Coast Guard funds restoration of operational lighthouse
Scaffolding wraps the lighthouse as work to restore the tower is underway. Photo by Neil Gardis.
by Karen Scanlon and Kim Fahlen
San Diego has a new lighthouse, sort of.
The leggy iron tower that has stood beckoning ships at the lower tip of Point Loma since 1891 has undergone full restoration. Now the old rust bucket is in good standing for another century. And just in time.
Straightening a three-degree tilt of the upper two sections and rooting out layers of lead paint and desecration from rust-jacking was no easy feat for independent contractor, Neil Gardis of Ohana Industries, Ltd. and his team of three: Nickolas Bliler, Ryan Strack, and Kevin Goodman of San Diego.
“From the start, we were more than aware of the lantern and watchroom precariousness,” Gardis explains. “The upper section supports had deteriorated significantly. A three-degree list doesn’t seem like much but it’s a ton of trouble when you realize that there’s metal failure of support points holding 120,000 pounds. It’s a double whammy!”
Thirty-seven tons of ironwork, intended for San Diego’s new lighthouse, rolled into town from Trenton, NJ, on rail flatcars of California Southern Railroad in July 1890. This lighthouse would supersede operation of the little Cape Cod structure that has graced Point Loma since 1855. The station would be re-established at a lower elevation where fog and low cloud were less likely to obscure its light.Point Loma Lighthouse was commissioned on March 23, 1891 and has since been the operational beacon at San Diego.
Automation in the early 1970s replaced the need for on-site personnel, and thereby, the tower’s deterioration began in earnest. Other forced priorities overtook regular maintenance. Alas, the future of the iron skeleton remained sorrowfully uncertain.
It seems when lighthouse properties are sold into private or non-profit ventures that those monies are used to rehabilitate other U.S. lights. In June 2017, San Diego’s leaning tower was awarded a contract for restoration because of its historic significance and location at the southwestern-most point of the continental United States.
Initial Coast Guard (hereafter, USCG) condition assessment of the lighthouse had called for abrasive blast cleaning of the entire tower, and removal and replacement of cast iron components showing greatest deterioration.
In September 2017, multi-level scaffolding was constructed around the lighthouse, which for many months was wrapped in plastic sheeting. Abrasive blast cleaning removed rust and layers of paint (some, lead based). This prepared surfaces for new coatings, although at this point, a sacrificial generic paint was given to avoid ‘flash rust’. Ultimately, at least three coatings were applied to everything.
As the Gardis team’s disassembly of the upper lighthouse sections began, it became evident that the condition was far beyond USCG anticipation. Gardis sent a quantitative report with a revision of work to the design office in Oakland.
“There was no mechanical way to replace some items and not all,” Gardis says. “A multitude of cast iron components would require complete replacement, or be ‘recast’- about 20,000 pounds of it.”
Castings were fabricated in Jacksonville, Fla., in an exhaustive process requiring wood molds and sacrificial sand molds for every piece. Fortunately, the original architectural drawings exist and dimensions were taken from these. Delivery of castings arrived bit by bit, the last not until mid-2019.
Though the project took two-and-a-half years instead of six months, and $2.1 million dollars, the end result of this massive restoration is a structurally sound and like-new lighthouse.
Lighting the way again
A rotating, third order Fresnel lens served Point Loma Lighthouse until 1997. Rotation had ceased so it was removed by Coast Guard personnel in 2001 and placed in storage at Cabrillo National Monument.
The giant prismatic lens, a modern marvel of the 1890s, gave way to a small, rotating Vega-25 beacon placed on the outside gallery railing. All the while, the tower stood condemned.
In 2005, a new structure -known as the Assistant Keepers Quarters - was completed at San Diego’s only National Park to display the lens. It stands today for all to see at Cabrillo National Monument.
During restoration work, the functioning Vega beacon was taken from the railing and attached with the sound signal on a platform behind the lighthouse.
On March 4, USCG Aids to Navigation Team, Sector San Diego, put the ‘icing on the lighthouse cake’. To the excitement of these author-historians, present for its first flash, a modern VLB-44 array was installed in the lantern, precisely where the giant lens was once positioned. The next day, San Diego’s operational lighthouse sent a first signal to sea, again.
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