Lighthouses in Alaska
The first lighthouse on mainland North America's Pacific Coast was established in 1805 at the quaint port of Sitka, Alaska. Flanked on the east by towering, ice-capped mountains and to the west by the mercurial Gulf of Alaska, Sitka was then a Russian trading post under the shrewd management of entrepreneur and governor, Aleksandr Baranov. The light sat on a rock at the harbor entrance for a time, then was moved to the roof of Baranov Castle.
The governor's home, known as Baranov Castle, was a bold citadel facing the sea. It served not only as a welcome landmark for vessels headed into Sitka Bay, but also as a fortress against the native Tlingits who had destroyed a previous outpost at Sitka after mistreatment by Russian traders. Atop the castle was a cupola where a light was shown. In addition, Baranov ordered a small lighthouse built on an island at the entrance to the bay.The island light vanished sometime in the 1830s, but the beacon in the castle was still shining when the U.S. annexed the Alaska Territory in 1867. An army post was quickly set up, with an ordinary officer given responsibility for the beacon. He was paid an extra 40-cents a day to keep its seal oil lamps burning and the windows clean. The beacon was maintained for ten years, then abandoned when the army withdrew from Sitka.
From 1877 to 1902, the Alaska shores, with half again as much coastline as the continental U.S., were dark.Gold was the spark that finally lit the Alaskan coast. Klondike prospectors arrived by the thousands in 1897-98 via Lynn Canal and Skagway. While gold fever raged, shipping attempted to keep up with the need for transportation of people and goods. By this time, a number of buoys had been placed along the perilous Inside Passage, but fog, swift currents, and hidden rocks still exacted a heavy toll. The Alaska that had once been dubbed "Seward's Folly" and the "Ice Box of America" beckoned with boundless opportunity. Lighthouses were needed to show the way.
Perhaps the government was slow to act because of the enormous expense and hardship of lighting the nation's largest piece of real estate. Urgent sites for Alaskan lighthouses were isolated and treacherous, some more than 3000 miles from the Lighthouse Depot at San Francisco. Eventually, a separate district was established for Alaska, headquartered in Ketchikan and later moved to Juneau. The early lights were built by the crews of steam-powered tenders out of Seattle, tough little vessels with dainty floral names like Rose, Fern, Armeria, and Columbine.
In 1902, the first major Alaskan light stations were established at Southeast Five Finger Island in Frederick Sound and Sentinel Island in Lynn Canal. Despite the wet, chilly climate, and the ever-present threat of fire in the lantern, the towers were built of wood to save money. They were handsome Victorian structures though, with comfortable living quarters and state-of-the-art fog signals to blast through Alaska's relentless murk.
Five Finger Lighthouse in 1902 (Coast Guard Archives)
To guide shipping into the Bering Sea, lights were also built at Scotch Cap and Cape Sarichef as guardians of Unimak Pass in the Aleutians. These were made stag stations -- only men were assigned to them, since the lighthouses were considered too remote for families.
The keepers who served at these stations often were chosen from the stalwart native population, for enormous fortitude was required to handle the deprivations of life on a barren island. Ted Pedersen was such a man, born in 1905 on remote Samalga Island to an Alaskan fur trader and his Russian-Aleut wife. Pedersen served aboard the tender Cedar, which supplied the outer Alaskan lights in the 1920s, then received an appointment to Kayak Island's Cape St. Elias Light (pictured below, courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard) after one of its keepers went mad. Pedersen disliked duty on Kayak Island, calling it "the worst in Alaska." Storms were terrifying and living conditions so dangerous the service tender came just once a year. Often, supplies ran low and meals were lean.
"If we saw seagulls flying around eating something -- halibut or rock cod washed up -- we'd go down and look, and maybe we'd take it away from the gulls," Pedersen recalled.
