The southern end of Cabrillo is one of the best-protected and easily accessible rocky intertidal areas in southern California. The word “intertidal” refers to the unique ecosystem that lies between the high and low tides along the shore. Tidepools are depressions where water is trapped during low tides, forming small pools that provide habitat for numerous plants, invertebrates, and fish. These depressions are formed over geologic time through a combination of biological, physical, and chemical processes. Although the whole rocky intertidal is often referred to as the “tidepool area,” it is important to note that shelves and boulder fields surround the pools, and these also provide a great habitat for the multitude of organisms that call this zone home.
For many people, visiting the tidepools is the only direct experience they have with marine ecosystems. Cabrillo National Monument is an extremely popular destination for tourists, and it is estimated that more than 215,000 people visit the tidepools annually. Compared to sandy beaches, the diversity of life in the rocky intertidal is impressive. People go to the beach to swim, sunbathe, or surf, but they come to the tidepools to explore, experience, and learn.
When visitors pass through the entrance gate to Cabrillo National Monument they are on the ‘monument’ that is Cabrillo National Monument, and in a national park. Although the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is now one of the main draws for visitors to CNM, its very existence was once questioned and it was neglected and threatened with demolition at different times in its history.
California had enjoyed statehood for just a year when the United States Coast Survey party traveled west in 1851. Its mission was to chart the Pacific Coast and also determine the sites for the first eight west coast lighthouses to be constructed by the U.S. government.
San Diego, at the southwest boundary of the U.S., was an obvious choice for a lighthouse. The tip of Point Loma, at 422 feet above sea level, offered what seemed to be the perfect spot for a lighthouse because the light could be seen from both the ocean side of Point Loma and the bay side.
Construction of the lighthouse began in 1854. Francis A. Gibbons and Francis X. Kelly were partners in the Baltimore firm ultimately hired for the job. They disliked the Point Loma location because it required them to build a road and bridges in order to haul materials to the site. Water for the mortar and plaster was brought in from a well in La Playa, about seven miles away.
Before the 1850s, most U.S. lighthouses used Argand lamps and parabolic reflectors. The lights didn’t cost much, but they also didn’t produce much light (and they used a lot of oil and needed constant tending). French physicist Augustin Fresnel created a lens apparatus in 1822 that changed the way lighthouses would be illuminated. The Fresnel lens is shaped like a glass bullet with many prisms and bulls’-eyes. When the light flashes, the light is concentrated into lots of individual beams that radiate out like spokes on a wheel. When the light is fixed, the light is uninterrupted like a big sheet. There are seven sizes, or orders, of Fresnel lenses: first (the largest), second, third, three-and-a-half, fourth, fifth, and sixth (the smallest). Records indicate that a first order lens was originally ordered for Point Loma, but a third order lens was eventually installed.
Point Loma Lighthouse was put into service on November 15, 1855. Its architectural style was of Cape Cod design, with a tower centered in the two-story dwelling. The roof was tin painted in red lead; the iron lantern was also red. Initial building contracts specified Argand lighting—for Point Loma, 12 oil lamps backed by 16-inch parabolic reflectors seated on a stationary, tiered frame. But just before completion, the Lighthouse Board adopted the Fresnel lenses.
In just under 36 years of operation, 11 principal keepers and 22 assistant keepers served at Point Loma Lighthouse. Low pay, isolation, distance from town, and water collection likely influenced the high turnover. The last keeper at the old lighthouse was Robert Israel. He stayed for 18 years and then transferred to the new Point Loma Lighthouse and stayed one more year. Through time, other structures were added around the old lighthouse, including a barn, a chicken-coop, a wood/oil shed (which had been altered to accommodate assistant keepers), additional cisterns and a catch basin.
Point Loma Lighthouse—acclaimed as the highest in the U.S.—had not been in service long before it was obvious that its elevation would be its undoing; too often its light was obscured by fog and low clouds. A new Point Loma Light Station was established at a lower elevation in March 1891. The old lighthouse was boarded up and abandoned. The outbuildings disappeared, and vandals broke into the lighthouse and took pieces of it away. In 1913 the commanding officer at Fort Rosecrans recommended the lighthouse be torn down. But because of the magnificent view from the tower, the lighthouse was still quite popular with tourists.
Meanwhile, there was a movement underway to build a memorial to explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. The Order of Panama (an organization dedicated to commemorating California’s Spanish heritage) wanted to build a 150-foot tall statue of Cabrillo. The statue was to replace the old lighthouse.
In October 1913 a presidential proclamation set aside the ½ acre of ground surrounding the lighthouse as Cabrillo National Monument. The proclamation cleared the way for the building of the statue. But for whatever reason, the Order of Panama never carried out its plans and the organization eventually dissolved.
The old lighthouse came to have several ‘lives’ through time, serving as a radio- and signal-tower, Army post-exchange, tea-house, visitor center, and who knows what else. A major ‘life-saving’ historic rehabilitation between 1933-1935 was given to the lighthouse when Cabrillo National Monument integrated with the National Park Service.
The original Fresnel lens was removed from the tower within a week of the old tower’s closing in 1891; likely, it was sent either to the San Francisco lighthouse depot or to the main depot in New York for use elsewhere. Its fate has yet to be discovered. At the time of the lighthouse’s centennial, a smaller fourth order lens with copper blanking panels was displayed in the tower and kept there for many years. Today the lens in the lantern is of the design of the original, a third order fixed lens manufactured by Henry-Lepaute. Only a small number of lenses installed in U.S. lighthouses were not French-made.
