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 Mary Island, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: Gone is the boathouse. Gone are the oil houses. Gone is the cart house. Gone are the lampposts. Gone are the keeper’s dwellings. In fact, all that remains of the structures once associated with the Mary Island Lighthouse is the lighthouse itself, and it is basically a concrete shell with a solar panel, battery pack, and light mounted at its apex. Each year, the trees and undergrowth creep a couple of feet closer to the lighthouse, further erasing the signs of human habitation on the island.

Original Mary Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Mary Island, located roughly twenty-five miles from the Canadian border, was named for Admiral John A.Winslow’s daughter, who cruised past the island with her father in 1872 aboard the U.S.S. Sarnac. The U.S. Government later established a customs house on the island in 1891, making it the first stopping place for those sailing into Alaska from Canada. At that time, little attention had been given to marking Alaska’s coastline, as the amount of commerce in the area didn’t justify the necessary outlay. The Lighthouse Board therefore proposed that the customs employees maintain a “small, inexpensive light” on Mary Island, reasoning that the light could be maintained at an annual cost of $800. Congress failed to act on the recommendation, and so it wasn’t until the Klondike gold rush of 1897-98 created a dramatic spike in maritime traffic that serious attention was given to providing aids to navigation for Alaska.

In 1899, $300,000 was requested for the establishment of eleven light stations in Alaska, one of which was to be located on Mary Island. As sufficient funds were not received, requests for additional capital were made the following two years as well. Alaska’s first two lighthouses built by the United States were completed in March of 1902 at Sentinel Island and Five Fingers Island. Later that same year, contractors off-loaded materials near the northeastern end of Mary Island and construction commenced on what would become Alaska’s fourth lighthouse. The foundation was completed around the first of October, and work continued through the end of the following July, though the light was actually lit for the first time on July 15, 1903.

The lighthouse consisted of an octagonal, one-story building with a smaller octagonal tower extending from its center to a height of nearly fifty feet. The black cylindrical lantern room atop the tower, housed a fourth-order Fresnel lens that beamed forth a fixed white light at a focal plane of 67 feet above the water.

Protruding from the eastern face of the lighthouse, towards Revillagigedo Channel, was a Daboll trumpet, which served as the station’s fog signal. A pair of galvanized-iron oil houses were placed forty-feet west of the lighthouse, while two one-and-a-half story frame dwellings were built an additional sixty feet farther west. A boathouse and boat launch were also provided to facilitate access to the station. As the customs house was relocated to Ketchikan in 1900, the keepers and their families had the island practically to themselves.

During the morning of December 30, 1920, assistant keeper Herbert C. Scott and two men from Ketchikan set out to render assistant to a boat which had been wrecked near the lighthouse. While returning to the station, the men became disoriented, and Scott and another man perished from exposure. The third man managed to make it back to the station in a nearly exhausted condition. In reporting this tragedy, the Lighthouse Service recommended that keepers in remote and heavily forested regions like southeast Alaska should familiarize themselves with the physical characteristics of the land near their stations and take such precautions necessary to prevent similar accidents.

Improvements to the station came in 1926 when a new light source was installed, increasing the candlepower from 600 to 6,000, and in 1931 when a Class C radio beacon was erected at the lighthouse as an additional navigational aid.

After the wooden lighthouse had been in service for just over thirty years, the Coast Guard decided that a sturdier structure was required. A new lighthouse was thus constructed on the point between 1936 and 1938 at a cost of $54,792. Built of reinforced concrete in an art deco style, the new tower was square and displayed the light at a height of 76 feet above the water. The base of the tower connected to a flat-roofed building, which housed air compressors and electric generators on its main floor, and fuel, supplies and a heating plant in its basement.

J. M. Bruce served at Mary Island in 1964 and provided the historic photographs included on this page. By the time Bruce arrive at the station, families were no longer stationed at the lighthouse. The most southern of the two dwellings was used to house the four-man crew (and their two dogs, Smokey and Tiger), while the other dwelling sat vacant until the summer of 1964 when it was sold to a logger, who moved it onto a float and towed it away.

