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 San Luis Obispo, CA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Under the shelter of Point San Luis, on the southwestern shore of San Luis Bay, John Harford completed a 540-foot-long pier in 1873, and then extended it to 1,500 feet in 1876. A thirty-inch narrow gauge railroad ran along the wharf and eventually tied the harbor, then known as Port Harford, to San Luis Obispo and other Central Coast communities. With these connections, Port Harford became a vital link for transporting both passengers and commerce to and from the area.

Lighthouse, fog signal building, and keepers' duplex in 1894
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Local Congressman Romualdo Pacheco, convinced that the growing port merited a lighthouse, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in 1877 for the construction of a light at Port Harford. His efforts were not immediately successful, but in 1885 the Lighthouse Board joined the cause and made the following plea to Congress for funds:

San Luis Head, or Whaler Rock, in this bay, is midway between the light at Point Conception and that at Piedras Blancas, a distance of 94 unlighted miles. A light at this point will be a primary coast light, and will have the additional value of being a guide to Port Harford. The bay of San Luis Obispo is the most important roadstead on the Pacific coast south of San Francisco, and with one exception is also the best. The harbor is always good for eight or nine months in the year, and during the remaining time it is never actually bad. Its security is exceptional for an open roadstead. The commerce of Port Harford is now considerable and it is increasing yearly. It is the terminus of a railway which is the natural outlet for the agricultural products of that section, and many schooners loaded with timber make this port. In addition, the steamers of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company all touch here, averaging one steamer a day the year around, carrying both passengers and freight, and all of the steamers go to the wharf at the head of the bay. This company maintains a private light here, on which all the sailing vessels entering this port depend, none of which belong to the company. As the bay is subject to dense fogs for the greater part of the year, this company is now contemplating the establishment and maintenance of a steam fog signal here at their own cost. The Light-House Establishment acquired by executive reservation a small island about 500 feet from San Luis Head, called Whaler Island. It has obtained the refusal of 30 acres at the head, which it can purchase, together with adequate water privileges, for a reasonable sum. The necessity for a light and fog signal at this point has been pressed upon the attention of Congress from time to time and recently with increased vigor. At the last session of Congress a bill was passed by the House of Representatives for the appropriation of $20,000 to establish and maintain a fog signal at this point, but it failed to pass the Senate. As it now appears that a light is as much needed as a fog-signal, and that both are quite necessary to the commerce of this section, the Board recommends that an appropriation of $50,000 be made for the establishment of a light and fog-signal at or near San Luis Head, with authority, if need be, to place the one on the head and the other on the adjacent island.

Congress provided the requested $50,000 in 1886 for a fourth-order light and fog signal, and the inspector and engineer of the twelfth lighthouse district decided that both the light and fog signal should be placed on the mainland at San Luis Head.

The project suffered some initial setbacks. Acquiring a deed to the desired parcel on the headland at Point San Luis proved difficult, and then the first bids on the project were too high. While construction on the lighthouse was delayed, the need for a light at the harbor was punctuated by an event on May 1, 1888. The steamship Queen of the Pacific began taking on water fifteen miles out from Part Harford. The captain headed for the port, but with no light to mark the harbor, he was forced to make his way slowly in the dark. The water-laden steamship finally settled to the bottom of the harbor just 500 feet short of the pier. Fortunately, a good portion of the ship remained above the waterline, and the passengers were safely off-loaded.

Picture of dock and station taken from Whaler Island
Photograph courtesy National Archives
The second round of bids for constructing the light station were opened on July 15, 1889, and a contract was signed with Mr. Kenney of Santa Barbara, whose bid of $18,993 was more than five thousand dollars less than any other bid. When the completion date of December 15, 1889 arrived, the work was only half done, and the contractor’s bondsmen were forced to step in and finish the work. The completed station was turned over to the government on May 14, 1890, and a Notice to Mariners was published to announce the new station:

Notice is hereby given that on or about June 30, 1890, a light of the fourth order, showring red and white flashes alternately, with intervals of thirty seconds between flashes, will be exhibited from the structure recently erected at San Luis Obispo. …The focal plane is 133 feet above mean low water, and the light may be seen, in clear weather, from the deck of a vessel fifteen feet above the sea, seventeen and a half nautical miles. The light is shown from a black lantern surmounting a square frame tower attached to the southwest corner of a one-and-a-half-story frame dwelling painted white, trimmings lead color, blinds green, roof brown. About fifty yards to the eastward stands a one-and-a-half-story double dwelling painted in a similar manner, Between the two dwellings, and about fifty yards to the southward, stands the fog signal building with its two black smokestacks, and painted like the dwellings.

