The commerce of Alaskan waters is rapidly increasing. Ship masters and vessel owners have petitioned for the establishment of a lighthouse and fog-signal at this point. But little is known of the character of the ground and of the building facilities there, but it is estimated, after a study of what is known, that a light-house and fog-signal can be established there at a cost not exceeding $80,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.The U.S. Government established a customs house on the island in 1891, making it the first stopping place for those sailing into Alaska from Canada. With the island now inhabited, the Lighthouse Board changed its plans and proposed that one of the custom-house employees maintain a “small, inexpensive light” on Mary Island, reasoning that the light could be built and maintained for a year for just $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 1902 at Sentinel Island and Five Fingers Island. In May of that same year, contractors R.M. Henningsen and Thorvald Olsen 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 Chance Brothers Fresnel lens that beamed forth a fixed white light at a focal plane of sixty-seven 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.
David Crosby served as the station’s first head keeper, with Carl Peterson as his assistant. Sylvenus Shephard replaced Crosby as head keeper in 1905 and was in charge of the station for over fifteen years. An Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station provided seeds to the keepers on Mary Island, and Keeper Shephard reported the following results for the 1907 growing season:
I am pleased to report a good garden this year. I planted nothing but lettuce and radishes before the middle of May. All seeds went into the ground about that time. Lettuce and radishes could be grown here by the ton without trouble. We began using both June 1. Ruta-bagas and turnips grew well; some of them weighed 8 and 9 pounds. Transplanted cabbage June 10. They grew large and small, but all made good solid heads, some few weighing 12 pounds each. Potatoes did not grow overly large, but were what might be called a fair size. Parsnips and carrots large. Began to use green peas and new potatoes the first of July. Beets averaged in size about 3 inches in diameter. …I expect to have a better garden next year, although I am satisfied with this season’s results.Mary Island had two key ingredients needed for gardening – plenty of rain, and extended daylight during the summer.
On the morning of December 30, 1920, Assistant Keeper Herbert C. Scott and two high school boys from Ketchikan set out on a hunting expedition from Mary Island Lighthouse. After proceeding just four miles into the interior of the island, they were caught in a terrible blizzard. One of the boys managed to make it back to the lighthouse, but it took him more than twenty-one hours in the blinding snow. Search parties set out to find the other two men but were unable to immediately find them.
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 country in the vicinity of their stations” and take such precautions necessary to prevent similar accidents. The account of the accident published in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin said the men weren’t hunting, but rather attempting to render assistance to a boat that had wrecked near the lighthouse.
Improvements to the station came in 1926 when the light was electrified and a flasher was installed to produce a pair of white flashes every six seconds. The 300-watt bulb used inside the Fresnel increased the light’s candlepower from 600 to 6,000. In 1931, a Class C radiobeacon was erected at the lighthouse as an additional navigational aid.
After the wooden lighthouse had been in service for just over thirty years, the Lighthouse Service 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 seventy-six 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 along with J. D. Kimmick and provided many of the historic photographs included on this page. By the time Bruce arrived 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.
The crew in 1964 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 coastguardsmen 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 forty-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 from 1923 to 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 coastguardsman, was awarded Mary Island Lighthouse in May 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 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.