Alaska’s oldest remaining lighthouse is Eldred Rock, or “The Rock,” built 1906 in Lynn Canal; it is the only surviving octagonal one. Photo courtesy Kenneth J. Gill, Wikimedia Commons
On April 1, 1946, 47 minutes after a 1:30 a.m. Aleutian Trench jolt, a wave rammed the archipelago’s Scotch Cap Light, a 90-foot beacon on a bluff braced by a concrete seawall. At least 100 feet high, the tsunami razed the lighthouse, killing its five crewmen instantly. “Lights extinguished and horn silent…Scotch Cap believed lost,” logged the night watch at a WWII radio-direction-finding installation farther uphill. A “terrific roaring” had announced the blow that bucked the floor under him.
The bodies of chief boatswain’s mate Anthony Petit and his comrades, strewn piecemeal between rocks, were identified by their bridgework and jewelry.
Klondike gold five decades earlier had lured lubbers in floating coffins causing hundreds of accidents. Even large steamers foundered and did so widely publicized. Congress in 1901 therefore authorized $100,000, resulting in the construction of 11 lighthouses (seven in Southeast, four to the north and west) and eventually five more, with the last, Cape Decision near Sitka, finished in 1932. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed the Lighthouse Service’s responsibilities. Before this illumination boom, a whale-oil lantern in the cupola atop Sitka’s Baranof Castle had been the lone flame guiding sailors through a notorious gulf.
Steel-reinforced concrete designs including six elegantly plain, symmetrical Art Deco edifices succeeded wooden ones inspected annually but decayed within decades by rot and erosion. Nonetheless, lights, fusing the cloistered and mundane, tree house and man cave, suggesting donjons, Moorish minarets, or New England clapboards, melded hope with defiance. Standing tall, they flipped off a dogged foe.
Materials and equipment—air compressors, concrete mixers, lumber, roofing paper, and tar—had to be lightered past stone fangs and reef gauntlets. Hoists and winches hauled loads up cliffs or, at Cape Spencer, a crane a basket, 80 feet to its destination, lifting human cargo as well. Helipads at select sites eased search-and-rescue and maintenance missions.
Kerosene and oil-vapor lamps had yielded to safer electric bulbs; motors replaced pulleys or windup weights like a clock’s that rotated dimmer earlier lenses. Cape Decision boasted a 350,000-candlepower light; Sarichef in the Aleutians, this continent’s westernmost, perched among eight shipwrecks and four active volcanoes, one of 700,000. Eldred Rock’s beam pierced 15-mile murk. Radio-beacon navigational aids, compressed-air foghorns, docks, ramps, bunkhouses, boathouses, and oil houses for storing the lamp’s fuel augmented arrays.
Uniformed keepers, and before them civilians, earned hardship pay. Some exercised, boxing, though bouts weren’t always playful. Some never married. Many unraveled lit with hooch, Prohibition notwithstanding, battling inner demons in vain. “Don’t think at all,” seniors advised novices, “unless it’s about your job.” A mere three stations allowed families as unpaid helpers. Singles at hazardous “stag lights” enjoyed 12-month furloughs every three years. One, last seen in a dinghy in a gale, had gone to Port McArthur for supplies. Another, ailing, died on shore when the launch for fetching him swamped, drowning nine hands. Exposure claimed several straying in forest. Brown bears splintered doors. Storms choked up stoves, flattened waves, whipping spray-smoke off leaden surfaces. A Cape Spencer crew shipped their bulldog mascot back to Juneau because “A dog shouldn’t have to take this kind of existence.” After getting acquainted, bunkies passing each other barely grunted. “What can we talk about?” they said. “Certainly not the weather. It never changes.”
Above everything, the light mustn’t go out.
Like the radiant outposts bathed in mists, foundations of sanity easily crumbled. The district superintendent counseled a trio no longer on speaking terms. The root of their discord? Potatoes. Should they be boiled, mashed, or fried? A Unimak Island keep ranting, frazzling his mates’ nerves, seeing ghosts of Aleuts murdered by Russians, was removed. Elsewhere, an old salt kept dreaming of sea monsters invading his stronghold. (Perhaps unsurprisingly. The sole neighbor for years there was a trapper 10 miles away.) Nocturnal, multicolored flashes vexed one poor soul, and a retiree walked Ketchikan’s streets swatting invisible bugs. Never mind stones in glasshouses: A Sentinel Islander ran amuck with a pickaxe. A Tree Point drunk split the light’s door’s top panel with a broad-head hunting arrow aimed at the officer-in-charge barricaded inside. Amour fou exacted its toll—a station head’s fling with his assistant’s wife led to a hotel
Pre-dawn to post-dusk routines were demanding even without mental hiccups. Lenses needed buffing, castaways saving, weather observations to be radioed. Depending on season and location, snow was melted, rain caught in cisterns, or spring or lake water piped in. One caretaker gasoline-torching frozen plumbing started a fire. Without water for dousing, it quickly devoured the structures. “Well, I see you got the place warmed up,” the lighthouse tender’s captain quipped. Foghorns audible five miles out made light sleepers under vibrating roofs swallow sedatives. The afflicted, often becoming hearing-impaired, timed their conversations to the droning’s pauses. Despite gardening efforts, the recluses sometimes subsisted on “mountain scenery and boiled discouragement.” One baked a lemon pie with brass polish, high in citric acid. Ships or launches, weather permitting, delivered grub, movies, fuel, letters, and freshwater if necessary, monthly or yearly. On Prince William Sound’s Hinchinbrook, perishables arrived by parachute, manna from heaven. Mail and provisioning eclipsed holy days.
Moments of grace sprang from sea lions lounging on headlands and buoys, from puppy-eyed seals, sea otter rafts, and shorebird vortices, from leviathans launching themselves to splash down with thunderclaps. Clouds formed painterly backdrops, whitecaps frothed into “Neptune’s sheep.” The “lampists” handfed wild foxes and petted deer. They relished estates decked with “Chinese rugs” of 70 wildflower kinds while the breakers’ furor thrummed bedrock. A government teacher at Tree Point taught the three Rs besides sea creatures and constellations. Workers erecting its new light amused these kids with a life-size, walking mechanical dummy that puffed smoke and blinked lights instead of eyes.
A few lights were tended till 1974, yet all are now automated. One, privately built, serves as a B&B and honeymoon suite, and the adventurous rent bunks in the Cape St. Elias compound beleaguered by bruins. Cruise ships’ and yachts’ skiffs visit Five Finger Lighthouse near Petersburg—used currently also in humpback research—for tourist tours and yoga on the plank helipad. Ironically, Paul Sharpe, a summer staff and ex-president of its nonprofit, maintained everything but the lamp, which the Coast Guard still services. Associations gather funds for tasks that temper the romance of modern lighthouse tenancy: roof repairs—crucial, plastering, painting, trouble-shooting electrical problems, refuse removal, and flogging souvenirs.
Lights like Sarichef fared less well. Transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service, its rooms and centerpiece were demolished. Guard Island’s outbuildings too lie in rubble. However, “In many ways, the memories were better than the reality,” conceded a woman visiting after 50 years with her parents, former wardens at Tongass Narrows.
Outsiders simply can’t grasp that world. They couldn’t then either. In 1930, prompted by a newspaper ad, an Estonian clerk wed assistant keeper August Waltenberg, who helped locate two pilots missing near Tree Point. How did she feel beside a man she didn’t know, in a country whose language she didn’t speak, immured on America’s brink, her Promised Land a chilly white tower?