The Queen of the Pacific was taking on water 15 miles from Port Harford. It was desperately searching for the harbor while avoiding the rock strewn coastline in the pre-dawn darkness.
Capt. John Harford built a wharf at what is now Port San Luis in 1871. With the booming dairy industry that developed in the 1870s and the need for tar and asphalt extracted from the shale oil-bearing cliffs of East Pismo Canyon, Port Harford prospered.
The wharf's integrity during the most violent of Pacific storms had been proven. But the coastal access was a risky proposition. The rocky shoals off Point Buchon were a significant maritime hazard. There was no lighthouse between Point Arguello and Piedras Blancas. More than 100 miles of rugged California coastline was without a beacon.
The danger was brought home on April 30, 1888, when a large ocean steamer, Queen of the Pacific began to take on water from a valve that was accidentally left open in one of its holds. Searching by night for the harbor, and listing badly, it docked at the wharf and then sank.
A maritime disaster had narrowly been averted. Increased pressure from Congress caused the United States Lighthouse Service to seek funding for a lighthouse at the harbor entrance.
The sum of $50,000 was appropriated in the 1888 Congressional budget and a 30-acre site on the bluffs above the harbor was appropriated.
A redwood structure with Prairie-Victorian styling was finally completed in the spring of 1890. The brick foundation was constructed from local bricks, manufactured in the brickyard of Ah Louis in San Luis Obispo. The interior of the structure has elegant Victorian Craftsman trusses.
A "fourth order" Fresnel lens, manufactured by Sautter Levonnier et Cie in Paris was installed in the lighthouse. The lens, a masterpiece of 19th century optics, allowed the light from a kerosene lantern to send a focused beam many miles out into the ocean’s darkness. A lighthouse keeper and his family lived in the Victorian house until 1974 when Roger Moorefield, the last lighthouse keeper left.
A lighthouse keeper was no longer needed. The lighthouse was automated in 1974. In 1976, Harbor commissioners Gerard Parsons and Dennis Johansson were concerned for its protection from vandals. The lens was transported to the San Luis Obispo County Museum and later to the San Luis Obispo City Library for temporary display. It’s now back at the lighthouse.
Sound signals were also used at the lighthouse site. Initially, a bell was used, replaced by a steam whistle and finally a series of air-horn devices. The compressor for the air horns that operated between 1899 and 1974 remains in the "signal" or "horn" building to the southwest of the lighthouse.
The circa 1890 signal-flagpole with its crossbeam survived the heavy winter storms in 1983, but had to be taken down for safety reasons in 1984.
The lighthouse area is without naturally occurring springs or creek runoff. The lighthouse staff was dependent upon captured rainwater or water that was brought to the site. Two large cisterns are located to the east of the lighthouse. There is a large cement collecting field on the slope northeast of the cisterns. A modern well supplements the supplies with non-potable water.
Today, the automated light that replaced the Fresnel lens is accompanied by an air horn device whose activity is triggered by an atmospheric moisture light refraction measurement apparatus located near sea-level, just west of the breakwater.
It’s located at the site of the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard access wharf, which was demolished in 1974. There is a continuously broadcast radio beacon, transmitting the Morse Code signal for "SL" (... .__..) on 288KHz to a range of 20 miles.
On Friday, Aug. 14, the San Luis Obispo Lighthouse Keepers who have restored and refurbished this beautiful and very historic site will celebrate its 125th birthday. The next day they will be adding on extra tours. If you would like to join in the celebration, call 540-5771.