The huge beacon atop Mount Diablo was installed to help airplane pilots. It was trucked to the top of the 3,849-foot peak and activated in 1928 because its 10 million candlepower -- visible by air from more than 100 miles -- represented an advance in aerial navigation.
"In order to fly at night, before radar and electronic equipment, they needed some methodology for keeping the planes on course," Ron Brown said. "There was a transcontinental string of beacons, from coast to coast, placed every 50 or 100 miles. The one on Mount Diablo was the westernmost in the East-West array."
Brown, executive director of conservation group Save Mount Diablo, can speak at length on the topic. He became an authority on the beacon's history even before his organization volunteered to take the lead in overseeing its upkeep.
Renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh flipped the switch the first time it was lit. It brightened the night skies for 13 years after that. It went dark Dec. 8, 1941, as part of a West Coast blackout the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
The beacon didn't burn again until 1964 -- its purpose changed forever -- when Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz did the honors and began the tradition of shining the light every Dec. 7 in honor of those who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor.
From that moment on, the so-called "Eye of Diablo" assumed its new role as a symbol of respect for fallen heroes.
"It's pretty amazing every year when the ceremony takes place on Dec. 7 at the summit," Brown said. "There's a wide array of people, often including families bringing young children and sharing with them a sense of history as well as the concepts of freedom and protecting our way of life."
The appearance of remaining members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association always adds a lump-in-the-throat poignancy to the moment.
The tradition bears mentioning now because the beacon is badly in need of repairs and because Save Mount Diablo, which has volunteered to oversee the effort, is badly in need of funds.
"It's pretty much a top-to-bottom refurbishing," Brown said. "That means everything from electrical wiring to stripping what remains of the old painted surfaces to restoring the lenses and retooling the motors, rotors and gears that allow the beacon to turn."
The job is expected to cost $100,000. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation has pledged a dollar-for-dollar grant up to $50,000. (For donor information, go to www.savemountdiablo.org or call 925-947-3535.)
Save Mount Diablo is best known for preserving the natural wonders of the land surrounding the park, but it demonstrated a flair for tugging at heartstrings with the public service announcements it prepared asking for donations.
In those segments, as the beacon flashes across the evening sky, a veteran faces the camera and quietly articulates its significance.
"When that beacon light is turned on," says Pearl Harbor survivor Chuck Kohler, of Concord, "that's a tribute to those that lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. We are in danger of losing a connection back to our sunken shipmates as that beam passes overhead. Their pleas will be, 'Remember us, we gave our lives while in service to you.'"
Eighty-five years after its installation, the beacon now fulfills an even better purpose.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.