Yacht Rocks: The Unsung History of the Marina District Lighthouse

A stone landmark that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Some lighthouse snobs don’t even belive the Marina District Lighthouse counts as one. Photo by Deborah Peterson

It is stubby by lighthouse standards, it looks out of place so far from the boat traffic in the Marina Yacht Harbor, it has no certain name, and — horrors — it does not even rank a Wikipedia page.

But worst of all, the Marina District Lighthouse — fashioned of gorgeous stone and handsome teak by a San Francisco city commission that once had a grand plan to construct two of them at the harbor entrance — has lost its singular purpose, and any bow to it. It has not been lit in years, the city never bothered to move it when the harbor entrance was relocated decades ago, and there’s nary a plaque at the site. Lighthouses, of course, have essentially been put out of business by navigational tools more efficient, if less whimsical, than the signature pulsating lights these beacons once offered sea captains. The sailors from around the world who still make the red tile-roofed St. Francis Yacht Club in the Marina’s harbor their first stop after crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge surely don’t need this relic — or the more statuesque Alcatraz Island Light nearby — to find their way. Even so, lighthouses are still beloved. Aficionados shape vacations around them, state parks are built for them, and books, websites, and best-of lists are devoted to them.

Sadly, this one has become an ornamental centerpiece on a cul-de-sac that tourists use as a turnaround when they realize that the harbor road does not lead to San Francisco’s main waterfront. Most people probably pass right by it on their way to the Wave Organ.

Indeed, finding out anything about this 88-year-old lighthouse is difficult. Most lighthouse lists, or books like Ralph Shanks’ Guardians of the Golden Gate, snub it.

It does make a cameo appearance in the 1951 film noir The House on Telegraph Hill, however. And Lighthouse Digest, a publication out of Maine — a state with quite a respectable nautical pedigree — devoted a story to the tower in 2017. Even so, it disses its authenticity straight up, suggesting that many California visitors ignore it because “they don’t consider it a real lighthouse.”

Ouch.

San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department historian Christopher Pollock says this about whether the lighthouse ever was blessed by the federal government.

“This is not even a lighthouse by normal standards,” he says. “It’s squat, unmanned, and intended to be a beacon just for the yacht harbor, not necessarily to keep ships from crashing onshore.

“Think Alcatraz lighthouse or Point Bonita lighthouse,” he continues. “These are working lighthouses that are large, manned, and up high, to guide mariners in the fog.” 

OK. The purists are correct. There’s no evidence that it ever reached the height of lighthouse status: as an official U.S. Coast Guard-operated navigational guide. 

Still, the Marina District Lighthouse deserves more respect than it receives, says R.C. Keefe, who has no patience for such lighthouse snobbery.

I contacted the St. Francis Yacht Club because it is barely a mast length’s from the lighthouse. That led me to Keefe, who joined the club upon graduating from Lowell High School in 1950, served as its Commodore in 1975, and is now its senior member.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone alive who could tell you the exact and complete story of the lighthouse,” he says. “But I think I probably know more than anybody.”

The tower, which he calls St. Francis Lighthouse, was never intended to be an official navigation tool, but to mark the entrance to the harbor, originally built as a lagoon for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915. It lit the entrance to one of the most gorgeous harbors in the world, Keefe says. And it was included on the official maps of the day.

Following the land transfers to the city from the state in the 1920s, and the creation of the harbor, the park commission decided to build the lighthouse from cobblestones salvaged from the city streets, with the creator sketching a plan after looking at photographs of other towers, Keefe says. A Rec and Park Commission spokeswoman says the cobblestones served as the seawall and paving around the structure, but the ornamental stones for the lighthouse walls came from the George A. Pope residence that once stood in Pacific Heights. What everyone agrees on is that there once was a  beautiful teak door fashioned from a ladder from the USS Matsonia — and now that door is cemented shut, as are the windows.

But before that happened, Keefe saw inside the small tower. There are stairs, but no grand spiral staircase that is the signature of most lighthouses. There is barely room for one person to squeeze up to the top toward the lantern, he says, although there used to be occasional tours.

The 1,000-watt fixture was automated when it was first put to use on Oct. 22, 1931, and therefore it needed no keeper, says the Rec and Park Commission.

The light’s green-and-red colored glass is long gone. And when the spit on which it stands was extended, the beautiful landscaping and cobblestones that circled widely around the tower were removed to make way for parking, leaving the tower to stand awkwardly in the middle of the road.

Through the years, the lantern has been shot at by BB guns and damaged by rock-throwers, falling into “disrespect,” Keefe says.

Keefe finally decided to do something about it. About a decade ago, he worked to relight the lighthouse. He found a willing Marina Boulevard resident to donate the money. (When the lighthouse was first constructed in 1931, some of the wealthy residents there fussed that it would come with a noisy fog horn. That was never planned, says Keefe, who lived there for many years before moving to Marin.)

Today, the tower is graffiti-free, but still not lit.

“Nothing came of it, because she up and died on us,” Keefe says of the woman who planned to donate the money.

He’d happily take up the cause again, even as the Rec and Park Commission says it has no plans to relight the beacon.

“It’s the finest view in the world in one of the finest harbors in the world,” Keefe says. “It deserves to have a light.”

Finding donors should be easy, he says. “Money’s pretty cheap in San Francisco.”

Read more from SF Weekly’s Marina issue:

The Marina: The Neighborhood Everyone Loves to Hate
But is that fair?

Have a Cow, Man, at Marlowe’s Newest Spinoff
Sneak away for a bit of opulence at Cow Marlowe, which fits the neighborhood hand-in-glove.

Fort Mason Is Really Two Institutions in One
With half a century left on its leas, the future of the arts is bright — and eventually, all the piers may be restored.

What’s Happening With That Giant Building Behind the Palace of Fine Arts?
The city has struggled to find a purpose the Exhibition Center, one of the largest single-story structures in San Francisco.

Will the Marina Say Yes to Muni This Time?
Neighbors have opposed several transportation projects, but they’re hearing out preliminary plans to extend the Central Subway their way.

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