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 Tree Point, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
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.

A couple of reasons convinced coastal surveyors that Tree Point was a prime spot for navigational aids. First, there is a straight route from Tree Point to the open Pacific Ocean via Dixon Entrance, and Tree Point, situated just seven miles north of the Canadian border, is located along the Inside Passage roughly midway between the two largest cities in the area: Ketchikan, Alaska and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. 1,208 acres on the point were accordingly set aside as a lighthouse reservation by Executive Order dated January 4, 1901.

1904 Tree Point Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Lighthouse Board approved the construction of the 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 its neighbor to the north, the Mary Island Lighthouse 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, for Ketchikan’s paper reported on December 21, 1931, that “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, the 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 1933. The new art deco lighthouse was situated just south of the original lighthouse, and a wooden trestle was built between the two towers allowing the 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 an thirteen-foot-square tower that rose to a height of fifty-eight feet.

At the same time, three, six-room frame dwellings and a schoolhouse were built 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 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 structures were 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.

Tree Point Lighthouse Lens
In his autobiography, “Under Fortune’s Smile: Memories From America’s Half Century,” Don Anderson provides a humorous and candid account of his year-long sojourn at the station in 1954. Anderson’s mother speculated that his desire to serve at the isolated outpost had less to do with adventure seeking, as he maintained, than with self-doubt about his ability to manage “more normal circumstances.”

And conditions at the station 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, and the beacon was reduced to a minor light. The revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse 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.

Head Keepers: Jacob C. LaBryon (1904 – 1908), Rolf Foosness (1908 – at least 1912), George A. Lee ( - 1916), John C. Johnson (1917 - at least 1922), Baard Jens Lervick (at least 1923), Frank W. Read (at least 1930), Sidney H. Elder (at least 1940).

References

  1. "Tree Point Lighthouse," Don Anderson, The Keeper's Log, Winter 2003.
  2. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.

Location: Located near the southwestern end of the Misty Fjords National Monument, seven miles north of the Canadian border, and forty-five miles from Ketchikan.
Latitude: 54.80287
Longitude: -130.93382

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


Travel Instructions: Misty Fjords Air, Promech Air, Family Air Tours, and Southeast Aviation, all out of Ketchikan, will offer private tours to view the Tree Point Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Tree Point Lighthouse

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.

We were fortunate to have a bright, sunny day for our trip to Tree Point, but as we explored the area, it was soon clear that we were indeed in a rain forest. After several trial landings, our helicopter pilot was able to pick a flat enough section of the rocky shoreline on which to balance his craft. We then hiked up to the lighthouse and located the start of the old wooden tramway that led into the woods. I thought it would be a quick hike back to the remaining keeper’s dwelling, but the first couple of steps on the walkway were like walking on ice. The thick forest keeps the walkway damp, and a mossy covering has grown over large sections of the boards. After a lengthy skate along the tramway, I reached the dwelling and found that the perpetually wet environment was taking its toll on the wooden structure. Most of the paint has sloughed off the dwelling, and sections of it show signs of rotting. The rain forest makes for some beautiful scenery, but it quickly fades the beauty of manmade structures.

Marilyn writes:
Our visit to this light was a bit more adventurous than most lighthouse visits since any landing 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.

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