The Cape Point Lighthouses

Let there be light
When the governor of the Cape gave John Osmond ownership of Cape Point’s Buffelsvlei and Uitershoek farms in 1816, he did so on one strict condition.

At the time, there was some debate around access to roads that crossed the farms of Cape Point. But if the land was to be given to Osmond for his own private use, the governor insisted that Osmond allow the authorities access to a suitable location on his land where a lighthouse could be built.

The site identified for the lighthouse was Cape Point Peak, at 238m above sea level the highest point at Cape Point. Construction began in 1850.

Today, visitors to the original lighthouse see a plaque that reads:

“Designed, specified and directed by
Alexander Gordon, Civil Engineer
For the Board of Trade
Iron Tower by Victoria Foundry Co.
Lantern & Lights by Deville and Co.
Greenwich, London
1857”

Alexander Gordon not only designed the lighthouse and oversaw the construction of its parts in England, he also came to South Africa to direct its construction.

The first lighthouse
As per the plaque, sections of the lighthouse were actually forged by the Victoria Foundry in London and then shipped to Simonstown. From the harbour, the sections were transported to Buffel’s Bay on a cargo boat named the Alarm – an apt name for a vessel playing its part in the construction of a signal that will warn sailors of impending danger.

From Buffel’s Bay, the sections were transported by cart to Groene Dam, just north of the Cape of Good Hope. Then an ox-drawn sled was used to get the sections up the steep slopes to Da Gama Peak. (Runners were more efficient than wheels in getting the cargo over the bushes and rocks around the Peak.)

The lighthouse was first lit on  May 1st, 1860 and it emitted a 12-second pulse of 2000-candlepower light every minute.

Next to the lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and a small office were built. Today they have been converted into the top station of the funicular. A visitors’ chalet was also constructed and basic supplies for visitors were provided by the government free of charge.

The historian Jim Hallinan notes: “No doubt these amenities [the vistors’ chalet] did much to encourage visitors to the lighthouse and relieve loneliness it can be expected the keepers and their families experienced.”

The writer Lawrence G. Greene tells us that visitors to the lighthouse included “all the admirals stationed in Simonstown”, as well as dignitaries like the architect Sir Herbert Baker and Lord Milner, the governor of the Cape.

These visitors were, indeed, warmly welcomed and appreciated by the lighthouse keepers but one visitor was not as welcome as the rest: the Simonstown magistrate.

Whether it was because the judge was an unpleasant person, or because his visits took the form of official “inspections” is not clear. But evidently the lighthouse keepers did not appreciate being inspected by someone outside their own department. When the lighthouse keeper and his assistants discovered that the magistrate had recently had his appendix removed, they compelled him to show them his scar.

“He comes to inspect us,” was their rationale, “why should we not be allowed to inspect him?”

Danger Point and the Flat Earthers
Across False Bay, another lighthouse was built at Danger Point. In 1901, the farmer George Smith (who bought Buffelsfontein Farm from John McKellar in 1889) reported that he could see the light from that lighthouse flashing across the bay.

According to Lawrence Greene, when Zeteticians (the name given to Flat Earthers; radical skeptics who believed that a spherical planet is a scientific conspiracy) heard about this, they immediately announced that this was proof that the Earth was, indeed, flat because a curved Earth would render the light of Danger Point invisible to anyone standing in Cape Point.

So, as one of its less heralded accolades, Cape Point became something of a Mecca for some people of, shall we say, eccentric beliefs at the turn of the 20th century!

It is true that the light of Danger Point is often visible from Cape Point at night, but this can be easily explained by the refraction of the light over the water.

Today, the International Flat Earth Society is enjoying a quasi-ironic revival as a website and forum for latter day Zeteticians. But we’re not sure how many pass through the gates of the Reserve.

The second lighthouse
The original Cape Point lighthouse may have been built at the highest point on the rocks at the tip of Cape Point. Who could have guessed that the highest point was also the least suitable for a lighthouse?

Low-hanging clouds created by wind blowing up the cliffs of Cape Point would obscure the light for up to 900 hours a year, a dire situation which the engineer Harry C. Cooper described as “only equaled at sea level on the foggy shores of Newfoundland”. In 1890, the assistant lighthouse keeper Charles Starling said that “the fog seems to blow up here like smoke from the precipice below the lighthouse.” A repair main once remarked that for five whole days the fog at the lighthouse was so thick that “he spent his time in a kind of steam bath”.

Things came to a head in 1911, when the Lusitania, a Portuguese liner, was sunk after it hit Bellow’s Rock – a treacherous submerged reef three kilometres south of Cape Point. The main reason for the disaster, in which four people drowned when a lifeboat tried to land on Dias Beach, was that the lighthouse had been shrouded in low-hanging clouds. A decision was taken to build another lighthouse in a lower position, at Dias Peak.

The second lighthouse was begun in 1913 but only completed in 1919. The delay was caused by a combination of the First World War (1914-1918) and the difficulty of its positioning. The second lighthouse was situated at the very end of the Cape Point promontory, a position chosen by Harry C. Cooper.

As you can imagine when you see it perched so precariously on the spine of cliffs, constructing the second lighthouse was a tricky business. Builders had to construct a series of rails to the location in order to transport materials there on modified carts. The carts even had to be moved from one set of rails to another using a crane.

The light for the second lighthouse was manually lit by Harry Cooper’s daughter, who was three years old at the time. It required manual lighting because the light was the flame of a paraffin torch, with fuel running from tanks located where the original lighthouse stood.

At a height of 87m above sea level, this new light would not be obscured by the clouds formed over Cape Point. But it caused another problem.

The light from the original lighthouse was also seen up the west coast and served as a beacon for ships rounding Kommetjie and Chapman’s Peak. The light from the second lighthouse couldn’t be seen from there. And this is reason why the Slangkop lighthouse was built, just a few kilometres north of Cape Point, on the outskirts of the village of Kommetjie.

In 1936, the second lighthouse at Cape Point was electrified. At 19 million candlepower, it became the most powerful light in Africa. And it still is to this day.

 

You’ve read the stories, now visit Cape Point where you can:

  • Take a walk or ride the funicular to the first lighthouse.
  • The top funicular station was converted from the original lodging and offices of the lighthouse keepers.
  • Walk around the original lighthouse and read the plaque. Note the sections of the lighthouse, and imagine how difficult it must have been to transport them to this location before the paths and roads had been built.
  • See the second lighthouse from above. Imagine how difficult it must have been to get the materials to that location.
  • Take a spectacular walk to the second lighthouse. Don’t rush it!
  • Visitors staying overnight might be able to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse at Danger Point. But they should avoid jumping to conclusions about the shape of the Earth.