Present Mary Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy J. M. Bruce
Bruce pointed out two little-known facts regarding the station: a red sector and a grave. The red sector, a narrow pane of ruby glass placed in the lantern room, warned vessels of Twin Islands, a navigational hazard located just over three miles north of the lighthouse. The grave of Edward Pierce, the son of an early light keeper, is located on a small bluff just south of the station. Reportedly, bad weather and the remoteness of the station prevented the boy from receiving needed medical attention.

The crew had enough free time to try out some interesting chemistry experiments according to Bruce. “One time our guys (I didn't drink, so I wasn't in on it) had a big jar, I think it was a water bottle from a water cooler, filled up with something they were fermenting down in the basement, and it pretty well stunk up the whole house. Then we got a radio message that a boat was coming down from Base Ketchikan due in about 20 - 30 minutes, with an officer on board coming to see us for some reason. It was really funny seeing the panic in our officer in charge as he had to get the home brew out of the house, back into the woods, and then try to air out the house. He did his best to get the visiting officer to go to the tower, rather than to the house.”

All the pranks, practical jokes, and experiments carried out by the Coast Guardsmen came to an end when Mary Island Lighthouse was automated and personnel were removed in 1969. On April 15, Rich Millsapps captained a Coast Guard 40-footer out to Mary Island. On board was a reporter from the Ketchikan Daily News whose assignment was to document the decommissioning of the lighthouse. In a brief yet formal ceremony on that overcast and rainy day, two member of the last four-man crew lowered the station's colors for the final time, and Captain Richard H. Hagadorn, Ketchikan Base Commander, presented the flag to B. H. Lervick whose father was a civilian keeper of the lighthouse in 1927 before care of the light was transferred to the Coast Guard. In 1970, the remaining dwelling was relocated from Mary Island to Ketchikan, where it is used as a private residence.

In a cost-saving measure, individuals and organizations were invited to apply for long-term leases on several lighthouses in Southeast Alaska. The Coast Guard would still be responsible for the light, but all other maintenance would fall to the lessee. Dan Foote, a former Coast Guardsman, was awarded the Mary Island Lighthouse in May of 1997. He planned to operate a bed and breakfast on the property, but later found out that while the lighthouse was on Coast Guard property, the land directly west of the lighthouse, where the keeper’s dwellings once stood, was now U.S. Forest Service Property. When the Forest Service refused to lease Foote the land, he was forced to abandon the project.

In 2005, the Fresnel Lens from the Mary Island Lighthouse was on display as part of a shipwreck exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas Museum. While the lens appears to be in great condition, the lighthouse on Mary Island is showing signs of neglect. The lack of outbuildings and difficulty of landing at Mary Island, coupled with its remoteness, are all obstacles that must be overcome by anyone who decides to inherit the lighthouse. Hopefully, an ambitious individual or organization will step forward and keep the lighthouse proudly standing watch over the southern entrance to Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city.

Head Keepers: David Crosby (1903 – 1905), Sylvanus F. Shepard (1905 – at least 1920), Baard Jens Lervick (at least 1930), Loran Silas O’Connor (at least 1940 – at least 1942).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References

  1. "Northern Lights: Lighthouse Development in the Alaskan Territory," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1990.
  2. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.

Location: Located in the Revillagigedo Channel on the northwest side of Mary Island, twenty five miles southeast of Ketchikan.
Latitude: 55.09904
Longitude: -131.1826

For a larger map of Mary Island 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 Mary Island Lighthouse. You can also get this distant view of the lighthouse from aboard a Misty Fjords Cruise.

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

Find the closest hotels to Mary Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Rich Millsapps who captained the boat out to Mary Island for the decommissioning had previously served as a relief keeper at the lighthouse. The following is what Rich recalls about his time on Mary Island. "The boredom, it was so boring that I spent my time by waiting for a ship to come by. I'd put the binoculars up against the window glass, wait for the bow of the ship to enter the field of view and start a stop watch. When the stern entered the view, I'd stop the watch. Given the name of the ship I could look it up, find its length and calculate its speed."

Rich passed along this photograph of the Mary Island Lighthouse taken on the day of decommissioning.


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