That the Old Point Loma Lighthouse continues to be visited and treasured by thousands of people is a wonder, and certainly, testament to decades of dedication by Cabrillo National Monument.
As the park’s namesake, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. Cabrillo departed from the port of Navidad, Mexico, on June 27, 1542. Three months later he arrived at "a very good enclosed port," which is known today as San Diego Bay. Historians believe he anchored his flagship, the San Salvador, on Point Loma's east shore near Cabrillo National Monument. Cabrillo later died during the expedition, but his crew pushed on, possibly as far north as Oregon, before thrashing winter storms forced them to back to Mexico.
Cabrillo National Monument, established in 1913, commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's voyage of discovery. A heroic statue of Cabrillo looks out over the bay that he first sailed into on September 28, 1542. At the Visitor Center, the film "In Search of Cabrillo" and an exhibit hall present Cabrillo's life and times. Ranger-led programs about Cabrillo are usually available on weekends and on many weekdays during summer months.
The Young Conqueror
Cabrillo was a conquistador in his youth. The term “conquistador” is the name applied to the mostly Spanish soldiers who explored, conquered, and settled in the New World. We know little of Cabrillo's early years until 1519, when his name appears in the ranks of those who served in the army of famous conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the terrible battles between the Aztecs and the Spanish, Cabrillo fought as a captain of crossbowmen.
Metal weapons, good tactics, and great bravery made the conquistadors formidable opponents. The Aztecs, however, were also very brave and they greatly outnumbered the Spanish. Ultimately, what tipped the scales in favor of the Spanish was smallpox. The disease, previously unknown in the New World, swept through Aztec defenders and killed perhaps a quarter of their population. Everywhere the Spanish went, advanced disease went before them, making it possible for a relatively few Europeans to conquer the New World.
After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cabrillo joined other Spanish military expeditions in what is today southern Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador. Eventually Cabrillo settled in Guatemala. There he received encomiendas, long term leases for land uses such as gold mining and farming, along with the right to use forced Indian labor for these projects. The king of Spain granted encomiendas as a reward for services to the crown.
A Businessman and Leading Citizen of Guatemala
By the mid-1530's, Cabrillo established himself as a leading citizen of Guatemala's primary town, Santiago. Later, in 1540, an earthquake destroyed Santiago. Cabrillo's report to the crown on the earthquake's destruction is the first known piece of secular journalism written in the New World. Meanwhile, in 1532, Cabrillo traveled to Spain where he met Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. The two married that year and Cabrillo returned with her to Guatemala where she bore two sons.
As the Cabrillo family grew, so did his wealth and reputation as a ship builder. Using a port on Guatemala's Pacific Coast, Cabrillo imported and exported goods in the developing trade between Guatemala, Spain, and other parts of the New World. The ships he used for this trade were constructed in Guatemala using skilled labor and ideas Cabrillo brought back from Spain, and were built using the physical labor of Native Americans. Some of these ships would play a vital role in Spain's early efforts to explore the Pacific.
Why Explore California?
The Governor of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado, selected Cabrillo to build and provision ships to explore the Pacific because of his skills as a leader and businessman. Alvarado planned to use the ships to establish a trading route between Central America and the Spice Islands off of Asia. When Alvarado died during an Indian uprising, his business partner, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, prompted Cabrillo to lead one of two expeditions to explore the Pacific. Cabrillo accepted and soon set out to explore the coast north and west of New Spain (Mexico). Meanwhile, the other expedition, led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, sailed directly across the Pacific to the Philippines. While this expedition did reach its Philippine destination, Villalobos was killed in a mutiny, and the hungry, disheartened crew eventually surrendered to a Portuguese garrison in the Spice Islands.
The Cabrillo expedition sailed out of the port of Navidad, near modern day Manzanillo, on June 24, 1542. Accompanying Cabrillo were a crew of sailors, soldiers, Indian and probably black slaves, merchants, a priest, livestock and provisions for two years. Three ships, the flagship built by Cabrillo himself, were under his command. A model of Cabrillo's flagship, the San Salvador, is on display inside the Age of Exploration Exhibit Room near the Visitor Center.
When he sailed, Cabrillo was also seeking the seven fabulously wealthy cities known as Cibola that some believed were near the Pacific coast beyond New Spain, and the possibility of a route connection from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic - the Straits of Anian.
One hundred and three days into the journey, Cabrillo's ships entered San Diego bay. He probably landed at Ballast Point (visible from the Visitor Center) where he claimed the land for Spain. Cabrillo described the bay as "a closed and very good port," which he called San Miguel. The name San Miguel was changed to San Diego 60 years later by another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino.
The expedition continued north to Monterey Bay and may have reached as far north as Point Reyes before storms forced the ships to turn back. Interestingly, the expedition failed to sight San Francisco Bay, which remained undiscovered until 1769. Discouraged by foul weather, Cabrillo decided to winter in the Channel Islands. There, after a fall suffered during a brief skirmish with natives, Cabrillo shattered a limb and died of complications on January 3, 1543. Following Cabrillo's death, the disheartened crew again sailed north, this time under the leadership Bartolome Ferrer. The expedition may have reached a latitude as far north as the Rogue River in Oregon, but thrashing winter winds and spoiled supplies forced them to return to Mexico.
But my favorite low-key thing to do is go to that road along the coast by Los Penasquitos Lagoon after dark. I love to back my truck up and sit on the tailgate watching the waves and listening to the surf.