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 Cape Flattery, WA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: In March of 1778, Captain James Cook visited the waters off the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. An opening along the coast had "flattered" Captain Cook into thinking he had located a harbor or passage, prompting him to name the place Cape Flattery. Captain Cook noted in his logbook: "In this very latitude geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca. But nothing of that kind presented itself to our view, nor is it probable that any such thing ever existed."

In 1788, Captain John Meares, one of several explorers who managed to confirm the existence of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, visited a small island a half mile off Cape Flattery. Meares encountered the "surly and forbidding" Tatooche, Chief of the Makah Indians who had been using the island as a summer base for hunting whales and catching and drying salmon for years. Meares reportedly named the island Tatoosh after the Chief.

Cape Flattery Lighthouse and outbuildings
Photograph courtesy Clallam County Historical Society
In 1849-50, William McArthur led an expedition surveying sites for lighthouses along the west coast and gave the following report after visiting Cape Flattery.

A lighthouse is much needed also at Cape Flattery and I would recommend that it be situated on Tatoochi Island, a small island almost touching the Northwest extremity of Cape Flattery to vessels bound from seaward a lighthouse on this island would be of much assistance. It would enable them to enter the straits, when the absence of a light would frequently compel them to stay at sea until daylight.

Congress allocated a sum of $39,000 in 1854 to construct both the Cape Flattery Lighthouse on Tatoosh Island and one on the New Dungeness Spit. These two lights were part of the second batch of eight lighthouses to be completed on the west coast.

Although the government had paid $30,000 for all of the Makah's traditional lands except a small reservation at Neah Bay, the construction crew did not receive a warm reception upon their arrival. An outbreak of smallpox had killed several hundred of the Makah Indians in 1853, and the Makah were understandably reluctant to have more disease bearing "Bostons" around. The Indians continued to use the island during the summer, prompting the construction workers to build a blockhouse of rough-hewn timbers for protection, before beginning work on the lighthouse. One member of the work crew was always on guard duty, but other than a few missing supplies and tools, there were no problems with the Indians.

Like most of the early west coast lighthouses, the construction plans called for a one-and-a-half-story, stone dwelling with a brick tower protruding through the roof. This design permitted the keepers to access the tower without having to be exposed to the possibly harsh weather that might exist outdoors. The tower of this lighthouse was taller than most of the Cape Cod style lighthouses and was also large enough to house a first-order Fresnel lens. The Louis Sautter lens, found to be too large for the Point Loma Lighthouse for which it was ordered, was first illuminated in the tower on December 28, 1857, two weeks after the New Dungeness Lighthouse.

During the first years at the lighthouse, several keepers resigned due to poor pay and the miserable conditions they encountered on the island. A visitor to the island in 1861 noted the dilapidated state of the lighthouse. The roof leaked, moss grew on the interior walls, and winds blowing across the top of the chimney caused smoke to back up in the dwelling.

In an act of nepotism, Victor Smith, the new customs collector for the Puget Sound District, appointed his father George K. Smith principal keeper in 1862. During his tenure, the District Inspector reported: "the light is in deplorable condition. He (Smith) has with him two assistants who are as ignorant as he is. They have got the light out of order and are unable to repair it." The inspector suggested the station should be opened to families so it would be "no longer at the mercy of the rollicking bachelors who have had possession since its establishment." The station would not receive its first family until 1885. In 1865, Victor Smith transferred his father to the new Ediz Hook Lighthouse, located closer to the younger Smith's residence in Port Angeles.

A fog signal building with a twelve-inch steam whistle was completed on the island during the summer of 1872, along with a 33,000-gallon cistern fed by a water shed of 3,000 square feet to supply the necessary water. The whistle could not begin operation until sufficient rain fell later that year.

In 1873, the lighthouse dwelling was described as "not fit to be occupied, as the walls are damp and moldy nearly all the year, and it is totally inadequate for the accommodation of the four keepers at this station." A new duplex, with six rooms in each side, was built nearby in 1874, and the rooms in the lighthouse were used for storage. When families arrived at the station, more living space was required, and the dwelling in the lighthouse was made habitable once again in 1894. Three years after the families arrived, the station's population jumped again when a weather station was established on the island.

Though living conditions on the island improved over the years, it was still an isolated place. To supplement the lighthouse tender deliveries, the keepers hired local Indians to transport people, supplies, and mail to the island. The Indians received $1 per trip in calm conditions, and that sum was doubled if the seas were rough. One fearless Indian named Old Doctor lost three dugouts on the island's rocks while trying to deliver supplies. It is claimed that a piano and even a cow made it to the island thanks to the Indian delivery service.

Various buildings at Cape Flattery
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The lives of the keepers on the island produced some memorable stories. One of the first principal keepers, Francis James, became enraged with an assistant keeper and threw hot coffee in his face. The men decide to settle the dispute with a gunfight. Outside the lighthouse, the men took three shots at each other before calling it a draw and shaking hands. An assistant keeper later confessed to having removed the bullets from the shells.

