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Cape Decision, AK  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.   

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Cape Decision Lighthouse

During his voyage of discovery in 1793, Captain George Vancouver sailed throughout much of present-day Southeast Alaska bestowing names left and right on bays, islands, lakes, straits, points, coves, inlets, ports, passages, and capes; such is the prerogative of an explorer. Near the end of that year’s sailing season, Vancouver reached what must have been for him an important decision, for he named the tip of the nearby island (now Kuiu Island) Cape Decision. Just off the point, Vancouver decided that he had progressed far enough north to be beyond the islands claimed by Spanish explorers. It would be over a century later before the Lighthouse Service would make the decision to construct Cape Decision Lighthouse.

Early view of Cape Decision Lighthouse
For several years following the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, the vast majority of vessels made their way between Seattle and Juneau by following a twisting route through the myriad of islands that parallel this stretch of the northwest coast. By remaining “inside” the islands, the captains and passengers could enjoy a safer and smoother journey than that experienced “outside” the islands in the open North Pacific.

As vessels’ girths increased through the years, alternate routes through the narrow passages had to be used. In particular, some ships were unable to transit Wrangell Narrows and were forced to make a detour around Cape Decision. To follow this lengthier route, Captains sailing north now follow Sumner Strait to its end at Cape Decision, where they are briefly exposed to the full fury of the ocean before entering Chatham Strait.

Passenger vessels were not the only ones transiting the waters near Cape Decision. Fishermen were also passing by the cape to reach the open “outside” waters near Cape Ommaney in search of more lucrative catches. Several fishing communities, like Port Alexander on the eastern side of Baranof Island, along with the supporting salmon canneries, herring salteries, and reduction plants, soon dotted the shores of Sumner and Chatam Straits. During most of the 1930s, Port Alexander was home to the largest salmon trolling fleet in Alaska. Although its wintertime population dwindled to around one hundred, during the summer fishing season the city swelled to over a thousand inhabitants.

On September 10, 1911, the wooden steamship Ramona, bound from Skagway to Seattle, ran aground in thick fog on the Spanish Islands, just off Cape Decision. The fishing steamer Grant picked up thirty of the passengers and crew from the wreck, but the remainder were forced to spend a day and a night on an uninhabited island. When the steamship Northwestern arrived on scene on September 11 to collect all the passengers and crew from the Ramona and transport them to Seattle, its captain noted that a heavy sea was breaking over the Ramona’s hull and deckhouse. The Ramona was a total loss, and the newspaper article reporting the incident placed the blame on “the lack of a lighthouse on Cape Decision.”

Cape Decision Lighthouse in 1966 - note radiobeacon antenna, helicopter pad, and extension to dock.
In 1912, Congress appropriated $115,000 for aids to navigation in Alaska, and while this was nearly double what had been provided the previous year and included funds for a major light at Cape St. Elias, Territorial Governor Walter Clark wanted major lights constructed at Cape Decision and Cape Spencer as well. “Since April 1910 – twenty months ago – 58 aids to navigation, including a number of acetylene gas lighter beacons have been installed in Alaska water,” Clark noted. While this increased the number of lights in Alaska severalfold, Clark felt it would be better to postpone additional small lights in favor of the two remaining large lights. The first attempt to light the waters off Cape Decision was an unattended acetylene lantern placed on the Spanish Islands.

In 1925, the Lighthouse Service requested funds for a light and fog-signal station at Cape Decision, noting:

Cape Decision is an important headland located on the north side of the comparatively narrow passage between Spanish Islands and Kuiu Island which connects Chatham Strait and Sumner Strait. Vessels operating on the principal route through southeastern Alaska, which by reason of their size or on account of unfavorable stage of the tide can not make use of the shorter route through Wrangell Narrows, proceed by way of Sumner Strait, Chatham Strait, and Frederick Sound, or vice versa, which takes them past Cape Decision. …Fog is of frequent occurrence in the vicinity of Cape Decision, often prevailing there when it is clear on each side. The locality is dangerous for navigation in thick weather on account of the strong tidal currents, the broken nature of the shore line, and the numerous off-lying rocks.

Construction of Cape Decision Lighthouse at an expected cost of $175,000 was approved in 1927, and Congress appropriated $59,400 in July 1929 to start the project. Between September 1929 and the following July, the construction site was leveled, a camp building erected, dock and tramway constructed, derrick and hoisting machinery set up, and a boathouse completed. By July 1931, all the concrete work at the station had been completed, leaving mostly interior work. The reinforced concrete lighthouse, with a focal plane of ninety-six feet, was officially activated on March 15, 1932. By that time, $158,000 had been spent on the station, which was the last of the sixteen major lighthouses built in Alaska.

The concrete lighthouse features a central, square tower rising to a height of seventy-five feet, with a one-story structure wrapped about its base. The lighthouse provided quarters for three keepers and had a basement that housed generators for the light and fog signal, boilers for the heating plant, and cisterns for storing water for domestic use and for cooling the engines. The third-order Fresnel lens, mounted in the circular, helical-bar lantern room, was transferred from the Tenth Lighthouse District, and a 300-watt bulb was used inside it to produce two white flashes every fifteen seconds. Cape Decision was the first lighthouse in Alaska to be powered by electricity.

Cape Decision Lighthouse in 1974 - the year of automation
Two Tyfon fog horns were mounted on the roof of the building, pointing south, and a Class B radiobeacon was placed on the rocks just seaward of the lighthouse. An elevated tramway and footpath led from the lighthouse across a ravine to a landing dock on a sheltered cove. The dock was home to a boathouse, blacksmith shop, and hoist house, and a stiff-legged derrick, built on a separate concrete pier, was used to transfer supplies between boats in the cove and the dock.

