News & Tall Tales. 1800s.


San Francisco Gold Rush 1849.

Lighthouses

March 16, 1855, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Lighthouses, Government Contractors and Speculators

Nothing excites the ire of a navigator on our coast more than the fact of the non-existence of light-houses commensurate with its trade and importance. There is no use in mincing matters: we should have had lights of the first order at every point demanding a coast light; we should have had harbor lights; we should have had our harbor buoyed out; and we should have had warning signals at the Golden Gate in case of fog. We do not here propose to ourselves the ungracious task of raying at whose door all the fault lies -- for fault or negligence there has been but we intend to offer a few remarks upon the vexatious delays to which we have been subjected that will shift the charge from the shoulders of those upon whom attempts have been made to fasten it. We disclaim any intention of becoming the champions of the Light House Board, but hope to see even-handed justice meted out to it. If it errs, let it become answerable for the offence.

Has it ever entered the heads of our patent growlers that the light-houses could not, according to Act of Congress, be commenced until sites were selected and titles approved! The selection of sites may be accomplished, but it is not quite so easy to get satisfactory titles. We feel satisfied that amongst the crowds of complainants, not one in ten ever read the laws authorizing the erection of light-houses on our coasts; or if that aforesaid one did do so, he did not study the bearings of the law. If the officers charged with the selection of sites and the Light-House Inspector had nothing else to do but attend to some speciality to suit one person, or one particular interest; if railroads and steamboats were numerous enough to enable them to reach different points and return without loss of time; if materials and mechanics could be had upon the mere call at the different points; if contractors were just a little more conscientious about fulfilling their written obligations; if speculators would not damage our permanent interests to promote their temporary ones; if official communications with the Department at Washington were the consideration of a day, and if costly- apparatus could be purchased ready made here or at the East, or even made there to order; then there can remain but little doubt but that works of this character- works intended to last for generation and generation would be so little delayed as not to merit the sweeping condemnation of those who may have brains but think not.

Petty interests and localities have claimed from government what really belonged to us at large. If, for instance Congress makes an appropriation for alight of the first order at Santa Cruz Island, in steps our little neighbor of the town of Santa Cruz, and claims the appropriation ($30,000) as intended for their especial salvation. Verily, verily, this could be pulling our light under a bushel. If the lighthouse is not put up as authorized, where lies the fault; the illuminating apparatus is now in New York, ready to be shipped here? Again, if a set of speculators think they can make a "raise" during these trying times, they are not guilty of blushing about the means! They have just got soul enough to propose to take the illuminating apparatus intended for the Farallon Light and put it up on Punta de los Reyes, when they get a contract and build a light house there. It might be considered impertinent to ask whether that "claim" has been confirmed; and if so, whether it is final? If not, it strikes us that it would be contrary to law to build thereon. But if the speculators and contractors could get paid, that would be all they cared for; you don't suppose our commerce interests them very much. Have we not seen enough of contractors to lay it down, ex cathedra, that if contracts are ever fulfilled, especially in government, the exceptions are so very rare that the rule lor abiding by them is fully proved; exceptio probat reguum, you recollect.

Yerba Buena Island Lighthouse.

Contracts were made and signed April 30, 1852, to build, by November let, eight lighthouses on our coast, upon sites already selected and marked. This contract was made for the Treasury Department, and not by the Lighthouse Board. Whether the contractors were able to fulfil their contracts or intended to do it, we presume to be best known to themselves; we confine ourselves to the result they did not fulfill it. The time for completing the contract was subsequently extended to March, 1854. Perhaps our worthy Senators and Representatives can give us an idea of the influences brought to bear for this purpose. They failed to fulfil at the expiration of the extended time! and then asked Congress to grant them until June, 1854. Rather a modest request; still, it was allowed. There evidently was a screw loose somewhere; somebody was cajoling and bumbungling Congress, and tho "dear people" might whittle for their lights.

Yet the story is not all told, for it now appears that Point Conception was received and paid for on July 5, 1654; Point Loma, Sept 5, 1854, and Cape Disappointment, September 12, 1854! If we recollect rightly, the contractors after engaging to build a light on Point Loma undertook to put it on Ballast Point; refused to build it on Point Loma; petitioned Congress, and received a larger appropriation for damages, in order to carry out the original and bona fide contract; and this, too, in the face of maps, facts and writings. . .

