If not for the California gold rush, the construction of the first lighthouses on the West Coast would have been far less urgent. The “original eight”—seven on the California coast, one at the mouth of the Columbia River, began sentry duty in the mid-1800s, not long after gold was discovered in 1849 at Sutter’s Mill, an event that triggered a huge influx of fortune-seekers flocking to the coast by land and boat. Those coming by boat had to navigate fog, rugged coastlines and treacherous tides of northern California and farther up the coast.
The need was pressing. In the 300 years preceding the gold rush, 44 ships sank along the West Coast. In the 10 years from 1850 to 1860, 133 ships sank between San Diego and Washington’s Cape Flattery, killing dozens of passengers and losing tons of supplies and millions in gold, according to the book “Lighthouses of the Pacific Coast.”
Alcatraz Island’s was the first of the eight lit, in 1854, and Washington’s Cape Disappointment the last, in 1856, more than three decades before Washington became a state. In fact, lighthouses have been around longer than even these United States. The first, Boston Light, was built in 1716 on a small rock outcropping at the entrance of Boston Harbor, where it overlooked a historic tea party, and initially had a signal powered by candles. Rebuilt after being blown up in the Revolutionary War, Boston Light celebrated its 300th birthday two years ago.
On the opposite coast, the early going was rough for West’s original eight, built by the federal government and advised by a newly established Lighthouse Board. Two California lighthouses had to be rebuilt because the lenses, upon arrival, wound up too big to fit inside. Cape Disappointment’s construction was delayed by years when the ship carrying construction materials sank within miles of its destination. All eight were built on the East Coast’s Cape Cod cottage model. But some of their signals, like southern California’s Point Loma light, were swallowed up by notorious West Coast fog, prompting the light to be moved to lower ground.
In Washington today, 26 lighthouses dot the coast and inland waterways. Most are still active, with a light that shines, but automation has changed the lightkeeper’s role to one mostly of weather reporting for boats and planes and assisting any troubled craft.
Throughout history, lighthouses—and their keepers—have played roles beyond navigation. Some lighthouse keepers, for instance, have saved lives with heroic rescues at sea. In Washington in 1911, John M. Cowan, longtime keeper at Cape Flattery, saw a boat in trouble during a storm and set out with his 21-year-old son, Forest, to assist. Cowan was able to rescue two Navy radio me.
Throughout history, lighthouses—and their keepers—have played roles beyond navigation. Some lighthouse keepers, for instance, have saved lives with heroic rescues at sea. In Washington in 1911, John M. Cowan, longtime keeper at Cape Flattery, saw a boat in trouble during a storm and set out with his 21-year-old son, Forest, to assist. Cowan was able to rescue two Navy radio men, but three others were lost, including his son.
No one can top Rhode Island lightkeeper Ida Wilson Lewis, who saved at least 13 lives, starting as a 12-yearold in 1854 when she rescued four men who had overturned a small sailboat, according to a National Archives story. Fifteen years later, she became a national heroine when she kept two military men from a nearby fort from drowning in a squall. She was nicknamed “the Bravest Woman in America,” and made the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine for her multiple exploits. Throughout her life, Lewis continued to pluck people from the sea and was awarded a congressional medal, among other citations. Her last recorded rescue came at age 63, when she rowed out to save a friend who was visiting and had toppled from her boat. After her death in 1911 at age 69, Newport, R.I.’s Lime Rock Lighthouse, where Lewis spent most of her life, was renamed in her honor, later becoming the clubhouse for the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.
In wartime, Washington lighthouses played a role. Lighthouses at Admiralty Head, Point Wilson, and Marrowstone Point were aligned with the “Triangle of Fire” forts near them Fort Casey, Fort Warden, and Fort Flagler, respectively—as the forts defended against enemy vessels entering Puget Sound. During World War II, a deactivated Admiralty Head Lighthouse, at Fort Casey on Whidbey Island, was reactivated, painted drab olive, and used as barracks for the Army’s K9 corps. The corps patrolled the fort and beaches at night, according to lighthousefriends.com. The Cape Disappointment lighthouse, at the entrance to the Columbia River, found itself uncomfortably close to the action during the Civil War, when the noise from Fort Canby’s large artillery broke windows. In World War II, Fort Canby drew shellfire from Japanese submarines that had surfaced nearby.