Three lighthouses were built in California using these plans, but Point San Luis Lighthouse is the only one that remains fully intact. As for its two sister lights, the tower of Table Bluff Lighthouse is all that is left, while Ballast Point Lighthouse was completely razed to make room for the expansion of the Naval submarine base in San Diego.

A cement watershed that collected rainwater and fed it into underground cisterns was built as part of the original work, but as the rainy season had already past, there was initially no water to operate the new fog signal. Rather than delay its activation, a pipeline was laid to Pecho Creek, a distance of three-and-a-half miles, and the fog signal commenced operation on August 10, 1890, sounding a five-second blast every forty seconds as needed. The signal was in operation roughly 1,000 hours each year, but for the twelve-month period ending June 30, 1895, it sounded 1,785 hours (over seventy-four days) and consumed ninety-six tons of coal.

From the eastern end of Point San Luis, a federal breakwater, which encompassed Whalers Island, was built between 1893 and 1913. A small wharf located near the juncture of the breakwater and the mainland provided the primary means of access to the lighthouse, though a crude wagon road also reached the station.

A first-class air siren, which was operated by gas engines and air compressors and had been used previously at Point Reyes, replaced the station’s twenty-five-year-old steam whistle in 1915. The station was electrified in 1935, and the fog signal was changed at that time to a type “F” diaphone. During World War II, a radio listening station was built near the lighthouse, necessitating the erection of a second duplex.

San Luis Obispo Lighthouse in the 1950s
Photograph courtesy Coast Guard Museum Northwest
Point San Luis Lighthouse was staffed by a head keeper and two assistants, and besides operating the light and fog signal, the men kept an eye out for anyone in trouble on the water. On the evening of May 10, 1916, Keeper W.M. Smith spied a boat bobbing in the waves just off the nearby breakwater and telephoned the news to the clerk at Hotel Marie. The clerk passed the news on to Captain John Neilson, who set out in his power launch to investigate. On first inspection, the rescue party with Neilson concluded that all eight men in the lifeboat were dead, as the bodies were stiff and cold to the touch, but it was soon discovered that a spark of life remained in three of the men.

Once the men had regained some strength, they recounted what had happened to their ship, the 267-foot-long S.S. Roanoke. Loaded with a cargo of 600 tons of dynamite, 1,300 tons of wheat, and several hundred drums of oil, the Roanoake had left San Francisco at midnight on May 8, bound for Valpariso, Chile. While battling heavy seas off Point San Luis, the cargo in the steamship shifted, causing the Roanoke to flounder. Six lifeboats were launched by the crew that numbered forty-six, but only the three men aboard the lifeboat spotted by Keeper Smith and another man aboard another lifeboat survived the tragedy.

In 1961, the Coast Guard replaced the original double-dwelling with a one-story duplex. The Fresnel lens was deactivated in 1969 and replaced by a modern beacon. The station remained staffed for five more years until the station was fully automated in 1974.

Ownership of the thirty-acre light station was transferred to the Port San Luis Harbor District in 1992, and a non-profit group, the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, was formed in 1995 to work towards the restoration of the light station. Besides the lighthouse, the fog signal building, oil house, two cisterns, two duplexes, and a privy remain.

Much progress has been made by the modern-day keepers. The exteriors of all of the structures were painted during the summer of 2003, and by that time, the parlor inside the lighthouse had been fully restored and furnished with period pieces provided by a local chapter of the Questers. After more than 65,000 hours of work by the volunteer keepers, the lighthouse, and fog signal building have since been fully restored.

