Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2017

San Francisco Bay Beacon Built of Salvage

By Timothy Harrison


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Photo by: (Photo by Peter Elbert.)

Most people who plan a visit to California’s lighthouses rarely take the time to visit the Marina District Lighthouse in San Francisco, probably because they don’t know that it is there, or, perhaps, because they don’t consider it a real lighthouse. But when it was built in 1931, it was constructed for the purpose of sending out its beam to guide pleasure boaters into their snug haven.

It may look very old today, but from the very day that it was erected, it looked old - because it actually was old. The only thing that was new about the lighthouse when it was built in 1931 was the concrete used to hold the stones together.

The design of the lighthouse followed closely that of the old Roman military watch towers, such as the type that were built along the Rivera during the Punic Wars, and they are still standing as sturdy as when invading armies put them up stone by stone centuries ago.

The materials used were described in 1931 as coming from the old San Francisco that once was. The sea walls and paving about the lighthouse were fashioned from the old cobblestones torn out of the city streets. The ornamental cut stones came from the old Pope Mansion that once stood on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Divisadero Street.

The woodwork is of solid teak salvaged from old ships, and the handsome teak door was once the gangplank of the old Matsonia.

The idea for the lighthouse and the building on the point on which the lighthouse stands was the idea of Captain B.P. Lamb of the Park Commission, who also suggested the general design of the tower. When the building of the lighthouse was announced, its name was designated simply as the Yacht Harbor Lighthouse. Captain Lamb was quoted as saying, “Yachtsmen have been forced to rely on shore lights in making the harbor at night.” He also said that this was going to be the first of two lighthouses that would be built. Apparently, the second lighthouse was never built.

A November 1931 newspaper story, in quoting Captain Lamb, wrote, “We are trying to create a bit of Old World beauty along this lovely stretch of water front. Other towers may later be erected as the Yacht Harbor is enlarged and permanent piers built. Salvage works well in the picturesque type of improvements we are making. Some day we believe San Francisco will have one of the most attractive pleasure waterfronts in the world.”

Interestingly, that same 1931 newspaper article stated that the lens in the tower came from an actual “real” lighthouse on the Humbolt coast that was in use until 1906; our research was unable to determine which Humbolt coast lighthouse the lens might have come from. One unsubstantiated guess was the Humbolt Harbor Lighthouse. However, a later newspaper story referred to the lens as an “airway affair style” beacon, so the real answer may never be known. However, whatever lens that was once in the tower is no longer in the lantern and its whereabouts seems to be unknown.

For you movie buffs, the lighthouse was seen briefly in the 1951 film noir suspense thriller, The House on Telegraph Hill, starring Richard Basehart (1914-1984) who may be best known for his role in the 1960s TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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