Things are much quieter these days. Many have been restored or maintained through public and private foundations, transformed into museums, historical sites, and even lodging for tourists (see p. 64).
Advances in technology meant lighthouses have outlived their original purpose, but not their current one. They continue to occupy a unique place in our history, capturing the imagination of history buffs, tourists and engineers, who marvel at the centuriespast challenges met in building a remote structure that can withstand some of nature’s fiercest storms. Decade after decade, they light, and live on.
When you’re looking at compiling a list of top lighthouses, why not ask the guy who has visited more than 1,500 of them? Kraig Anderson, a San Diego engineer and founder for the website lighthousefriends.com, has traveled to the more than 800 lighthouses in the U.S., and most of those in Canada, since he was first bitten by the bug in 1996, when, during a business trip, he saw a lighthouse near Kitty Hawk, N.C. He is currently at work compiling a list of American lightkeepers.
Admiralty Head, Coupeville
Built in Spanish style, with stucco over brick, there’s no lighthouse like it in the U.S., says Anderson. The setting is spectacular, on the grounds of Fort Casey and looking over Admiralty Inlet.
Grays Harbor, Westport
Tallest lighthouse in the state, and you can climb the stairs inside. Classic architecture, and a Fresnel lens—the spectacular, multi-faceted lenses formerly used by lighthouses to throw light great distances—can be seen there.
Cape Flattery, Neah Bay
On the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, it’s one of the most remote lighthouses in the state. But you can hike nearby and see it from the shore. Or charter a plane, like Anderson did, and take photos from above.
New Dungeness, Sequim
At the end of a six-mile-long sand spit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it’s a long hike to get there—but you’ll be walking in the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge, which the lighthouse is now part of. Anderson kayaked to the lighthouse, dealing with some tricky tides. “Getting to a lighthouse is part of the appeal,” he says.
Lime Kiln, Friday Harbor
This picturesque lighthouse perched on solid rock overlooking the entrance to Haro Strait, a great spot for whale-watching and studying—scientists based there record the travel and behavior of orca whales.
Burrows Island, Anacortes
It’s the oldest, mostly intact wooden lighthouse in the state. Rocks and rugged territory—plus the fact it’s an island, located in the San Juans—make this a tough one to visit. Anderson kayaked out, and said you can make the difficult hike up to the lighthouse. Or, take the easy route and just get a distant view of it from the ferry. A fundraising effort is underway to renovate the lighthouse.
LIGHTHOUSE WEDDING DESTINATION
Lime Kiln, Friday Harbor
Boasting gorgeous views of the surrounding San Juan Islands, this lighthouse sits mere paces from the coast of Friday Harbor. As one of the most popular whale watching spots in the Puget Sound, you might even have a few marine guests attend your nuptials.
Alki Point, Seattle
Legend has it that the first “lighthouse” on Alki Point was a kerosene lantern hung from the side of a farmer’s barn. More than a century later, a light still burns atop its octagonal tower. With panoramic views of the sound, the Space Needle and Mount Rainier, few lighthouses illuminate so much of the Northwest at once.
Heceta Head, Florence, OR
Nestled into a cliffside of the Oregon coast, it is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in the United States. Its white walls and red roofs, along with the caretaker’s quarters next door, are surrounded by nothing but forest. This secluded space is perfect for the couple looking for a venue off the beaten path.
Point Bonita, Sausalito, CA
Accessible only by a thin, white suspension bridge, Point Bonita Lighthouse sits upon a peninsula of stone. More like a giant light bulb than a house, Point Bonita looks out over flanking, sunlit coastlines and a seemingly endless expanse of ocean. No solitary point is better for forming a union.
Pigeon Point, Pescadero, CA
A tall white pillar punctuates a line of white houses and matching picket fence. Pigeon Point Lighthouse is surrounded by scattered cliffs, fresh blankets of grass, tropical beaches and rustic docks stretching to the sea. If it weren’t for the sunsets, you’d wish your day there would never end.
LIGHTHOUSE FUN FACTS
- You might think a coastal state would have the most lighthouses in the U.S. Think again: the central state of Michigan takes the title. Its shoreline, spanning 3,000 miles along the Great Lakes, is home to 124 different lighthouses.
- Lighthouse-keeping was at the ground floor of gender equality. Working in a lighthouse was one of the first jobs available to women, although they typically only made half the wages that men did.
