|Tree Point, AK|
Description: Tree Point seems a fitting name for almost any protuberance along the coast of Southeast Alaska, as most of this area is part of Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest. There are, however, several gnarled, dead trees clearly evident in photographs taken of Tree Point throughout the twentieth century, which makes one wonder if perhaps these white, weathered giants were once used as a navigational reference and gave rise to the point’s name. Although this theory on the origin of the point’s name makes a good story, more likely than not the dead trees are simply byproducts of logging.
The Lighthouse Board approved the construction of Tree Point Lighthouse on April 24, 1903, and just over a year later, the light was activated on April 30, 1904. The lighthouse was the first, and only lighthouse, to be built on mainland Alaska. Two weeks after its debut, a small fire damaged the lighthouse, taking it out of service for a brief period before repairs were made.
The design of the lighthouse was similar to Mary Island Lighthouse, its neighbor to the north, that was completed a year earlier. The ground floor of the octagonal structure housed the fog signal equipment, which was connected to two horns protruding seaward from the western side of the lighthouse. Above the pyramidal roof of the first story, an octagonal tower extended upwards to a height of roughly sixty feet. The lantern room housed a third-order Fresnel lens, which produced a fixed-white light. On October 1, 1906, a red sector was added to the light to alert mariners of dangerous Lord Rocks. To store fuel for the lamp, two oil houses were constructed at distances of 50 and 100 feet southeast of the lighthouse.
Life at the isolated station was evidently difficult at times, as on December 21, 1931, Ketchikan’s paper reported: “the lighthouse tender Columbine came in from Tree Point light yesterday bringing in the keeper who had run out of supplies and was gorging himself on mountain scenery and boiled discouragement.”
Although the lighthouse at Mary Island preceded the one at Tree Point, Tree Point Lighthouse would be replaced by a reinforced concrete tower three years before the same change was applied to Mary Island. Work on Tree Point’s second tower began in November 1933 with excavation for the structure. The new art deco lighthouse, built of poured concrete, was situated just south of the original lighthouse, and a wooden trestle was built between the two towers allowing the original lantern room to be slid horizontally to its new home. The new lighthouse, finished in 1935 at a cost of $47,481, consisted of a one-story, eighteen by thirty-six foot building attached to a thirteen-foot-square tower that rose to a height of fifty-eight feet.
The design and massing of the exterior are elegantly simple and symmetrical. Pilasters on the tower and fog-signal building form the dominant features that define the Art Deco style. The corners of both the tower and the single-story building are marked with 3-foot-wide faces that project above the lantern house gallery and parapets, respectively. Each is topped with a stepped-back cap at 2'3" to the main face. Incised 3-foot by 3-inch vertical relief elements near the top of each pilaster reinforces the verticality. The corners of the tower project beyond the gallery to form the outward posts for an iron railing balustrade.
A revolving, fourth-order, Henry-Lepaute lens, which was installed in the old lighthouse sometime between 1913 and 1918, was transferred to the new lighthouse and placed in operation on March 18, 1935. A twenty-seven-pound weight that had to be wound up every three-and-a-half hours was used to revolve the lens in the original lighthouse, but since electricity from a Westinghouse generator was available in the new lighthouse, an electric drive motor was used to rotate the lens in its new home. The light source was also converted at this time from an incandescent-oil-vapor lamp to a 150-watt bulb. The new fog signal was a type “F”, two-tone diaphone, which sounded through two horns protruding from the lighthouse.
The station had three, six-room frame dwellings and a schoolhouse that were located around the end of the tree-covered hill behind the tower, where they would be protected from ocean winds. A narrow gage tramway and boardwalk ran 200 yards from the tower to the dwellings and then continued on for a quarter of a mile to the boathouse and hoisting boom, located on a small cove south of the lighthouse. To provide drinking water, a two-mile-long pipeline linked a large cistern near the dwellings to a lake in the nearby hills.
In the 1930s, the Territory of Alaska provided a school teacher for the children at the station. Besides the three R’s, the students’ curriculum also consisted of learning to identify shells, sea life, and the constellations in the clear Alaskan skies. When the new lighthouse was being built at the station, the children performed puppet shows and plays for the workmen. To show their appreciation, the workers presented the young actors with hand-made toys and a walking life-sized mechanical man that emitted smoke and had blinking lights for its eyes.
When visibility at the station fell below one mile, the foghorn had to be activated. The station’s radio signal was synchronized to the two-tone blasts of the foghorn so that a captain could easily determine his distance from the lighthouse. Counting the number of seconds between receiving the radio signal and hearing the fog signal and dividing the time by five gave the distance in miles – just as counting the seconds between lightning and thunder can tell you how close you are to getting zapped.
Conditions at the station, however, appear to have been far from normal. When the officer-in-charge (OIC) announced that he would no longer be taking his six-hour turn at the radio watches, an enraged subordinate spent the following night getting drunk on a bottle of whiskey he had smuggled to the station. The OIC put the fellow on report, but then had to lock himself in the lighthouse for safety as the madman bellowed taunts at him from the hill behind the tower and then “split the top panel of the lighthouse door with a broad head hunting arrow” shot from his seventy-pound lemon-wood hunting bow. The OIC radioed to Ketchikan for help, and a few hours later an investigation party, armed with a pistol and a rifle, arrived on an eighty-three footer.
Anderson escaped the sometimes monotonous life of a lighthouse keeper through the paperbacks that had accumulated (and remained mostly unopened) at the station. Hiking with a companion in the woods near the station was another diversion, but according to Anderson it “was slow going and never took us to anyplace that looked much different from where we had been all along.
Coast Guard personnel were removed from the station in 1969, when the beacon was automated, and in 1987, solar power units replaced the station’s generators. Two of the dwellings were razed in the early 1960s, forcing the four coastguardsmen to share a single dwelling. The Coast Guard signed a contract in 1974 for the demolition of all station improvements save the lighthouse, but when the contractor defaulted, Tree Point was left with the most intact light station in Alaska.
The revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse until 1963 along with a lamp are on display at the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan. Although the lighthouse was slated for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, the structure is in shockingly poor condition. All windows and doors (except those in the lantern room) are missing, exposing the tower’s interior to the harsh weather conditions that exist at the point. The remaining dwelling is also neglected; its interior in disarray. Part of the neglect is understandable giving the remoteness and inaccessibility of the station (the helicopter pad built in front of the lighthouse in 1966 was washed away by rough seas), but certainly some measures could be taken to weatherproof the lighthouse and retard further deterioration.
Located near the southwestern end of
the Misty Fjords National Monument, seven
miles north of the Canadian border, and
forty-five miles from Ketchikan. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
The key ingredient in making a rain forest is rain, and this area of Alaska gets a lot of it. A rain gauge in Ketchikan stands an amazing seventeen feet tall, though most years it only rains a mere twelve feet! The local visitors bureau prefers the term liquid sunshine, and tourists should probably adopt the same attitude, as they are likely to experience it firsthand.Marilyn writes:
Our visit to this light was a bit more adventurous than most lighthouse visits since any landing by boat or helicopter requires a trek across big boulders with gaps to get to the lighthouse and surrounding paths. Definitely a challenge for those of us who are less sure-footed, but worth the effort. We chose a helicopter landing atop the boulders which was exciting by itself.
See our List of Lighthouses in Alaska
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.