Robert Decatur Israel was born Thursday, March 23, 1826, in Pittsburgh. Son of a bricklayer — his parents were Scotch-Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch — he came to San Diego as a young man and, from 1871 to 1982, was keeper of the Point Loma Lighthouse.
Israel never meant to come west. He apprenticed as a chair-maker, fashioning both “utilitarian domestic furnishings” and ornamented applewood chairs praised for their “elegance.” In 1846, when the United States declared war on Mexico, Israel enlisted with the United States First Regiment of Mounted Riflemen in New Orleans. On February 20, 1847, Israel’s Company E sailed on the Dradem to Lobos Island, Mexico.
Private Israel fought at Vera Cruz, a five-day siege in March. His company defeated General Santa Ana and over 12,000 soldiers at rocky Cerro Gordo. He also fought in the brief Battle of Contreras and stormed the fortress of Chapultapec on September 13.
In the 1840s military obligations lasted five years. Because he’d seen so much combat, when the war ended in 1848, Israel received an honorable discharge after a year and nine months of service. The government gave war veterans 160 acres of land in the region of their choice. Israel requested a land grant in California, “near the newly annexed border town of San Diego.” He shipped his chair-making tools around the Horn and, accompanied by his brother, joined a wagon train and came west as a hunter and a scout.
Israel came to San Diego in January, 1850. That year saw a number of firsts. The city became incorporated March 27, 1850. When California was admitted to the Union that same year, San Diego became the state’s first county. San Diegans elected their first mayor, Joshua Bean, in 1850. The first newspaper, The San Diego Herald, moved to Old Town in 1851. And William Heath Davis, a San Francisco investor, bought 160 acres south of Old Town. He called it “New Town” and urged people to build there.
Israel worked as a blacksmith in Old Town. He and his partner, Van Alst, constructed wagons and light “two-horse” carriages that, according to the Herald, surpassed “anything we have ever seen on the Pacific Coast.” Israel married Maria Arcadia Alipas in 1852. They lived in an adobe home on the northwest edge of the Old Town plaza. Within a year, Maria accumulated property in New Town. Their tax return for 1854 shows they had “fourteen heifers, three oxen, a mare, a foal, a stallion, three ‘tame’ horses, and forty hogs and pigs.” Israel’s blacksmith shop was valued at $1750.
Israel held a number of civic appointments — constable, provost marsal, supervisor of the Cuyamaca precinct — and he also did paralegal work.
From 1864 to 1886 he served as a school trustee and took a stand in the reigning controversy of the day. Mary Chase Walker, a schoolteacher, invited an African-American woman to lunch. The townspeople called for Walker’s dismissal.
“Israel, a Lincoln Republican, viewed the racial issue with anger and sided with the teacher in her selection of friends.” He debated Andrew Cassady, at the “little school.” They “almost came to blows. Israel, as hot-headed as his adversary, threatened to throw the whole school fund into San Diego Bay ere he would truckle with Copperheads!” (A “copperhead” was a Northern Democrat sympathetic Confederate slaveholders who supported secession from the union.)
On September 28, 1850, Congress declared that San Diego was a prime location for a lighthouse. In June 1851, A.M. Harrison, chief topographer of the U.S. Coast Survey, recommended the chaparral-covered peninsula of Point Loma. A 20- by 30 foot structure was completed in August 1854. Lanterns and lenses arrived later. On November 15, 1853, “the light beamed for the first time.”
Israel became the twelfth assistant light-house keeper in 1871. His annual salary: $300. The Israel’s and their three sons moved to the isolated promontory and in June, 1873, Israel became principal keeper “of the Point Loma light.” They at the New England-style lighthouse for the next 18 years.
The fragile “third order” lens required cleaning every two months. To avoid scratching the glass, Israel wore a linen apron over his navy blue jersey uniform. He used spirits of wine and polished the lens with “rouge” (ferric oxide). The lantern emitted a fixed bean in an 18-mile radius.
“To alleviate the loneliness of lighthouse life,” and often to get drinking water, “the Israel’s visited Old Town often. Provided that Israel returned by sunset to light the lantern, the precious daylight hours belonged to the family. They harnessed the chestnut mare” and made the two-hour buggy ride to Old Town. (The three Israel boys used to row boats to school “because it was easier and quicker than taking the trail.”)
Fog became such a problem that in 1891 Congress built a new facility at the southern-most tip of Point Loma. “Decatur lit the new lantern March 23, 1891.”
Israel left the lighthouse amid controversy. An inspector said the grounds were in disorder: “Since the station was moved to its new location, it appears to have gradually gone down.” Israel argued that the facility’s catchwater basin was at fault. (“I think the inspector is provoked because I did not highly recommend the work done by a workman he sent out”) and that he performed his duties as always. His superior officer in San Francisco discharged Israel in December 1892.
Israel moved his family to their land grant ranch at Aliso — northwest of Lake Hodges, where they cultivated “300 trees of different varieties.” In 1896, the Israel’s moved to “the little municipality” at Coronado. They lived in a wood frame house with a gabled, shingled roof.
Robert Decatur “Old Bob” Israel died January 12, 1908. He is buried in grave # 74, post section five, of the Rosecrans National Cemetery.
MASTER’S THESIS EXCERPTS:
“Robert Decatur Israel: San Diego Pioneer and Keeper of the Light, 1826-1908” —
Patricia F. Klenner, Master's Thesis, USD, 1983
- Oh ‘twas a joyful sound to hear/ That good old padre say,/ Come Israel, pungle down the tin,/ And take the bride away. To “pungle down the tin” meant to pay the priest his fee in silver for performing a wedding ceremony.
- San Diego Union, January 11, 1880: “Israel, the present efficient lighthouse keeper… and former hero of many battlefields of the Mexican War of 1846, was in town yesterday and gave us some interesting reminiscences of those days of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ We believe that he has never failed in a faithful performance of his duties [at the lighthouse].”
- Their water source was halfway to Old Town. “With a homemade pully and bucket, the family faced an arduous day’s work as they filled barrels with water and hauled them back to the lighthouse in the wagon.”
- Fog banks that rolled up from the Pacific posed a serious threat to ships about to enter San Diego harbor. To avert a potential catastrophe under such hazardous weather conditions, Israel sounded his shotgun to warn approaching ships. He doubtless spent many a cautious nightwatch in the lantern tower.