The story unfolds as a series of diary entries beginning on New Year’s Day 1796. The narrator is recording his first day in a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Norway.
He notes that a storm is raging outside and laments that he is isolated. "As regularly as I can keep the journal, I will — but there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am — I may get sick, or worse ... So far well!"
There are just three more journal entries when this last work of the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, dies at 49 years of age and leaves the tale unfinished in 1849.
But last year, Arroyo Grande native and filmmaker Benjamin Cooper turned the unfinished manuscript, which has been informally titled “Light-House,” into a low-budget horror flick, using the iconic Point San Luis Lighthouse, near Avila, as its setting.
According to the film's official synopsis, in Cooper's "Lighthouse Keeper," a young man awakens alone on a remote beach, marooned there by a violent storm. Above the rocky crags, a lighthouse stands like a sentinel. Injured and suffering from amnesia, the man seeks the help of Walsh, the enigmatic lighthouse keeper. Walsh tells him they are stranded until the ferry arrives in two weeks and insists they are the sole inhabitants of the peninsula. But the man is haunted by fleeting glimpses of a beautiful young woman and plagued by visions of hideous phantoms reaching out from the depths. As this horror tale races towards a mind-bending finale, the man must confront the grotesque denizens of the night or heed the lighthouse keeper’s cryptic warning to “Always keep a light burning!”
You can rent the movie from any number of online video outlets. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can even watch “Lighthouse Keeper” for free. But the movie bears little resemblance to the real lighthouse — a quaint collection of buildings perched on a promontory overlooking San Luis Harbor on California’s Central Coast.
On a recent visit to Point San Luis Lighthouse, I watched waves crashing against the rocks below and whales jumping into the air offshore. Sunlight bathed the lovingly restored buildings, which include sleeping and working spaces for the families that inhabited the isolated outpost decades ago.
The only survivor of three prairie Victorian-style lighthouses that once guided mariners along the California coast, the Point San Luis Lighthouse remains a welcoming sight — not a frightening one. And it beckons people from around the world, who have a curiosity about the past and a love of the sea.
Planning for Point San Luis Lighthouse began in 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed an executive order directing the Department of Interior to reserve land along the Pacific Coast for the creation of a series of lighthouses. But congressional action to allocate funding to implement the plan was stalled for decades. Even after the money was finally allocated in 1886, construction of the Point San Luis Lighthouse was stalled by high costs and the inability to acquire the land.
The port remained dark until the passenger and cargo steamship Queen of the Pacific sank in the early morning of May 1, 1888, as it was making its way into the harbor. The ship was within about 500 feet of the Harford Pier, when it went down in 22 feet of water.
While there were no lives lost, the sinking fueled the belief that the accident would not have occurred if there had been a lighthouse to guide the ship safely into the harbor.
Using a prairie Victorian-style, rather than the more common tall cylindrical tower lighthouse design, construction of the Point San Luis Lighthouse began in 1889. The lighthouse was operational the following year.
A single kerosene lamp illuminated the lighthouse from a 40-foot-tall tower. Inside, a Fresnel lens collected all of the lamp’s light and delivered a single beam that could be seen 20 miles out to sea. In 1933, an electric bulb replaced the kerosene lamp. The Fresnel lens was retired in 1969 and replaced by an automatic electric light.
The lighthouse operated from 1890 to its decommissioning in 1974. Nearly two decades later, the site was transferred to the Port San Luis Harbor District, with the requirement that the station be restored and opened to the public.
In 1995, the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, a nonprofit organization, was formed to restore and operate the lighthouse as a tourist destination. An estimated 75,000 volunteer hours have been invested so far into maintaining and restoring the lighthouse’s well-scrubbed buildings and exhibits.
Separately, the complex still houses an automated light beam to warn mariners, as well as radar and other equipment used by government agencies to provide weather forecasting and enhance national security.
Unlike the more familiar Piedras Blancas Light Station, north of Cambria, which easily can be seen from Highway 1, the Point San Luis Lighthouse is tucked away from view, with land access accommodated by a twisting, narrow road that climbs along a ragged coastal bluff.
The 30-acre site can be reached by a docent-led hike of the Pecho Coast Trail, classic trolley rides and tours provided by the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, or by kayak. For land access to the lighthouse, visitors must be escorted across the perimeter of PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant site.
No doubt the Point San Luis Lighthouse is located off the beaten path. It’s about a two-hour drive from Bakersfield to reach the parking lot near the Harford Pier, where lighthouse visitors board a trolley for a “white knuckle” ride up the cliff to the lighthouse.
But the effort to reach the little historic gem is time well spent. The location provides a spectacular view of one of the prettiest stretches of coast. The tour of the lighthouse provides a glimpse into California’s past — a time when self-sufficient pioneers sacrificed to make the state truly a golden place.
Proceeds from the Lighthouse Keepers’ tours and other events, including private parties and weddings, are used to operate and preserve the Point San Luis Lighthouse.