Flashback—1959 | The Unforgettable Point Vicente Lighthouse

Portuguese Bend, Palos Verdes Peninsula, California

The yellow-orange school bus labored up Hawthorne Boulevard to the top of Palos Verdes. Near the very top the bus driver changed gears and for a brief period the bus remained motionless as the engine struggled to obey the transmission’s command.

<feature photo of the Point Vicente Lighthouse

The entire Walteria Elementary school 5th grade class turned behind. We gazed, wide-eyed, as Torrance stretched below, joined by the beaches of Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, and El Segundo together that formed the South Bay. A cloudless sky hung above purple mountains that surrounded Los Angeles. The view reminded me of mom’s crystal glasses used only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so clear that the light would point out the slightest smudge.

On the other side of Palos Verdes Boulevard the bus driver turned left. The salty odors from the sea invaded our senses, causing involuntary deep breaths. We skirted along the rough edged Pacific Ocean, which I think got embarrassed by the clarity that surrounded her.

The bus was headed in the direction of Portuguese Bend. Beyond it San Pedro watched on as the the L.A. harbor grew busier and busier thanks to the Japanese imports. Our destination of the Point Vicente Lighthouse was only a few minutes away.  Later we would stop at Abalone Cove at Portuguese Bend to collect seashells for our class project.

The Point Vicente Lighthouse Field Trip

A man dressed in a sailor uniform waved us through the gate. The bus ambled down the lane until the driver pulled up among white buildings with carrot top roofs in the park-like setting.

Point Vicente Lighthouse by atlasobscura.com

“Okay, class, we’ve arrived at the Point Vicente Lighthouse,” Mrs. Shoulders said. “Now be careful with the steps when you get off the bus. I want everyone to form a circle outside.”

The sight of the lighthouse caused me to lose my breath. The tall white cylinder loomed in front of us like some ancient structure designed to withstand the worse of all floods or what Mrs. Shoulder had called a tsunami—a big wave—when we studied geography. But she had made it clear earlier that the purpose of the lighthouse was to warn, not to ward against.

The bus door slammed shut. Seagulls dove out of the sky in single file, like small airplanes diving, but their message was peaceful.

“Follow me over to the plaque,” Mrs. Shoulder said.

Think about things that you know are there but cannot see nor understand. Like the way the wind blows from the same place but ends up in different directions. Or how the moon affects the tides on earth simply by its presence. This was the kind of feeling I had about this day. Our first contact with Point Vicente would amplify that feeling.

Our teacher Mrs. Shoulder read the words engraved on the Point Vicente lighthouse historical marker to us…


 “That is when the ‘Lady of the Light’ appeared. In the dim light through the painted windows, some saw the shape of a tall serene woman in a flowing gown who would slowly pace the tower’s walkway. Some said she was the ghost of the first lighthouse keeper’s wife who stumbled from the edge of a cliff one foggy night.”

Mrs. Shoulder paused to gather our eyes.

“Others say she waits for the return of a lover lost at sea, while still others think she is the shade of a heartbroken woman who threw herself from the cliffs when she found herself abandoned by her intended.”

Once again she paused, as if she knew the lady of the light.

 “The ghostly legend persists at the Point Vicente Lighthouse, circa 1926.”

She gave time for us to absorb what she had said. Then she added, “Thirty-three years ago the ‘Lady of the Light’ first appeared—the year the lighthouse was built.”

 Wow! I thought—A ghost lives in the lighthouse. I promised myself that one of these days when I was older I would visit the lighthouse on a Halloween night to view the lady ghost. That would be neat.

At the entrance to the bottom floor of the lighthouse Mrs. Shoulder asked us to get into our assigned groups. I was in the second group with my class partner Lynn, Chucky Kellogg, and Gary Bartelli.

Things only got better. When it was our turn Mrs. Shoulder led us into the small museum-like room filled with loads of odd seagoing stuff that reminded me of relics from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Coastguard sailor showed us old diagrams and photos of the lighthouse lens. I couldn’t believe it when he told us that the lens had been made over fifty years ago in Paris, France.

Paris, France. That was where Jules Verne wrote his Captain Nemo books!

The Coastguard sailor said, “The purpose of the Point Vicente lighthouse is to maintain a nightly beacon for the ships to navigate at night. The Lighthouse is especially important to guide the ships to avoid the cliffs from here over to Portuguese Bend when there is fog or a storm at sea. We take care of another lighthouse at Point Fermin, at the southern tip of San Pedro.”

He told us that the light at the top of the tower was called a Fresnel lens. The lens took the energy from a small bulb and turned it into a radiant beam of light that could be seen at night by ships over twenty miles out in the Pacific Ocean. The sailor told us that the sixty-five foot high lighthouse stood atop a 130-foot high cliff and that the lens was mounted sixty-five feet higher atop the lighthouse.

We were going to climb up the spiral staircase to see it.

Point Vicente Lighthouse spiral staircase by lighthousesofcalifornia.com

Some of the girls didn’t want to climb up the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Lynn couldn’t wait to climb up to the top. She and I and Chucky Kellogg and Gary Bartelli went up the stairs behind a sailor with another sailor behind us. Mrs. Shoulder called out, “You children be careful climbing the stairs.”

The Point Vicente Lighthouse Fresnel Lens

Point Vicente lighthouse Fresnel lens by lighthousefriends.com

At the top the sailors let us look at the lighthouse Fresnel lens, but we couldn’t go outside on the catwalk. My eyes riveted on the huge lantern-like structure, bigger than me. The sailor repeated what the sailor downstairs had said about a small light bulb that resided inside. The strange Fresnel lens surrounding it amplified the small bulb’s intensity to over one million candlepower beam.

I gasped.

I was sure that the riddle of the “Lady of the Light,” the ways of the wind, the moon’s drag on earth and the seagull’s true intent could all be all solved when viewed through the Fresnel lens. Somewhere, Jules Verne smiled. The Fresnel lens belonged in Captain Nemo’s undersea Nautilus ship from Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

A million candlepower. I wished it were dark…


Author note of June 25th 2018:

The Point Vicente Lighthouse plays a pivotal role in the author’s soon to be published novel Portuguese Bend.1959… When the author decided to write a mystery novel called Portuguese Bend, his thoughts returned to a cliff above Portuguese Bend, a place that stood out in his boyhood memories. One of the themes, timelessness, is examined through the Fresnel lens…

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