Just south of Ocean City, MD, Assateague Island stretches its narrow finger for more than thirty-five miles, past the border of Virginia. In the waters lying east of the sandy island, deadly shoals await unsuspecting ships just below the ocean's surface.
In the early 1800's, there were no lighted aids between the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. In 1830, recognizing the desperate need for a beacon along these dark shores, Cngress appropriated the necessary funds for a lighthouse. A small tower was constructed on Assateague Island a few miles south of the Maryland-Virginia border and lighted in January 1833. Unfortunately, the dim beacon was poorly suited for the task at hand and did little to warn mariners away from the shoals.
In 1852, the Lighthouse Board petitioned for a "first-class sea-coast light" to replace the ineffective beacon on Assateague Island. Seven years later Congress agreed to the request and work began in 1860. Unfortunately, the advent of the Civil War interrupted the project until after hostilities ceased. Construction of the 142-foot brick tower and keeper's duplex did not resume until 1865. On October 1, 1867, the first-order Fresnel lens was illuminated for the first time. With a focal plane of 154 feet, mariners could see the powerful light for nineteen miles.
To accommodate the growing keepers' staff, in 1910, a second house, a small brick cottage, was added to the property. The introduction of electricity in 1932, however, greatly reduced the need for personnel. The 1867 duplex was sold and eventually torn down. Today, the cottage remains an important fixture at the station, along with the original oil house.
In 1965, the beacon was automated. The classic lens has been replaced by a modern optic and is currently on display on the station grounds. Over the years, the sea has added sand to the island, and the station has gradually moved inland. The lighthouse currently resides on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, one of Virginia's most scenic wonders. Although the grounds are open to the public, the tower is off limits. One of the tallest on the Atlantic coast, Assateague Light is considered by many to be among the most beautiful sentinels in the world.
Lighting one of the most dangerous river bars in the world, the sentinel at Cape Disappointment is the oldest, active light station in the Pacific Northwest.
On July 6, 1778, Captain John Meares arrived near the entrance to the Columbia River on the ship Nootka. As he rounded a large promontory, he was encouraged to see a large bay, beckoning his ship to enter. Unfortunately, as huge swells began to pound the Nootka, Captain Meares realized that it was hopeless to attempt to cross the bar. He named the headland, appropriately enough, Cape Disappointment.
Early settlers did their best to aid ships entering the river. Volunteers traveled twelve miles from Astoria, Oregon, to cross the river and erect bonfires for ships attempting to cross the bar. In 1848, Congress authorized the establishment of a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment, the first such authorization for the Pacific coast.
After a number of delays, Francis Kelly and Francis Gibbons, under contract with the Treasury Department to build the lighthouse, approached Cape Disappointment on the sailing ship Oriole. After eight days of waiting for conditions at the bar to improve, the Oriole entered the mouth of the Columbia. It soon struck the infamous shoals and floundered. While her crew was rescued, the materials intended for the lighthouse sank to the bottom of the river.
Despite the setback, over time Gibbons and Kelly were eventually able to gather enough materials to continue the project. They constructed a 53-foot conical tower near the cliffs on the southwestern spur of Cape Disappointment. A first-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room. A 1600-pound fogbell was also installed at the station; although with the wind and roaring seas, the bell was nearly inaudible to mariners. On October 15, 1856, the powerful optic was lighted for the first time. Rising 220 feet off the water, the beacon was easily visible to ships approaching the river bar.
One of Cape Disappointment's most revered keepers was Captain Joel Munson, a former steamboat pilot. Horrified by the numerous shipwrecks he witnessed near the cape, Munson raised money by playing the fiddle at local charity dances and established a volunteer life saving service. In one daring feat, Joel and his fellow surfmen rescued 13 survivors from the floundering bark, W.B. Scranton.
In 1962, the beacon was automated. Eighteen years later, the Coast Guard gave the aging station some much-needed repairs and a new facelift.
Today, the historic light station continues to guide sailors through the hazardous Columbia River bar, surviving a century and a half of relentless winds and driving rains. The original first-order lens is currently on display at the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Although the lighthouse itself is not open to the public, the surrounding grounds, part of Fort Canby State Park, is a popular destination site. Standing on the plateau near the sentinel, visitors are afforded one of the most breathtaking vistas in the entire world. Some say, that on a clear day, you can see forever.