Ernest V. Evanson joined the Lighthouse Service during the summer of 1935 and was assigned to Cape Decision Lighthouse. On December 22, 1935, Evanson set out in the station’s boat to procure supplies, but the outboard motor quit not far from the station. The other keepers radioed for help and reported that they had last seen Evanson drifting about six miles from the lighthouse. The Coast Guard cutter Cyane and the lighthouse tender Hemlock were ordered to search for the missing keeper, but he was still missing two days after leaving the station and was feared lost at sea.

Water for the station was captured from the roof of the lighthouse and piped from a dam about 300 feet north of the lighthouse. In August 1941, the water supply failed after southeastern Alaska received just 0.76 of an inch of rainfall that month compared to the August average of 11.57. The Coast Guard cutters Nemaha and Cyane were tasked with delivering water to the lighthouses at Cape Decision, Guard Island, Tree Point, and Eldred Rock.

H.O. Essig was stationed at Cape Decision from 1943 to 1946. One perk that came with the remote assignment was three full months of leave after a year at the station. Still, that was not enough incentive for most men to sign up for more than a single year at the lighthouse. Essig “thoroughly enjoyed both the experience and the place…but realized that “it requires a certain breed of cat to handle it.” The men were expected to operate the station with a minimum amount of supervision, and at least during Essig’s stay, things ran quite smoothly.

Essig recalls that before one relief keeper was sent to the lighthouse from the Coast Guard base in Ketchikan, the chaplain’s office called him in and warned that “everything gets lit but the light” out at Cape Decision. Essig does admit that when the crew learned of V-E day, two of them took a ride aboard the mail boat to Port Alexander to procure some …uh…well… “lemonade.” Oh, and there was that time when rough seas forced them to land a twenty-case shipment of beer eight miles from the station…but they needed something to help ease the boredom and loneliness of life at Cape Decision.

On September 1, 1974, the last live-in crew left the lighthouse, being replaced by a reliable diesel generator. The station was later converted to solar power to further reduce the maintenance work required during the regular Coast Guard visits. During one such checkup visit, performed on October 11, 1989 by an Aids to Navigation Team from Sitka, disaster was just barely avoided.

Cape Decision Lighthouse Lens
Rather than haul trash away from the site, it was typically placed in fifty-five-gallon barrels and burned. The team retrieved two such barrels from the boathouse that day, placed them outside on the wooden walkway, and filled them with debris. “I added the customary one gallon of diesel to each barrel to ensure complete combustion of the trash,” said MK1 Ron Conklin. Conklin then accompanied the two other coastguardsmen to the lighthouse, gave them work assignments, then picked up a fire extinguisher and headed back to the boathouse to tend the fire.

As Conklin reached the helicopter pad, he noticed thick black smoke emanating from beneath the boardwalk near the boathouse. It wasn’t immediately clear if the pier was on fire, or if the thick smoke from the barrels was simply swirling down through the pier. After discharging the thirty-pound extinguisher into the two barrels, Conklin discovered, much to his alarm, that the pier was indeed ablaze.

Conklin sprinted back to the lighthouse yelling “Fire!, Fire!” With additional extinguishers in hand, the three-man crew scampered back to the boathouse and attempted unsuccessfully to subdue the flames. Realizing that the fire could spread to surrounding structures, Conklin broadcasted a mayday call to the Coast Guard. The men then formed a bucket brigade to transport water to the fire from the station’s cistern, located thirty feet away. Help finally arrived in the form of a helicopter from Sitka and the buoy tender Woodrush, which happened to be within thirty miles of Cape Decision servicing other aids to navigation.

As the helicopter was approaching to land, the fuel inside the boathouse exploded sending a tremor along the pier. Portable firefighting equipment was off-loaded from the helicopter after it was able to safely land, and the coastguardsmen had the fire under control in about four hours. Although the exact cause of the fire was listed as “unknown,” it is most likely that either the diesel leaking from the barrels or airborne embers ignited the pier. The boathouse and a good section of the pier and catwalk leading to the helicopter pad were destroyed in the blaze.

In 1997, Cape Decision Lighthouse was leased to the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society, a grass-roots organization dedicated to preserving the lighthouse for public recreation, and in 2004, the society received title to the station. In 2005, the fire damage to the pier was still clearly evident, but building supplies were on-site for the necessary repair work. The remoteness of the station prevents many visitors from reaching the lighthouse, but there is a piece of the lighthouse – its third-order Fresnel lens – preserved at the more readily accessible Clausen Museum in Petersburg, a port-of-call for some of the smaller cruise ships.

Keepers:

  • Head: Edward M. Toman (at least 1939), George C. Francis (1940 – ), Joseph C. Galloway (at least 1941).
  • First Assistant: Sidney Elder (1935 – 1937), George C. Francis (1939 – 1940), George R. Wilson (1940 – 1941), James J. Stone (1941).
  • Second Assistant: Earl D. Ullerick (1932), Edward C. Hope (1932 – 1933), George W. Fairbanks (1933), Sidney Elder (1935), Ernest V. Evanson (1935), Francis E. Craig (1935 – 1942).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6

References

  1. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  2. “Lighthouse Man Feared Lost at Sea,” Oakland Tribune, December 24, 1935.
  3. “Three Lights Badly Needed on the Coast, Fairbanks Sunday Times, January 7, 1912.
  4. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.
  5. Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska’s Lighthouses and Their Keepers, Shannon Lowry, 1992.

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