Erin Hurley is a journalism senior and Mustang Daily SLO lifestyle columnist.
OK readers, I feel like we know each other well enough for me to reveal something about myself. I’m kind of a history nerd. I’ve always been one.
So when I was researching for this column and came across the Point San Luis Lighthouse, I was excited to learn that it has a pretty cool history. Plus, it’s just a really interesting place to visit.
I didn’t even know there was a lighthouse this close to us. To get there, you can either hike through the hills starting right across the street from Avila Beach or take a trolley tour that is offered every Saturday. The views of the bay on the way to the lighthouse are incredible — at one point I could see all the way to Guadalupe.
The Point San Luis Lighthouse was built back in 1890, and my tour guide Donna Kalkowski said it was originally operated using coal to boil water and create steam to power the whistle, which told ship captains they were getting close. She added that ship captains could recognize the distinct whistle sounds of each lighthouse.
The light was originally created with a flame and a Fresnel lens, Kalkowski said. It had red filters on every other flash panel so the light would flash red and then white — another way of distinguishing the Point San Luis Lighthouse from others. In 1915, air compressors replaced the coal-heated boilers, and in 1933, an electric light replaced the lens.
Visiting this place really made me think about how important of the lighthouse keeper job must have been. Ships were dependent on them. What if the light broke? What if the whistle stopped working? I don’t even want to think about it, but those guys kept at it every day.
The lighthouse was closed down by the Coast Guard in 1974, and Kalkowski said it was almost sold to a private owner under the Reagan administration when a local attorney named Stu Jenkins took action.
He, along with another individual, got the 30-acre lighthouse property sold by the government to the Port San Luis Harbor District in 1992. The private owner intended to make the site into a bed and breakfast, Jenkins said, but the public wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
Then, in 1995, the Port San Luis Lighthouse Keepers Association (of which Jenkins is president) came together and took control of the lighthouse — with the promise that the nonprofit would restore it and put any extra money back into it.
“Our motivation was to make this available to the public,” Jenkins said.
And they’ve done an incredible job. The whole experience of visiting the lighthouse is like peeking into the past. You can check out the original Fresnel lens that was returned to the lighthouse only last year, and visit the rooms in the house where the lighthouse keepers and their families lived. You can even climb the ladder to get to the very top of the lighthouse tower.
When the lighthouse was abandoned in 1974, locals were allowed to come take what they wanted from the house, Kalkowski said. But the Lighthouse Keepers Association was able to get a lot of those items back for the restoration.
The lighthouse docents are all volunteers, and it’s clear they just love talking to people about the lighthouse. The docents who guided the trolley ride and the lighthouse tour I went on were two of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and they really knew their facts.
Right now the Lighthouse Keepers Association is working on completing the duplex next door to the original lighthouse building so it can be used to hold events. Jenkins said they’re taking reservations for weddings as early as February.
Kristi Balzer, the public relations and tour manager for the Historic Point San Luis Lighthouse Trolley Tours company said people should visit the lighthouse because “it’s a completely unique experience.”
“I always tell people it’s worth the price of the trolley ride just for the view,” Balzer said. “Everyone who comes out here loves it.”