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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 1500 feet in 1876. A 30-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. Port Harford became a vital link for transporting both passengers and commerce to and from the area.

San Luis Obispo Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Coast Guard Museum Northwest
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 1886 Congress finally passed legislation authorizing $50,000 for the lighthouse.

The project, however, suffered some setbacks. Acquiring 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.

Perhaps spurred by this event, progress towards completion of the lighthouse was made over the next several months, and the harbor was lit for the first time on June 30, 1890. An article in San Luis Obispo’s Daily Republic described the new light station: “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 and the roof brown. About 50 yards to the eastward stands a one and a half-story double dwelling painted in a similar manner, between the two dwellings … stands the fog signal building with its two black smokestacks, and painted like the dwellings.”

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

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.

In 1961, the Coast Guard replaced the 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 30-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 the parlor inside the lighthouse has been fully restored and furnished with period pieces provided by a local chapter of the Questers. Plans are in place to improve the access road to the station; however, due to security concerns at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the road will likely not be available for transporting visitors to the site. Instead, the lighthouse wharf will be rebuilt and water access will hopefully be provided to the general public in the future.

In early 2010, the year the 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 Libarary, 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 recently 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 will accommodate gatherings of up to eighty or one hundred people, allowing weddings and other functions to be held at the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: Henry W. Young (1890 – 1905), William J. Smith (1905 – at least 1920), Fred C. Saunders (at least 1930 – at least 1940).

References

  1. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1993.
  2. 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.

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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