|Point Wilson, WA|
Description: It was early in the morning on April 1, 1921 when Keeper William J. Thomas of Point Wilson Lighthouse heard a sickening grinding noise. He knew instantly there was trouble in the water and quickly telephoned Port Townsend to send help.
What Keeper Thomas heard was the slamming of the crowded passenger liner Governor of the Admiral Line into the freighter West Hartland. The 417-foot Governor had just offloaded passengers in Victoria and was bound for Seattle, when it rounded Port Townsend and was rammed by the freighter. Reports of the accident would later conclude that the pilot on the Governor mistook the West Hartland's running lights for the fixed lights on Marrowstone Point and failed to yield the right-of-way. A ten-foot gash was torn in the Governor's iron hull, and even though the captain of the West Hartland ordered full speed ahead to try to keep the hole plugged, the Governor soon began to sink in 240 feet of water. In the twenty minutes it took for the vessel sink, most of the passengers were able to scamper aboard the West Hartland, and all but eight of the 240 people aboard the Governor were rescued.
Point Wilson marks the western side of the entrance to Admiralty Inlet from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and is an important landmark for vessels traveling to and from Puget Sound. This critical turn was first marked by a church bell. Recognizing that the point was often shrouded by fog, in 1865, Captain J. W. Sheldon donated a ship's bell to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Port Townsend with the condition that the bell be rung on foggy days. Several years later, a steamer used the sound of the bell as a into Port Townsend harbor. An evangelist on board, John Yates, was so touched by the dual-role the bell played, that he wrote the hymn, "The Harbor Bell."
Congress passed an act on June 20, 1878 authorizing $8,000 for establishing a light and fog signal at Point Wilson, but as this amount was insufficient for both aids, priority was placed on the fog signal. The fog signal machinery was built in Portland during the winter of 1878 - 1879, and on March 3, 1879, an additional $12,000 was allocated for the station. The fog signal building was built by hired labor under the direction of the district engineer, and a twelve-inch steam whistle housed therein was placed in operation on September 1, 1897, giving an eight-second blast every minute.
A $923 contract to manufacture the lantern room for the lighthouse was awarded to Smith Brothers & Watson, the lowest bidders, on July 2, 1897, and a lens, formerly used at Point Bonita, California, was sent northward to be installed at the station. Plans for the lighthouse were approved on August 12, and the district engineer supervised its construction over the next four months. The lighthouse consisted of a forty-six-foot frame tower rising from a keeper's dwelling. The tower first exhibited its fixed white light, which could be seen for up to thirteen miles, on December 15, 1879.
David M. Littlefield, a Civil War veteran and local resident, was appointed the first keeper at Point Wilson and was paid an annual salary of $800. Littlefield served as keeper for four years before moving back to Port Townsend, where he would later serve as a City Councilman, Mayor, and Collector of Customs.
In 1894, a galvanized-iron oil house was built on the station grounds, and a new lens was installed in the lantern room, changing the light's characteristic from fixed white to fixed white varied by a red flash every twenty seconds.
The current lighthouse was built in 1914, and the original lighthouse, minus its tower, continued to serve as the keepers' dwelling. The new lighthouse features a forty-nine-foot concrete tower, built in an octagonal shape to reduce wind pressure, which projects upward from a fog signal building. The light still shines from the fourth-order Fresnel lens, sending forth alternate red and white flashes every five seconds.
In 1917, the Secretary of Commerce urged lighthouse keepers to cultivate as much land as possible at their stations in anticipation of food shortages during World War I. Keeper William Thomas willingly complied and that fall sent the following letter to the lighthouse inspector.
Sir: Have sent you to-day per parcel post a sample of some of the vegetables I raised on the station here. Peas, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, garlic, and squash do well, but tomatoes cabbage, and turnips are a failure; beans fairly well after planting four times; have 4 gallons of beans salted and 2 gallons canned. The yield was good, but of course of small quantity, as space was limited. Early onions and lettuce were splendid; gave Heather (the lighthouse tender) some for their mess.Keeper Thomas was commended by the department for the energy and zeal he showed in obtaining such fine results.
Like those at Point Bonita and Point Loma, the light at Point Wilson was extinguished during World War II as a defense measure to protect nearby Fort Worden and the entrance to Puget Sound.
Today, a computer, located at the Coast Guard Air Station at Port Angeles, monitors the light, which was automated in 1976. The keepers' quarters were occupied by Coast Guard personnel until 2000. During the winters of 2005 and 2006, high winds and waves pummeled the low-lying lighthouse property flooding the basement of the keepers' dwelling and ripping the fog horn from its soundwall. The State of Washington has considered purchasing the property from the Coast Guard and combining it with nearby Fort Worden State Park, however, in 2007 the scheduled review of this proposal was delayed. Moving the lighthouse and associated buildings, which will likely cost between $3 and $5 million dollars, is considered the only long-term solution for saving the station. In the meantime, the Coast Guard is filling in the holes that have developed in the wall of rock armor that has been built around the point.
During the summer of 2011, divers with the Marine Documentation Society visited the wreck of the Governor and discovered the ship's bell, buried in silt. Because the divers didn't have an expert with them to authenticate the bell, it was left with the wreckage. Meanwhile, the owners of the salvage rights for the wreck are considering what to do with the bell once it is recovered. Placing it on exhibit at the lighthouse wouldn't be a bad option.
Head Keepers: David M. Littlefield (1879 – 1883), William H. Jakins (1883 – 1884), George Draper (1884 – 1888), Edmund Bailey (1888 – 1894), Hans P. Score (1894 – 1899), Charles W. Sheldon (1899 – 1900), Thomas J. Stitt (1900 – at least 1912), William J. Thomas (at least 1915 – at least 1926), Mortimer Galvin (at least 1930), Carl Lien (at least 1940 – at least 1942).
Located two miles north of Port Townsend in Fort Worden State Park, at the junction of Puget Sound and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by Fort Worden State Park and Conference Center. Grounds open, dwelling closed, tower open in season.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by Fort Worden State Park and Conference Center. Grounds open, dwelling closed, tower open in season.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
As you pass through Fort Worden on your way to the lighthouse, the surroundings might seem a bit familiar as they were used in the filming of "An Officer and a Gentleman." In the movie, Fort Worden was known as Fort Ranier. The Point Wilson Lighthouse also makes an appearance in the film.
See our List of Lighthouses in Washington
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Russell Barber, Tom Woltjer, used by permission.