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 Patos Island, WA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: In 1792, Spanish explorers Galliano and Valdez named the northernmost of the San Juan Islands, Isla de Patos (Island of Ducks), due to either a rock formation on the eastern end of the island that resembles the head of a duck or to the numerous ducks found on the island. Because of the island's proximity to the Canadian border, its 210 acres of trees, coves, and caves became a favorite hideout for smugglers bringing contraband into the United States.

Patos Island Lighthouse sits at Alden Point on the western tip of the island, but this wasn't the island's first navigational aid.

Fog signal building with large trumpet
In 1888, the Lighthouse Board recommended a light and fog signal be established on the island to complement one just established on Canada's Saturna Island, on the opposite side of Boundary Pass.

Patos Island is situated at the north entrance to the Canal de Haro, opposite to the Saturna Island, British America, on the easternmost point of which a light-house has been erected by the authorities of British Columbia. This is a very dangerous point, with currents reaching fully 7 miles an hour. Vessel-masters dislike to approach it in foggy weather, as they are unable to locate themselves because of the swirling, irregular currents. The channel between Patos Island, on the American side, and East Point on the Canadian side, is one used by the Alaska steamers, by the large coal fleet from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, and by the vessels running in connection with the Canadian Pacific road. Much of this shipping enters at American ports and a large amount of American capital is interested in it. The Board recommends that a post light be established on the west end of Patos Island, with a first-class Daboll trumpet in duplicate. It is estimated that these aids to navigation will cost $12,000.

Congress appropriated the requested amount on March 3, 1891, but work on the island did not commence until March, 1893. By the end of the following June, the contractor had erected a double dwelling, fog signal building, water tanks, and a post light near the western end of the island. The fog signal equipment was set up in October, and the Daboll trumpet was put into operation on November 30, 1893.

The original fog signal was found to be deficient, but a longer trumpet installed the following year proved satisfactory. The original hot-air (steam) engines were replaced by duplicate oil engines in 1900.

In contrast to the white light used by the Canadians on East Point, a red light was employed on Patos Island.

Edward Durgan, the island's third and best-known keeper, came to the island with his wife and numerous children in 1905, after having served at several lighthouses including Turn Point Lighthouse, Heceta Head Lighthouse, and New Dungeness Lighthouse. Patos Island was a desired station with a mild climate but was also profoundly isolated.

Patos Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Once a month, members of the Durgan family would take a twenty-six-mile journey over the waterways to Bellingham, Washington for supplies. The closest neighbor was the Saturna Island lightkeeper, five miles away.

The isolation proved devastating when seven of the thirteen Durgan children contracted smallpox. Hoping to get the attention of passing ships, Keeper Durgan flew the flag at the lighthouse upside down as a distress signal. Help did eventually arrive, but tragically three of the children died. One of the surviving children, Helen Glidden, has written a memoir entitled The Light on the Island telling of her life growing up on the island where she talked with "God," played with her pet cow, and wandered the beaches, known to her as "the petticoats" of Patos Island. (Some of the information in this paragraph comes from Helen Glidden's book, which is a fictionalized account of her life on the island. There were thirteen Durgan children, but apparently two died before the family moved to the island. Also, only one child died on the island, and it was likely due to appendicitis not small pox.)

In 1911, Keeper George Lonholt replaced Edward Durgan, who was transferred to Semiahmoo Lighthouse where he would die of a heart attack in 1919. In 1922, four accounts of assistance rendered by Keeper Lonholt appeared in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses. On one occasion, Keeper Lonholt went to the aid of the Verona when it was overtaken by a heavy storm off Patos Island. Ten passengers aboard the boat were cared for at the station for two days until the weather improved. In another instance, the engineer of the Meteor along with the ship's captain, and the captain's wife and two children were cared for by Keeper Lonholt at the station until a launch could be procured to tow the Meteor to Anacortes.

The light was improved in 1908 when a thirty-eight-foot tower was built atop the original fog signal building to house a fourth-order Fresnel lens. Other structures that were on the island with the current lighthouse include two dwellings, cisterns, and a boat ramp as shown in this photograph, which appears with permission of Western Washington University. A radiobeacon was established on the island in 1936. The light was automated in 1974. Today, it flashes a white light once every six seconds, with two red sectors marking dangerous shoals.

The original keepers' duplex was torn down in 1958 and replaced with a 3,300-square-foot building for the Coast Guard crew. After the Bureau of Land Management assumed control of Patos Island in 2005, the Orcas Island Fire Department was contracted to burn the Coast Guard quarters, which had become a safety hazard due to deterioration and vandalism.

