Lighthouse History

Built in 1874, the Point Fermin Lighthouse was the first navigational light into the San Pedro Bay. Phineas Banning, with the support of many local businessmen, petitioned the Federal Government and the US lighthouse Board to place a lighthouse on the point in 1854. Although the Lighthouse Board agreed funding and land disputes delayed its construction until 1874.

Paul J. Pelz, a draftsman for the US Lighthouse Board, designed the Stick Style Victorian lighthouse. The design was used for six lighthouses built between 1873 and 1874, of which three are still standing, East Brothers in San Francisco Bay, Hereford Light in New Jersey, and Point Fermin. The Stick Style is an early Victorian architectural style and is simpler in design and decoration than the later high Victorian period. It is characterized by its gabled roofs, horizontal siding, decorative cross beams and hand carved porch railings.

The lighthouse was staffed by federal employees under the Treasury Department and regulated by the US Lighthouse Board. These employees were called Lighthouse Keepers. It was their job to keep the light lit as a beacon for ships, maintain the lighthouse lens, and the general up-keep of the building. Point Fermin's first lighthouse keepers were women. Mary and Ella Smith came from a lighthouse family and their brother Victor, a Washington Territory customs officer, was no doubt influential in getting them their positions. Why they chose to come to Point Fermin is still a mystery, as the area was quite isolated and barren. In any event, they seemed to get along just fine in their positions for nearly eight years.

Captain George Shaw was hired for the lighthouse keeper position shortly after the Smith sister's resignation in 1882. Shaw was a retired sea captain but he refused to retire far from his beloved sea and was delighted by the opportunity to serve as the keeper at Point Fermin. His wife and daughter moved into the lighthouse with him, but by 1901, his wife had died and his daughter had gone away to school leaving him as the sole resident. Captain Shaw was the first keeper at Point Fermin to wear the US Lighthouse Service uniform, newly required of all employees in 1884; women were not required to wear the uniform.

Visiting the lighthouse during the years that Captain Shaw was in residence became a popular activity for the local residents as well as many from the greater Los Angeles areas. The US Lighthouse Board both required and encouraged keepers to allow the public access to the lighthouse and Captain Shaw gave many tours of the establishment and its workings. The point itself was a popular site for picnicking and social activities, especially as the town of San Pedro grew larger toward the late 1880s. Many visitors rode the Red Car to the end of Pacific Avenue and then walked the short distance to the lighthouse. Other modes of transportation to the lighthouse were by horse and buggy, and later by automobile.

The Austin family moved into the lighthouse in 1917 to become the last keepers of the Point Fermin Light. William Austin had served as keeper at two other California lighthouses, Point Arena and Point Conception, before coming to Point Fermin. For the first time, the lighthouse was filled with children. When the Austin family moved in they had seven children between the ages of 15 and 1 month old; during their stay at Point Fermin, that number quickly grew to eight with the birth of another son. When both William and Martha Austin passed away in 1925, their daughter Thelma Austin, with the help of her sister Juanita, took over as keeper until 1927 when management of the light was turned over to the City of Los Angeles.

Between the years of 1927 and 1941, the light was electrified and managed by the city. On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the coast was blacked out for fear of being a beacon to enemy ships and planes. Sadly, the light was never to be lit again. During WWII, the lighthouse served the US Navy as a lookout tower and signaling station for ships coming into the harbor. After WWII, the lighthouse was again turned over to the City of Los Angeles for use as a residence for park maintenance employees. It was during WWII that the lens and lantern room on top of the lighthouse tower was removed and a square room was set in its place. This unsightly addition was often referred to as the "chicken coop." In 1972, two devoted citizens, Bill Olesen and John Olguin, raised funds and worked diligently to replace the lantern room and the lighthouse to its original glory for her 100th birthday in 1974. Their efforts also placed the lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2002, the lighthouse was restored, retrofitted, and rehabilitated for public access with funds from the City of Los Angeles, the Port of Los Angeles, and the State of California. The lighthouse was opened to the public on November 1, 2003 under the management of the Department of Recreation and Parks for the City of Los Angeles. Volunteers from the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society serve as tour guides and help to keep the lighthouse open to the public.