In the spring of 1792, Captain Robert Gray discovered a wonderful natural harbor along the northwestern Pacific coast. He apparently sailed into the harbor with good fortune smiling upon him. Little did he know, lurking beneath the shallow waves, there were hidden sandbars ready to strike the bow of his unsuspecting ship. Over the next two centuries, more than fifty ships and countless small craft would be lost near the entrance of Gray's Harbor. In the 1880s, a great influx of settlers poured into the territory of Washington. Ships continued to sail into Gray's Harbor, despite the dangers, to visit the towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen. In 1885, the Lighthouse Service decided to build a light station at Point Brown, just north of the narrow harbor entrance. Local opposition was considerable and delayed construction for a number of years. Finally, in 1897,officials signed an agreement to build a sentinel on Point Chehalis, on the southern entrance of the harbor, near the fishing village ofWestport.Over the course of several months, a 107-foot tower was constructed on Point Chehalis, set back some distance from the water. Unlike many Pacific coast lights, the new station was established at low elevation, requiring an unusually tall tower. Resting on a sandstone base, the brick tower was the tallest in Washington State and one of the tallest on the west coast. A handsome keeper's cottage was added to the complex, as well as a steam-powered fog signal. After the sentinel was almost completed, it remained dark for more than half a year, waiting for parts for the watch room and lantern. On June30, 1898, the lanterns were finally lit. Rotating on a mercury-filled drum, the station's most prized possession, a third-order Fresnel lens from France, emitted a series of white and red flashes. Concentrated through three eight-inch bull's eyes, the light was visible for twenty-three miles. In addition to its priceless value to the mariners and fishermen of Gray's Harbor, the station also served as a coastal beacon, lighting the dark shores between Willapa Bay to the south, and Destruction Island to the north. A number of keepers served with distinction here, including its first, Christian Zauner, who spent nine years at the sentinel on Destruction Island. Although there was more human contact at Gray's Harbor, the work was strenuous and the noise relentless. The fog signal was used almost daily, as much as eight hundred hours a year. Also, furious squalls often appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, along these beautiful shores and required extra diligence from these dedicated keepers. Today, the lighthouse is automated and maintained by the Coast Guard. The original Fresnel optic is still in use, although electric motors now rotate the lens. One of Washington State's most impressive historical sites, artists and history buffs flock to this beautiful place, sitting among the pine trees and sand dunes, dreaming about a simpler time.
North Head is located on the ocean side of the mouth of the Colombia river and is only 2 miles from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. It was first lighted on May 16, 1898. The light measures 194 feet above sea level and is known as one of the windiest stations in the nation. This light has withstood gusts of 160 miles per hour while most structures nearby suffered great damage. In 1891, a British ship, The Strathblar, went aground on the sound peninsula just before dawn. The keeper, Al Harris, and a crew from the lifesaving station, along with aid from two local farmers, were able to save 24 sailors from certain death. Those that perished in the storm were buried at Ilwaco.
The coastal areas of Washington State encompass some of the most beautiful and elaborate shoreline in the entire United States. Inlets, islands, and hidden coves abound, creating a complex labyrinth for mariners to navigate. For centuries, native Americans have fished these waters for its prized Pacific salmon. In January 1855, the Governor of Washington Territory met with tribal leaders to sign a peace treaty at Point Elliot, 20 miles north of Seattle. Native people called the area Mukilteo, which means good camping ground. Within a few years, a small town developed at Point Elliot, located just at the entrance to Possession Sound, and only a short ferry ride from nearby Whidbey Island. In 1862, the local postmaster changed the name of the town to Mukilteo. By the turn of the century, lumber ships and other vessels were passing continuously between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island, on their way to nearby Everett. Although the point at Mukilteo was not actually thought of as hazardous, the Lighthouse Board determined that a light and fog signal would be of much benefit to navigation. a In March 1906, a small Victorian-style lighthouse was completed near the ferry landing. A white, wooden frame fog signal building was attached to a 38-foot octagonal tower. In the light tower, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed to illuminate a flashing yellow beacon. A local newspaper proudly proclaimed the new station as the best light in the entire Puget Sound District. Tanks to local conservation efforts, the original lens and fog horn have been actively in use until this day. Mukilteo's first light keeper was Peter Christianson, a Norwegian immigrant who had spent most of his adult life at sea. He previously served as assistant keeper at Turn Point Lighthouse, and once risked his life to rescue stranded sailors in a severe winter storm. Christianson served with distinction at Mukilteo for 19 years, until his death in1925. Another well-known keeper was Coast Guardsman Vivian Corrie, who tended the station from 1946 until 1960.During the 1960s, the Coast Guard made an economic decision to tear down Mukilteo Light and replace it with a simple navigation beacon on a pole. Local citizens from Mukilteo and Everett rallied to save their beloved lighthouse. By 1972, the interior of the building was completely renovated. Seven years later, the beacon was automated, although the Coast Guard has maintained an active presence. In 1984, Mukilteo Light Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse is currently maintained by the Mukilteo Historical Society, with public tours available on weekends.
