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Guiding Light on the Mesa

Santa Barbara Lighthouse Has Colorful History


Saturday, August 14, 2010

In 1852, the United States Treasury’s lighthouse administrator—an auditor known for taking pride in returning any unspent funds from the lighthouse budget—was dismissed from his position and a new era began. The administrative change was prompted by a special committee of Congress which had concluded that the lighthouse system was grossly inadequate. The ensuing decades were “the most dynamic period in American lighthouse construction,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard Web site.

It was on the crest of this wave that Santa Barbara’s lighthouse was born to the seafront in 1856.

According to the Lighthouse Friends Web site, Santa Barbara’s lighthouse station was built by George Nagle, who had arrived in Santa Barbara with his family earlier that year. He decided to build the lighthouse on the Mesa, positioned so that it could serve a dual purpose in illuminating both the sea coast and the harbor.

The lighthouse design featured a tower projecting from the middle of the station’s gabled roof, with a red light beaming from a fourth-order Fresnel lens, the standard for West Coast lighthouses.

The first keeper of the Santa Barbara lighthouse was Albert Williams, according to Lighthouse Friends. He lasted four years in the position before leaving to try his hand at farming. His replacement took care of the lighthouse until 1865, at which point Julia Williams, the wife of the first keeper, took on the responsibility. While raising three boys and two girls, she carefully maintained the station’s light into the 20th century, until her retirement in 1905 after she fell and broke her hip.

In 1868, the lighthouse board detailed several changes made to the Santa Barbara station. These included the installation of a chimney; a drain to prevent the cellar floor from flooding; and a “storm-house” over the outer kitchen door to afford protection from the elements.

In 1893, a 50-foot-deep well was dug to augment the lighthouse’s insufficient water supply. The following year an iron windmill was erected, to feed water from the well into a 5,000 gallon cistern; this was connected by pipes to the lighthouse and its grounds. Up until then, for more than two decades, Julia Williams had taken the station’s horse to the nearby stream to bathe her children and fetch buckets of water.

Long after Williams’s retirement, in the early morning hours of June 29, 1925, a low rumble began that would reveal itself as the earthquake that would shatter the lighthouse station in Santa Barbara. Keeper Albert Weeks was thrown from his bed in a storage building, where he had slept in order to accommodate a large number of family members who had spent the night at the station. Weeks rushed to the lighthouse and guided everyone out to safety, before the structure collapsed. Not long after the earthquake, a light was affixed to a temporary frame tower to replace the lighthouse.

Historian Dr. Robert Browning writes, “The evolution of lighthouses has taken centuries and is profoundly influenced by the development of technology.” And so it was with the Santa Barbara Lighthouse, which reached its current form in 1935 as an unmanned tower with an automatically operated light.

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