Within a year, another position opened at isolated Cape Sarichef Light. One of the assistant keepers had suffered a breakdown after two years at the lonely station. Pedersen replaced him and, having spent part of his childhood in the Aleutians, found life at Cape Sarichef more to his liking. He hunted, explored the island, and read hundreds of books. A magazine article described him as "The Lighthouse Keeper at the End of the World" and noted that he wore a reindeer parka with as much finesse as a three-piece suit.
Cooking was one of Pedersen's favorite pursuits. He was known for his Mulligan Stew made from fresh caribou meat. In deep winter, when the station was shut down for three months, Pedersen sometimes made hikes around Unimak Island. One of these was a 263-mile trek to see a schoolteacher. Pedersen was 29 at the time, and women were a rare sight on Unimak Island.
Other less hardy keepers did not adapt as well as Pedersen. In 1981, one of the Cape Sarichef crew became ill, and a tender was summoned to take him to a hospital. When the tender arrived, the sea was too rough to dock. A launch was sent to the lighthouse, but waves swamped it, drowning everyone aboard. While the tender waited at anchor for calmer seas, the sick lightkeeper died. He was buried behind the station on "Graveyard Hill."
A bureau bulletin mailed to lighthouse keepers nationwide in February 1921 carried a firm warning about the dangers of the Alaskan wilderness. The notice was occasioned by the loss of two men near Mary Island Lighthouse. Keeper Herbert Scott and two friends from nearby Ketchikan had gone to the aid of a stricken boat. As they returned to the lighthouse, they lost the trail in fresh snow and wandered off into the dense woods. Two of the men, including Scott, froze to death. The Bureau of Lighthouses called it "a needless accident."
(U.S. Coast Guard)
At times, even the greatest fortitude, outdoor skill, and common sense weren't enough on the rugged Alaskan landscape. Five keepers lost their lives at Scotch Cap Lighthouse in 1946 after a seismic disturbance in the Aleutian Trench spawned a monster tsunami that destroyed the station. The lighthouse was battered to pieces and washed into the sea. Their deaths urged the establishment of the Pacific Tsunmai Warning System, an international effort that has saved countless lives with early tsunami warnings. (Unfortunately, the island nation of Indonesia was not a member of the system in 2004 when a devastating tsunami swept its shores.)
During Prohibition, the keepers at Guard Island Lighthouse discovered a boat adrift and rowed out to investigate. They found the mangled bodies of two men stuffed inside a locker in the boat cabin. The shocking crime was blamed on bootleggers. Guard Island's lightkeepers began carrying guns at all times. This station was one of only three in Alaska where families were permitted to live, and the men were concerned for the safety of their wives and children.
Most of the old wooden lighthouses in Alaska were replaced with more durable Moderne-style concrete structures by the time the Coast Guard took over navigational aids in 1939. Because of the emotional and physical hardships of keeping Alaska's outer lights, new rules were instituted. Keepers were required to serve only two year assignments at remote stations and then received a year of vacation for their two years service. They were visited by tenders more often. In addition, plans were made to automate these lonely outposts as soon as possible.
By the close of the 1960s most of the Eskimo lights were self-sufficient and their keepers had been transferred back to civilization. The Northern Lights began to dance a new song -- the quiet hum and click of automatic machinery. No one remained to hear the Taku winds whispering through cracks in the walls or feel the shudder of the sea throwing itself against the shore. Bears no longer had garbage cans to raid; the caribou had no risk of becoming steaks in a lighthouse freezer.
A cute family of martens took up residence at Cape St. Elias Light, and the Coast Guard's periodic maintenance team sometimes left food for them. Seals and seabirds made themselves at home around Eldred Rock, Cape Hinchinbrook, Cape Spenser, and other sentinels in the far north. But they shun human contact, preferring to watch from a distance when tender crews arrive to check the lights. Such changes seem to suggest sequestered spots like these are better suited to beasts than people.
This article originally appeared in Mariners Weather Log, Winter 1992.
© Elinor De Wire, 1992