't changed over the years.

Constructed out of California redwood, Point Fermin is one of three remaining Stick Style Victorian lighthouses in the U.S., this year turning 140 years old.

It is characteristic of the style with its gabled roof...

...horizontal siding...

...and hand-carved porch railings.

When it first opened, the Point Fermin Lighthouse was palatial, its Fresnel lens beaming the shore with candlelight, which was replaced in 1898 with a petroleum vapor incandescent lamp, and finally in 1925 by an electric light.

The lighthouse hasn't actually been lit since the harbor was darkened in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombings, for fear of the light being a beacon for enemy ships. Instead, it was used as a Navy lookout tower (with experimental radar!) during World War II, when the giant, historic lens and lantern room at the top were removed and replaced with an unsightly square add-on, mockingly referred to by locals as the "chicken coop." In 1974, the addition was removed and the lighthouse was restored to its original condition for its centennial. The original Fresnel lens - which might've been placed in the basement by the Navy with the removal of the lantern room - was lost for years, but after much research, was recovered in 2006.

These days, from the tower you can look out into the ocean, towards Sunken City, and, on a cold, windy day, watch the waves crash against the breakwater.

Unusually, both its first and lighthouse keepers were female: first, sisters Mary and Ella Smith, and last, sisters Thelma and Juanita Austin, until 1927 when the City of Los Angeles took over the stewardship of the lighthouse. In between, Captain George Shaw resided there with his wife and daughter, and Thelma Austin's father William managed the place with his wife Martha and their eight children.

Now, the restored Point Fermin Lighthouse is landmarked and operates as a museum and historic site (with no photos allowed inside, unfortunately).

*Above photos from August 2012 and November and December 2013.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: San Pedro's Sunken City
Photo Essay: Cabrillo Beach & A Crumbling Concrete Bunker

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