And then those public benefactors, the contractors, used their discretion about the order in which they built the lighthouses, and, of course, built them as it best suited their own convenience . . . This had to be ordered and executed in France, and for this purpose a Lieutenant in the Navy, who had been attached to the first hydrographic party of the survey on our coast, was ordered to proceed to Paris to attend to their construction. The lenses and lanterns for Fort Point and Alcatraz Island, were sent as soon as it was possible for the manufacturers to turn them out of their shops, and the one at Alcatraz was put up by one of the most indefatigable and energetic officers of the Engineer Corps, immediately after it arrived at San Francisco, and very shortly after the contractors had completed the tower and building.

After the Fort Point Lighthouse was built, it was torn down preparatory to the whole of Fort Point being razed to form the water battery. That the lighthouse was in a position perfectly unsuitable for what it was intended, any one with their eyes open as they enter or leave our harbor, will readily admit it was an error upon the demolition of the building, the Lighthouse Board took prompt measures to get Gen. Torten to direct a temporary structure to be erected at that point. . . he in the handsomest manner, complied with the request. A suitable apparatus and lantern for it were promptly shipped to San Francisco. Point Bonita has since been selected as the proper site, and the law authorizing it was passed March 3d, 1853. The Lighthouse Inspector reported that he could build the tower for a certain sum, and he was authorized some months since to have it built at once. The illuminating apparatus is now in San Francisco ready, with its lantern, to be put up on the tower as soon as it is completed. In fact the first display of the light is advertised to be made on the 31st of this month.

Mile Rock Lighthouse, California. Entrance to San Francisco Bay.

The officer in Paris entered into contracts for the remaining six lenses and lanterns as soon as he was authorized by the Treasury Department, (June, 1633). The contractor in this case, as in nearly all others, were behind time. The apparatus for Cape Disappointment was received in New York in May last, and re-shipped by the first clipper that sailed for San Francisco. The apparatus for the Farallon Light was shipped from Havre direct to San Francisco, on July 15th last. The European war induced the officer, very wisely and prudently, not to risk such necessary articles at the time in a French or English bottom. This caused some delay not anticipated at the outset, but what no one would prevent or condemn. To have shipped them direct by English or French vessels would have been reckless, and might have prevented the light being put up for a year or two longer.

We mentioned that the Light House contractors built the houses just in the order that suited themselves best; now it so happened that with the exception of the two in San Francisco Bay, the apparatus first received in New York was for the Light House last built. We think that a great part of the delay has been occasioned by the non-fulfilling of contracts. It is very plain that "somebody" has humbugged Congress; blinded our representatives . . .

Must we wait until we get another Tennessee or S. S. Lewis piles up at our very doors before we rub our heads and wonder how such things happen?

Vis Viva

Name Established
Alcatraz 1853 First lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
Fort Point 1853, 1855, 1908 First completed in 1853, never used awaiting a Fresnel lens.
Point Bonita 1855 Marin Headlands. Entrance to San Francisco Bay.
Goat Island / Yerba Buena Island 1870s Constructed to guide ferryboats between San Francisco and Oakland.
Lime Point 1883 Fog signal station
Mile Rocks 1889: Marked with a buoy After a shipwreck in 1901, a lighthouse was built.

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  • 1854: the Yankee Blade runs aground. Twenty-eight passengers lose their lives.
  • In 1865, only 19 of the 204 passengers and crew on board survived the wreck of the Brother Jonathan, whose owners had been more concerned with maximum profitability than with the safety of their passengers.
  • 1875: The old side-wheeler Pacific rams another passenger ship off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington. Two hundred and seventy-seven people perish when her rotting hull gives way.
  • 1906: The Valencia strikes a reef off the Washington coastline. Before dozens of dazed onlookers on the shore, the ship goes down taking 117 passengers and crew with her.
  • 1907: The Columbia disappeared under the ocean surface in just eight minutes after ramming another passenger ship. Her poorly maintained iron hull simply gave out, leading to the deaths of 87 passengers.

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It offers a wealth of authoritative and accessible information on shipwrecks, drowned cities, ritual deposits, and other relics of our submerged past. Published in association with the British Museum Press.

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Were pirates sea-going terrorists, lawless rogues who plundered, smuggled, and illegally transported slaves, or legitimate corsairs and privateers?" Highlighting such pirate vessels as the Speaker, which sailed in the Indian Ocean, and the Whydah, the first pirate ship discovered in North America (near the tip of Cape Cod), the contributors analyze what constitutes a pirate ship and how it is different from a contemporary merchant or naval vessel.


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The San Francisco Commandery meets the first Monday of each month at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club in San Francisco, California and holds two formal dinners each year:

  • Annual Midway Night Celebration -In June at the Marines' Memorial Club, 609 Sutter St, San Francisco.
  • Pearl Harbor Memorial Dinner - In December at the University Club, 800 Powell St, San Francisco. Dinner Dress Blue Jacket uniform or equivalent. 

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