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Kathy Mastako's new book Lighthouse at Point San Luis chronicles the colorful history of the iconic landmark

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Unless you take a guided tour or happen to arrive at Avila Beach from the north by sea, you might never see the collection of structures that make up our local lighthouse. It's a relic of the past, first becoming operational in 1890 and eventually becoming automated in the 1970s.

These days, modern electronic aids to navigation have made lighthouses generally obsolete, but at one time, the Point San Luis Lighthouse was essential. Now, the people who lived in the remote location are given their due in Kathy Mastako's exhilarating and painstakingly researched new book The Lighthouse at Point San Luis.

"It has been my passion project for the last six years!" explained the author, who took on the project without any compensation. "All the proceeds are split 50/50 between the United States Lighthouse Society and the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers—two nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving lighthouse history."

After retirement from Cal Poly's Landscape Architecture Department as administrative support coordinator, Mastako began volunteering at the lighthouse and trained as a docent. Fascinated by the light station's rich history, she soon began researching in earnest everything she could find about the lighthouse and its past inhabitants.

If you're thinking, "Yawn, another boring history book," think again. Mastako's writing is lucid and lively, and the subject matter is deeply fascinating if you have even a passing interest in local history.

TENACIOUS RESEARCHER Author Kathy Mastako, a volunteer docent and board member of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, spent six years meticulously poring over historical records to give as full a picture as possible of our local lighthouse and the people who over the years operated it. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY MASTAKO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Kathy Mastako
  • TENACIOUS RESEARCHER Author Kathy Mastako, a volunteer docent and board member of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers, spent six years meticulously poring over historical records to give as full a picture as possible of our local lighthouse and the people who over the years operated it.

"I did a lot of research for this book, but the goal was to make it a readable book rather than something dry and scholarly," Mastako said. "I wanted to contribute to local history, but also to tell stories about the people who made the lighthouse's history come alive. One of the great joys of my research was connecting with the direct descendants of the lighthouse keepers, both civilian and military. One of the great frustrations was hitting brick walls—like not finding Henry Young's three sons."

Henry Wilson Young was the station's first principal keeper from 1890 to 1905, chronicled in Chapter 3. To get a little taste of Mastako's writing style, this is how the chapter opens:

"On a cool, cloudless afternoon in late winter, I sit on the steps outside the keeper's dwelling at the lighthouse at Point San Luis. The tours for the day are over, and I watch from a distance as the last visitors climb aboard the shuttle bus. The bus will wind its way along the one-lane lighthouse road down the bluff to the beach where the current year is in full swing. For a moment, I am content to remain behind in 1890. As I study the sky, the bay, and the lines of pelicans gliding by, there is nothing within my gaze to suggest it is not that year."

You will absolutely feel transported to this earlier time. Mastako very clearly loves the old lighthouse and its history, and she poured a lot of herself into the book.

"I'm especially proud of these first few paragraphs mainly because it took so very long for me to write them, to try to set the mood," she explained. "Also, Henry Young's story was the first story I wrote about the lighthouse's history."

Her research was driven by the limited history docents were told about the lighthouse.

"When I went through docent training and starting leading tours at the Point San Luis Lighthouse in 2016, the stories we shared with guests about its history and the people who lived and worked there centered mostly around the Moorefield family," Mastako explained. "Moorefield was a keeper there from 1926 until his 1947 retirement. In 1929, Moorefield married Elizabeth Studle, who was living in the city of San Luis Obispo with her parents and daughter. The daughter, Lucy, age 7 at the time, moved to the lighthouse after her mother's wedding and took the Moorefield name. She came back to the lighthouse during the years when the light station was being restored and shared her memories of what it was like to live there in the 1930s. However, since the light station's period of historic significance is 1890 to 1940, I thought it might be nice to have stories to tell our guests that dated from its earlier years of operation."

That's when she really dug into the past.

THE DEFINITIVE VOLUME The Lighthouse at Point San Luis by Kathy Mastako highlights the rich history of this local landmark from its construction, through its various operators, until its turnover to the U.S. Coast Guard and eventual automation. - BOOK COVER COURTESY OF THE UNITED STATES LIGHTHOUSE SOCIETY
  • Book Cover Courtesy Of The United States Lighthouse Society
  • THE DEFINITIVE VOLUME The Lighthouse at Point San Luis by Kathy Mastako highlights the rich history of this local landmark from its construction, through its various operators, until its turnover to the U.S. Coast Guard and eventual automation.

"In a nutshell, I try very hard not to leave a stone unturned. Of course, I am not always successful. Regarding sources, the National Archives is an excellent source. Then, of course, there's the internet and subscription sites like ancestry.com, the California Digital Newspaper Collection, newspapers.com, newsbank.com, genealogybank.com, fold3.com, etc.

"I spent tons of time in the research room at the SLO County History Center, and volunteer History Center researchers like Allan Ochs were of enormous help. Various state and county historical and genealogical societies were helpful, too. The endnotes in each chapter give more information on the various sources I used.

"And sometimes one just stumbles onto something, often when least expected."

There are so many fascinating nuggets, like a documented argument between the keeper Henry Wilson Young and his assistant Antonio Souza that's almost soap-operaesque. The entire last chapter on the Coast Guard assuming responsibility for the lighthouse was gripping.

"The most important part of the lighthouse's history isn't documented in the book," Mastako admitted. "It's the period after the lighthouse was abandoned. There are around 35 years, between 1975 and when restoration was complete, that the book doesn't cover. And these are crucial years. Many, many people were involved in ensuring the preservation and restoration of this historic site. I cannot even begin to name them or describe their selfless contributions to 'saving' this site for the public's enjoyment.

"As I write at the end of the last chapter, it's thanks to the herculean efforts of a deeply dedicated corps of volunteers and visionaries that the Point San Luis Lighthouse sits as it is today—a precious gem of the Central Coast," she said.

"The story of the restoration of Point San Luis is well worth a book of its own." Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at [email protected].

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