Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 23, 2014

To the Lighthouse

One of the fundamental precepts of Under Western Skies is this admonition: Go out and look around; there are marvels awaiting you around the next corner.

Over the past four years, regular readers have gone with us to visit numerous marvels within an hour’s drive or less of where I sit at this moment — many within walking distance. I realize that I’ve overlooked an obvious one: the lighthouse. The Counselor and I walk within a few yards of it almost every weekend. Truly, familiarity breeds — well, not contempt, but — blindness.

Let’s get oriented. In your atlas, find downtown Los Angeles. Follow Interstate 110 (the Harbor Freeway) about 30 miles due south and you’ll find the Port of Los Angeles. If you get on a boat and keep going south, you’ll end up on Santa Catalina Island, 23 miles across the water, but don’t do that; that’s another story. To the east is the Port of Long Beach, the city of Long Beach, and other towns stretching east by southeast along the coast: Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and onward. The western side of the port is formed by a promontory named Point Fermin. At the tip of Point Fermin is the Point Fermin Lighthouse. I’m amused that this spot is named after the same Catholic saint — San Fermin — whose festival is celebrated in one of my Desert Island books, The Sun Also Rises (click on photos for larger image).

IMG_1541 Point Fermin lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1874. You’ll immediately recognize the Victorian era architectural style in that photo. It’s a lovely structure, and it’s in great condition. It’s no longer a working lighthouse, but it’s the centerpiece of a large municipal park on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a great place to have a family picnic, watch for whales, sea lions and peregrine falcons and, in summer, attend performances of the SoCal company, Shakespeare by the Sea in the little amphitheater (this year we get “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Trust me, these people know what they’re doing; come see them. Here’s a young peregrine falcon I photographed the same day as I made these photos of the lighthouse. He’s just about ready to leave the nest.

IMG_1551 Little Perry

Like most of the significant events associated with the early history of the port, the founding of the lighthouse is due to the efforts of the indefatigable Phineas Banning. Banning was a visionary force of nature and played a huge role in establishing the port itself and had some hand in almost every aspect of its early history. We’ve previously reported on his role in establishing a Civil War-era fort, Camp Drum, to combat the threat of Confederate attacks on the port. CLICK HERE to read that post.

After Banning and his colleagues had the lighthouse built, the first lighthouse-keepers were worthy of note: sisters Mary and Ella Smith traveled from their home in the state of Washington to assume the lonely post. It was, indeed, a lonely post, although it’s difficult to imagine it now, set as it is at the edge of the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles that extends to within a few feet of the shoreline (and the occasional house, road or golf course occasionally splashes in). As years passed, the growing city of San Pedro on the edge of the port became accessible by the famous Red Car line and, ultimately, by automobile, and the lighthouse became a tourist attraction. When the coast went dark with the blackout following the attacks on Pear Harbor in 1941, the lighthouse went dark, too, and never returned to service.

Eventually, the lighthouse was decommissioned and fell into disrepair, but it’s been restored, and you can tour it.

IMG_1535 Point Fermin Lighthouse

For film buffs, a scene in “Chinatown” was shot at Point Fermin with Jack Nicholson. You can still wander into Walker’s, which appears in the background of that scene, and have a beer with the friendly bikers who make the place a destination for weekend joy rides. (I assume they’re friendly, why else would they have joy rides?)

Or, you can join The Counselor and me as we walk our 1.5 mile route along Paseo Del Mar, and gaze at the old Victorian at its spot on the bluffs overlooking the ocean.

There are a thousand things to contemplate under western skies. Next, we’ll head uphill just half a mile inland from the lighthouse and see another fascinating structure dedicated to sending out signals of a very different kind.

© Brad Nixon 2014, 2017



  1. Point Fermin Lighthouse – wow! I was there in June 2013 during a stopover returning from New Orleans with a friend who took me there to show me where he got married (and we ate sandwiches in the park). I didn’t know you lived so close by. It was a very nice place.


  2. Glad to see you’re resuming your tours of L.A. and environs again. Thanks for sharing and educating.


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