In early 2010, the year San Luis Obispo Lighthouse celebrated its 120th anniversary, the Fresnel lens was returned to the station and placed on display in the horn house, which has been converted into a visitor center. The lens was removed from the lighthouse in the late 1970s after it was shot with a .22 caliber bullet and had been on display at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum and the San Luis Obispo Library, where it was housed in a modern lantern room. Also in 2010, the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers purchased a trolley and began offering trips to the lighthouse on the one-lane road that was rebuilt at a cost of $1.3 million.

In early 2012, renovation of the Coast Guard duplex next to the lighthouse was completed, and the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers relocated their office from downtown San Luis Obispo to the lighthouse grounds. Besides housing the office, the duplex can accommodate gatherings of up to eighty or one hundred people, allowing weddings and other functions to be held at the lighthouse.


  • Head: Henry W. Young (1890 – 1905), William J. Smith (1905 – at least 1920), George F. Watters (at least 1922 – at least 1928), Fred C. Saunders (1929 – 1936), John R. Moorefield (1936 – 1942).
  • First Assistant: John P. Devereux (1890), Stephen D. Ballow (1890 – 1894), Antonio Souza (1894 – 1900), Irby H. Engels (1900 – 1903), Edwin F. Gunter (1903 – 1906), Antonio J. Silva (1906 – 1933), John R. Moorefield (1933 – 1936), Elmer B. Gross (1936 – 1938), Thomas G. Lewis (1938 – 1942).
  • Second Assistant: Stephen D. Ballow (1890), Antonio Souza (1890 – 1894), Irby H. Engels (1894 – 1899), Frank Berk (1899 – 1900), James R. Sweet (1900 – 1902), John Nixon (1902 – 1906), Antonio J. Silva (1906), Andrew Czarnecke (1907 – 1908), George Stinson (1908 – 1909), F.S. Noble (1909 – 1911), Abert J. Scott (1911), Bernard H. Linne (1911 – 1914), Wheeler M. Greene (at least 1915 – at least 1917), Arthur Hedrick (at least 1919 – at least 1922), Norris H. Hilton (1923 – 1925), John R. Moorefield (1926 – 1933), Elmer B. Gross (1933 – 1936), Russell D. Johnson (1936 – 1938), Jens O. Wagner (1938 – 1940).


  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Roanoke Cargo Shifts and Steamer Goes to Bottom,” Mariposa Gazette, May 20, 1916.
  3. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.
  4. Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers website.

Location: Located on the San Luis Head roughly thirteen miles southwest of San Luis Obispo.
Latitude: 35.1604
Longitude: -120.76105

For a larger map of San Luis Obispo Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.

Travel Instructions: The lighthouse can currently be visited by signing up for a docent-led hike along the Pecho Coast Trail offered on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 9 a.m. or by taking a trolley tour on Saturdays at noon, 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. The half-day, 3.5-mile hike to the lighthouse offers a spectacular view of San Luis Obispo Bay. To listen to recorded information about the hike, call (805) 541-TREK. Cost for the trolley tours is $20 for adults & $15 for children 12 and under, and reservations can be made by calling (805) 540-5771.

The Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers hold occasional workdays at the lighthouse, which provides an opportunity to not only visit the lighthouse but actually contribute towards its preservation as well. For more information, call (805) 540-5771. The fourth-order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse, which was housed in a modern lantern room in the San Luis Obispo Library was returned to the station in 2010.

If you are adventurous, there is even one more way to access the lighthouse: kayaking or paddle boarding to Whaler's Cove Beach and then hiking up to the lighthouse. Rentals are available from Avila Beach Paddlesports.

The lighthouse is owned by Port San Luis Harbor District. Grounds/lighthouse open during scheduled hikes.

Find the closest hotels to San Luis Obispo Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
We were given a tour of the lighthouse by a member of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers on a third Saturday in 2003. We first viewed the work being done in the kitchen, and were then led upstairs to see the unfinished bedrooms. Next, we returned downstairs to see the sitting room, and then were finally escorted into the recently restored parlor. Our guide must have saved the parlor until the end so we could see the dramatic contrast between this restored room and the other rooms, which still require much attention. His plan worked, as I got goose bumps when I walked into the parlor. The present-day keepers of the lighthouse are doing a great job. Although a scarcity of funds and spare-time might prolong their effort, much progress is clearly being made at the light station.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.