Twin Sisters Keep Historic Point Loma Lighthouse Shining Bright
Visitors to the Cabrillo National Monument will have a rare opportunity on Wednesday to climb to the top of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse tower to view the massive jewel-like Fresnel lens. It's one of three days of the year it's open to the public. The rest of the year, it’s off limits to almost everyone, except for a pair of identical twin sisters.
The 67-year-old historians and best friends are working to keep its history shining bright, 162 years after the iconic beacon was first ignited to guide ships and their crews through the darkness.
Every six weeks, the twins, Karen Scanlon and Kim Fahlen, climb atop the 40-foot-tall spiral staircase inside the white, brick lighthouse tower to polish the hollow glass lens.
“This is a privilege of all privileges,” Scanlon said. “We just never imagined in our lives that we would have this privilege. I mean, we’re the only two that clean this lens.”
“People want to just come up and clean the lens, they think that’s all we do,” Fahlen added. “We have to clean the walls and the windows and the ditches.”
The six-hour task is no chore, they said. It’s more like a cherished opportunity.
“See why we clean it? Look at that rag,” Scanlon chuckled, holding up a dust-covered white towel.
They use their grandmother’s old linens to wipe each layer of glass that radiates in prism colors.
“This little guy sitting on the hill is important to the history our city," Scanlon said. "If we don’t preserve them now in places like Cabrillo National Monument, then we lose it,” Scanlon said.
“And it actually is a concern that ultimately, what is the next generation going to think about them?” Fahlen said.
Their passion for lighthouses reaches back to a childhood camping trip they took with their father to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in North Carolina. They were 12 years old, and despised camping because of fear over spiders crawling into their sleeping bags. But for Fahlen, laying in the sand and marveling at the lighthouse was life-changing.
“It was just so big,” Fahlen recalled. “I had never seen a lighthouse before. So lighthouses stayed in my head and heart forevermore after that.”
Scanlon’s lighthouse enthusiasm came years later, she said.
“We always say that the lighthouse bug bit Kim then, and the mosquitoes bit me,” Scanlon laughed.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse was one of the first buildings in San Diego, and the last of eight lighthouses constructed along the west coast.
“This lighthouse should have been one of the first to open, but it was not because the ship that was carrying supplies for this lighthouse and several others, sank on the bar of the Columbia River,” Fahlen explained.
Each lighthouse featured a unique beam — some flashed or rotated to signal the mariner of their location. Point Loma’s was a fixed white beacon, lit with whale oil.
“It never needed to rotate, it was the only lighthouse out here,” Scanlon said.
“A mariner could be traveling by and see that this was a steady, fixed white light,” Fahlen said, “and he could know he was nearing San Diego.”
Below the light tower was a bustling two-story home with bedrooms, a kitchen and living spaces for the keeper and his family who kept the light aflame.
The old lighthouse first stood watch over the entrance to San Diego Bay on November 15, 1855. It stayed lit for 36 years.
“But it was built too high and too often the low clouds and fog obscured the light,” Fahlen said. “In its day, it was the highest lighthouse in the United States, but that was its nemesis, ultimately.”
In 1891 the light was extinguished and a new lighthouse opened at the bottom of the hill, near the edge of the shore. Although it’s currently under renovation, it’s still active today, illuminating the tip of the point from approximately 20 miles offshore.
The twins grew up in Ohio and moved to San Diego with their husbands after college. Both raised two children. They’ve traveled the world to see lighthouses.
“Germany and France and the Netherlands and all of the United Kingdom,” Fahlen listed off. “I love the Scottish lights the most. Their history is so fascinating.”
Their bond is deep after spending much of their lives together researching and writing about Point Loma’s Lighthouses, including a book, “Lighthouses of San Diego.”
“When I got started working on the lower lighthouse, I went nuts down there finding the history of it, and who were the keepers? Who were the families that lived there?” Scanlon said. “Because if you were a member of a family of a lighthouse keeper, they were all vigilant. They were all watching for ships and problems out there.”
They’ve interviewed children of lighthouse keepers from generations ago, who were raised on the desolate seashore, a natural playground.
“They had the advantage of looking at sharks, playing in pools of water,” Scanlon described. “When the tide goes out down here, they lived right there, so they had little swimming pools and took baby octopus to share at school.
“They thought everybody lived in a lighthouse, they just thought that was the way of life,” Fahlen added.
As years went by, the Old Lighthouse was nearly torn down several times.
“It fell into terrible ruin,” Fahlen said. “It was nothing more than a skeleton.
During World War II, the lighthouse was painted camouflage green and used as a signal station to direct ships into the harbor.
In 1984, the light was re-lit by the National Park Service. Today, it serves solely to bring history to life and to brighten up Point Loma with its beauty.
“It’s so absolutely charming,” Fahlen said. “Seeing it sitting on the hill in its own little modest self, and you see the big ships coming by and to think of the sailing ships that came by initially.”
“The icing on the cake is putting our hands on that glass,” Scanlon said, “and treating it lovingly and cleaning it.”
The twins say they’ll continue their work to preserve the iconic treasure so that the beacon that once lit a path for ships and stood the test of time never goes dim.