Construction of what was to be the first Fort Point Lighthouse at the entrance to San Francisco Harbor started in 1852. However, because its Fresnel lens had not yet arrived, it couldn’t go into operation when it was completed in 1853. Even if it had, the government decided that a fort needed to be built here and the brand-new lighthouse was in the way.
Only three months after its construction, the government demolished the new lighthouse in favor of a wooden, 36-foot-tall, four-sided tower built on a narrow ledge by the fort’s outer wall that was first lit in March of 1855. This must have upset James Rogan, the man who was appointed as its first keeper. He started out living in a nice new home and was thrown out and was now going to be assigned to a tower with no living quarters. He quit before the second tower was completed.
By 1863 the second Fort Point Lighthouse needed to be demolished so that a seawall could be built to protect the fort’s walls from erosion. A new lighthouse was then built, this time high atop the fort’s outer wall.
Irish native, James Rankin (1844-1921), served as the lighthouse keeper at California’s Fort Point Lighthouse for nearly 41 years, from 1878 to 1919, an amazing length of time for any keeper to serve at one lighthouse.
Although Rankin is credited with at least 18 incredible rescues, he felt that life at the lighthouse was somewhat boring. In an interview with a reporter from the San Francisco Call newspaper he said, “There is nothing here to see. There is the ocean and the sand and the guns and the soldiers. As for the ships one grows tired of them too.” But in referring to his wife, Nellie, and his three children and eight of his grandchildren who were all born at the Fort Point Light Station, he said, “I have my family and my pleasures.”
Little could James Rankin have imagined that it was those 18 confirmed rescues that convinced the Coast Guard in 1998 to name a 175-foot buoy tender after him. The USCGC James Rankin (WLM 555) was launched on April 25, 1998 in Marinette, Wisconsin.
When work on the Golden Gate Bridge started in 1933, it meant the end for the lighthouse. It would no longer be needed. On September 1, 1934, the Fort Point Lighthouse was discontinued. Thirty-six years later, on October 16, 1970, the fort was declared a National Historic Site, thereby giving federal protection for the preservation of the lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2023 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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