Robert Walker, who spent 1968 on Patos Island with his wife and child, shared the following recollections:

One of the things I remember about Patos was that the fishing was amazing. Our freezers were always full of ling cod, red snapper and salmon. We had a 16' Boston whaler which was used for recreation only. It had a very small outboard motor that would hardly get you through the very strong currents. …I remember being afraid of the killer whales. They would sometimes surprise you while fishing and believe me it is a scary thing in a 16' boat, when they decide to pop out of the water in near proximity.

The lighthouse was kept in typical military fashion, always freshly painted and cleaned from top to bottom, grass mowed and edged, and very neat and clean.

One of the issues we had there was that all of the potable water had to be brought to the Island (no well). We would get a delivery every month or two from a buoy tender out of Seattle. It would anchor off the North side and fill our holding tank with a fire hose. We had a fairly large wooden holding tank, that would freeze up in the winter leaving us with no water. We would melt snow in the bath tub to have at least some water. This was a big problem for us as we couldn't do laundry. … I remember recording temperatures well below 0 with the chill factor. OMG was it cold for a California Boy!

After reading "The Light on the Island," we actually hiked to locations described in the book in an effort to find any evidence of the rumrunner days and some of the events described in the book. …One day we were run out of the woods by a swarm of angry bees we happened upon. Our dog had more than 100 bees stuck in its fur, and the Seaman that was with me had well over 100 bites, for some reason I didn't get attacked. That event ended our explorations.

It was the experience of a lifetime living on Patos Island, and I will always cherish that part of my life.

Patos Island Lighthouse under restoration - June 2008
Photograph courtesy Eric Geyer
The lighthouse is now part of Patos Island State Park. The fourth-order Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse was saved by maritime author Jim Gibbs.

Two childhood friends, Linda Hudson of Lopez Island and Carla Chalker of Wisconsin, formed the non-profit Keepers of the Patos Light in 2007 after visiting the island, which they had read about fifty years earlier in The Light on the Island. Working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Orcas Fire Department, the goal of the Keepers is to renovate the lighthouse and preserve the unspoiled beauty of the island. During May and June of 2008, which just happened to be the 100th anniversary of the lighthouse, Tom Lantos Contracting was hired to revitalize the structure. The lighthouse received a new roof, new doors, new windows, new gutters and downspouts, and a new coat of paint, inside and out. In addition, repairs were made to the foundation, chimney, and tower. According to Nick Teague, BLM Ranger for the San Juan Islands, the preservation effort is all about "folks doing good work to preserve this valuable place from becoming a whisper of the past."


  • Head: Harry D. Mahler (1893 – 1903), Albert A. Morgan (1903 – 1905), Edward Durgan (1905 – 1911), George L. Lonholt (1911 - at least 1922), Hans F. Jensen (at least 1925), Chris C. Waters (at least 1930), Orlo E. Hayward (1931 – 1933), Wallace Ervin (at least 1935), Frank W. Dorrance (1938 – at least 1941).
  • Assistant: Criss C. Waters (1923), John B. Bray (1924 – 1925), Criss C. Waters (1928 – 1931), Richmond E. Umdenstock (1934 – 1935), Fred H. Walker (1936 – 1937).

Photo Gallery: 1 2


  1. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
  2. Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1998.

Location: Located on the northwest end of Patos Island. The island is roughly 18 miles north of San Juan Island's Friday Harbor.
Latitude: 48.78903
Longitude: -122.97111

For a larger map of Patos Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.

Travel Instructions: The lighthouse is best visited by boat. Roche Harbor or Friday Harbor on San Juan Island are two of the closest harbors to the Patos Island Lighthouse. Keepers of the Patos Light have had docents on the island in recent years to open the lighthouse to visitors during the summer months.

Orcas Island Eclipse Charters has offered Lighthouse Tours in the past that pass by Patos Island.

The lighthouse is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Grounds open, lighthouse closed.

Find the closest hotels to Patos Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
While on a business trip in Victoria B.C., I chartered a float plane out of Sidney on Vancouver Island. This was the first attempt at photographing a lighthouse from the air. Since the plane was from Canada, we were unable to land in the U.S. waters near the lighthouse.
Marilyn writes:
I highly recommend reading The Light on the Island, if you plan on visiting Patos Island. I started the book one day, and then finished it the next during our ferry ride out to Orcas Island, from where we took a boat out to Patos Island. Reading the book is a great prologue to visiting the island.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.