The next story might be a bunch of , well you'll see. A seventy-mile-per-hour gale that swept across the island in 1921 sent keeper John M. Cowan tumbling across the island for some 300 feet. By tenaciously clinging to vegetation growing on the island, Cowan avoided being swept off the island and was able to crawl to safety. The Cowan's bull, equipped with only its hoofs, was not as fortunate and was blown off the island. The bull was listed in the station's log as lost at sea, but to everyone's surprise it managed to swim ashore and was rewarded with extra rations.

Keeper Cowan arrived at Cape Flattery Lighthouse in 1900 with his wife and seven children, and another child was born to the couple four years later. For ten years, the Cowans sent their children to live with relatives in Portland so they could attend school, but the family was always together on the island during the summer months. The Cowans never left the island during that period, as they had to save every penny to support their children. A school was eventually established on the island, when the families serving at the light, radio, and weather stations had enough children to merit one.

Keeper Cowan is credited with saving the lives of five people while serving at Cape Flattery. One of Cowan's rescues involved a boat that was traveling between Tatoosh Island and Neah Bay on February 18, 1911. When Cowan saw that the vessel was foundering in heavy seas, he set off in the storm to offer assistance. He managed to rescue two navy radio men, but was unable to save the three other individuals aboard the vessel including his own son Forrest, who was serving as his assistant.

Cowan served at Cape Flattery Lighthouse for thirty-two years, leaving the station only because he reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy on October 12, 1932. Less arduous assignments had been offered to Cowan during his tenure on Tatoosh Island, but he turned them down preferring to remain on the island. The forty inhabitants of the island were in tears when the Cowans, beloved by all, left the island on October 18.

A fourth-order lens with three flash panels replaced the first-order Fresnel lens in June 1932. A power plant consisting of three 2-1/4 kW, gasoline-engine-driven generators was also installed on the island that year allowing the station to be electrified. The use of a 750-watt electric incandescent lamp in the new flashing lens increased the light's candlepower from 13,000 to 300,000. A new double dwelling for the keepers was completed in 1935.

The weather station on Tatoosh Island was closed in 1966, and its buildings were demolished. The light station was automated in 1977, and the island lost its last year-round inhabitants. A modern beacon replaced the tower's fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1996.

In 1999, substantial maintenance and repair work was performed on the island's remaining structures. Windows and rotten beams were replaced, walls were plastered, smoke detectors were installed, and the fog signal was repaired. A fence was rebuilt around the cemetery, which contains the graves of two keeper's children, a reminder of the many people who once called Tatoosh Island home.

In September 2009, a three-phase clean-up of Cape Flattery was completed by the Coast Guard. A thirty-foot skeletal light tower topped by a solar-powered LED light was installed on the island in 2008, allowing old generators and fuel tanks to be removed. The decommissioned Cape Flattery Lighthouse has been turned over to the Makah Indian Tribe, who control the island.

Head Keepers: Francis James (1857 - 1858), George W. Gerrish (1858 1860), William W. Winsor (1860 1861), D. Wallace (1861 1862), George K. Smith (1862 1864), Jeremiah C. Floyd (1864 1868), Alexander Sampson (1868 1872), J. C. Floyd (1872 1879), Alexander Sampson (1879 1893), Charles W. Sheldon (1893), George H. Stillwell (1893 1895), Edmund Bailey (1895 1898), George G. Crawford (1898 1900), John M. Cowan (1900 1932), Arthur J. Woods (1932 - ), Richmond E. Umdenstock (at least 1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. "Cape Flattery Light Station," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Summer 2001.
  4. Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1990.

Location: Located on Tatoosh Island just over a half mile off Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
Latitude: 48.391609
Longitude: -124.736479

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 101 in the northwestern part of the Olympic Peninsula, take Highway 113 north to Highway 112. Follow Highway 112 west to Neah Bay home of the Makah Indian Reservation. Proceed west out of Neah Bay to the Cape Flattery Trail which is located approximately five miles west of Neah Bay. The Cape Flattery Trail leads 0.75 miles to the tip of the cape, where there are multiple observation platforms from which you can view Tatoosh Island and the lighthouse. Note that you need to purchase a Recreation Permit upon entering the reservation.

The fourth-order Fresnel lens used in the Cape Flattery Lighthouse is on display at the Museum at the Carnegie in Port Angeles. The museum is open open Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 to 4 p.m., and is located at 207 South Lincoln Street.

The lighthouse is owned by the Makah Indian Tribe. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Cape Flattery Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Don't ask me how, but in our attempt to find the Cape Flattery Trail, we somehow ended up in the reservation's dump! Instead of wisely turning around, our driver chose to explore the dump a little, a decision we regretted the next morning when we awoke to discover a flat tire on our rental car. The views from the lookouts at the end of the trail are incredible and worth any adventure in getting there.

Cape Flattery Lighthouse can be seen in the 2010 movie "Charlie St. Cloud."


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