First lighted in 1881, Sand Island Lighthouse is located in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. It is a brownstone tower and keeper's dwelling in the Gothic Style. The light tower itself is square at its base, but becomes octagonal at the second floor level. The light measures 52 feet above lake level and was in service until 1921, when an automated light was installed. The light was then decommissioned in 1933. The original structure still stands and is in very good condition, and is accessible by excursion boats and water taxis during the summer months.
Wind Point Lighthouse
To the casual observer, there might seem to be major differences between navigating an ocean and a large lake. But, from the point of view of a Great Lakes mariner, these large bodies of water present all of the difficulties that are encountered on the Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf Coasts. A stormy night on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, especially as ice develops during the colder months, can test the nerves of the most experienced sailor. As the population and commerce of the Great Lakes region began to multiply in the early part of the 19th century, the need for serious navigational aids became quite apparent. Coastal lights, harbor lights, channel lights and even light ships, soon became a familiar sight. Lake Michigan, with coastal borders on four states, saw particularly rapid growth, especially in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. A few miles south of Milwaukee, and less than 50 miles north of the a Windy City, a the lakeside town of Racine, Wisconsin prospered, along with the rest of the region. As the town flourished, fishing boats and other commercial craft became frequent visitors of Racine Harbor. In 1880, the Lighthouse Board made the wise decision to build a lighthouse, just north of the city, to safely guide southbound vessels into the harbor. When the appropriately named Wind Point Lighthouse was finally completed, a third-order Fresnel lens was placed in the light room of the solid brick tower. The flashing white light, 108 feet above lake level, could be seen by mariners for miles in all directions. A charming, one storekeepers dwelling was attached to the tower by a short passageway. The front of the building is actually quite elaborate and gave a breathtaking view of the lake. Surrounding grounds were lovingly tended over the years by the keeper's families. On the rear side of the house, lovely flower gardens were raised, with blue iris, red and yellow colored gaillardia, and other perennials. As time passed, several important changes were made to improve the performance of the light station. Although considered modern in its early days, the lens was eventually replaced by a more effective aero beacon. In 1900, to aid navigation during periods of low visibility, the Lighthouse Board added a fog signal. Today, the light is automated, but remains as important as ever. The tower is currently painted white, with the Italianate supports, lantern, and watch room painted a contrasting black. While the tower is no longer open to the public, visitors are encouraged to walk around the beautiful grounds and experience a part of history.
Sturgeon Bay Canal
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, as the lumber industry expanded, shipping increased dramatically on Lake Michigan. On the western shores of the lake, the port city of Green Bay developed rapidly as a major commercial center. To approach Green Bay's harbor, ships were required to pass through a dangerous stretch of water known as Death's Door, located at the tip of Door Peninsula. Finally in 1881, the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was completed, bisecting the peninsula. Mariners were not only able to save a tremendous amount of time circumnavigating the peninsula, but more importantly, they could now bypass Deaths Door. To aid mariners passing through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, the Lighthouse Service immediately authorized a lighthouse to mark the canal's entrance. In the spring of 1882, a thirty-five foot tower and brick dwelling was erected on Sturgeon Bay's North Pier head, a few feet off Lake Michigan's blue waters. Situated on the north side of the canal, the lantern room was fitted with a sixth-order optic. Within a few years, mariners began demanding a more powerful light to guide them into the canal. In 1899, a 98-foot light tower was constructed on the shore, not far from the North Pier head station. Illuminated by a second-order Fresnel lens, the new sentinel flashed its welcome beacon from a 107-foot focal plane. An experimental design, the steel cylinder was stabilized by lattice buttresses and anchored in a concrete foundation. While sturdy in appearance, the tower was unable to withstand the stress of the strong Lake Michigan winds. Four years later the structure was almost entirely rebuilt. A steel skeleton framework was erected to support the watch room and lantern, and the concrete foundation anchoring the lattice buttresses was widened. At the same time, extensive modifications were made to the North Pier headlight. Today, the Sturgeon Bay Canal Light still serves as an active aid to navigation. Currently displaying an automated, third-order optic, the historic sentinel is managed directly by the U.S. Coast Guard. Other structures on the property include a handsome keeper's cottage, a radio beacon and nearby lifeboat station. Each May, the Door County Chamber of Commerce sponsors the popular festival of Blossoms. a During the Festival, the Door County Maritime Museum conducts an exciting tour of lighthouses on the peninsula, including the Sturgeon Bay Canal Light. Visitors are permitted to climb to tall tower and take in the spectacular, panoramic Lake Michigan vista.