- The tallest lighthouse in America staggers overhead at a whopping 193 feet above ground. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located in Buxton, North Carolina, and was built in 1871.
- Before electricity, candles or lanterns were used to light a lighthouse. Oftentimes, whale oil was used as fuel for the lanterns.
- The newest lighthouse built by the federal government has all the amenities of modern living. South Carolina’s Charleston Lighthouse, activated in 1962, features both an elevator and air-conditioning.
- In the late 1800s, lighthouse keepers implemented a dress code. They had a uniform of a navy-blue, double-breasted jacket, matching trousers, and a snappy marine-style cap.
- Today, lighthouse keepers are not required as they once were. All but one lighthouse in the United States is automated. The Boston Light is the only lighthouse with an official keeper, largely honorific. (Many lighthouses still have unofficial keepers that act as caretakers or tour guides for the grounds.).
- There are approximately 18,600 lighthouses across the globe. Fewer than 1,000 of those are within the United States.
- The first lighthouse known to man was in Egypt. The Pharos of Alexandria was built in 300 BC and is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
LIVING THE LIGHTHOUSE WAY
A number of Washington’s most historic and strategic lighthouses from Puget Sound to the Pacific Coast offer lodging in former lighthouse keeper residences that are jam-packed with the memories of their past occupants as far back as the mid-1800s. When I was deciding on my first lighthouse stay, I wanted a location that featured a nice beach, great scenic views and plenty of maritime traffic to satisfy my curiosity.
Without too much searching, I found an ideal point of land that offered exactly what I was looking for: The Point No Point Lighthouse on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula near Hansville.
I didn’t know quite what to expect as far as the lighthouse keeper’s residence was concerned. But I was pleasantly surprised when I walked through the door and discovered a welcoming space that had stood the test of time for more than a century. After spending a long day exploring the lighthouse grounds I appreciated the overall peace and quiet of this remote location that was just the ticket for a perfect night’s sleep
The first floor of this historic residence consists of a living room, formal dining room, complete kitchen and breakfast nook, while the second-floor features two bedrooms, a bathroom and small library. Each window in the home presents its own perspective on the world outside, especially the lighthouse to the east that can be seen from every room on the first floor.
Besides the first-class accommodations, I also appreciated the fact that everything I wanted to see and do was only a few steps away from my front door. And if I just wanted to sit on the porch and let the world go by, there was more than enough to keep my attention—from the beautiful Cascade mountains to the busy maritime traffic just off the nearby point.
All in all, I found my first lighthouse stay to be quite enjoyable and I look forward to planning more of them in the near-future, especially at Point No Point, where the light has been shining brightly for more than 135 years.
Reservations for Point No Point can be made by calling 415.362.7255 or email lighthouse@uslhs. org. Generally, you will need to make arrangements several months or more in advance because nights fill up quickly. Flexibilit y is the key here and I highly recommend choosing an off-season stay to beat the summer rush.
The U.S. Lighthouse Society operates the lighthouse keeper’s residence at Point No Point and their national headquarters are right next door. You will find them to be an invaluable resource when it comes to locating the right lighthouse stay for you and your family whether it is in Washington state or around the country. See uslhs.org. Here’s wishing you all the best in living the lighthouse way.
WEST COAST LIGHTHOUSE STAYS
Browns Point, Tacoma
Breathtaking views of Mount Rainier as well as downtown Tacoma and Commencement Bay can be had as you give tours of the surrounding lighthouse grounds.
North Head, Ilwaco
Enjoy commanding views of the Pacific Ocean from one of the highest points on the Long Beach Peninsula.
Sequim Stay and be a lighthouse keeper for the week on one of Washington’s longest spits.
Point Robinson, Vashon
Have a great day at the beach while ocean-going ships and orca whales pass by on South Puget Sound.
Heceta Head, Florence
Perched on a cliff over the Pacific Ocean west of Eugene, this spacious six-room bed-and-breakfast is known for its spectacular seven-course breakfasts.
East Brother Island, Richmond
A wonderful bed and breakfast on a tiny island just 30 minutes from San Francisco that includes not only a great stay and breakfast, but a gourmet dinner, too.
Point Arena, Mendocino County
Offers the best variety of lighthouse lodgings on the West Coast.
Point Cabrillo, Mendocino
One of the nicest lighthouse grounds in northern California, with great ocean views in every direction.
—KURT F. ANDERS