|Guard Island, AK|
Description: Guard Islands, a pair of small, rocky islets, stand sentinel over the northern entrance to Tongass Narrows, which leads south to Ketchikan. Atop the larger of the two islands sits Guard Island Lighthouse, one of the most accessible lighthouses in Alaska. Its history is brief but eventful, much like the history of Alaska itself.
Purchased in 1867 for $7,200,000, Alaska was quite a bargain at roughly two cents an acre. Because much of it was considered an uninhabited arctic wasteland, many decried the acquisition as foolish, but thirty years later the discovery of gold precipitated a boom no one could have anticipated.
For years Native Americans and Russian fishermen, hunters, and traders had plied the waters near Ketchikan, and countless lost vessels attested to the dangers of the shallow inlets and dense fog. Although only two years after the United States acquired Alaska the Senate requested a review of the Northwestern coasts to determine suitable spots for lighthouses, funding was not provided for another thirty years. Several day beacons and buoys were installed as minor aids to navigation, but it wasn’t until the Gold Rush, triggered by the 1896 discovery, that private citizens, and traders clamored loudly enough for the Lighthouse Board to receive funding for much-needed light stations.
Some speculated that Congress dragged its feet in the hope that private enterprise would provide necessary development; possibly the naysayers who viewed Alaska as the country’s largest white elephant prevented federal funds being diverted to it. Whatever the cause for the delay, in 1901 Congress finally appropriated $100,000 for lighthouse construction, ushering in an Alaskan building boom that lasted two years and resulted in eleven lighthouses, with five more constructed in later years.
However, the wood used for Guard Island Light Station, as well as for several other contemporary Alaskan lighthouses, soon deteriorated in the harsh conditions. After all, Ketchikan is one of the rainiest places on earth, with 176 inches annually, and the winters are foggy, windy, and freezing cold. By the 1920’s all the lighthouses except Eldred Rock (1906) were falling apart, and in 1922 Congress authorized the reconstruction of Guard Island Light. In 1924, the dilapidated light tower was replaced with a new single-story rectangular tower of reinforced concrete. The antiquated bell signal was replaced with a diaphone air signal that gave a five-second blast every 25 seconds. Additionally, another keeper’s house was built to provide quarters for two keepers and their families.
The rough conditions and close quarters on this small Alaskan island proved too much for some of the families, whose constant squabbling was no secret to mainlanders. The most dramatic conflict erupted in the murder of the assistant keeper’s wife, who had been having an affair with the head keeper. During Prohibition, life wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for those on the mainland either. One Ketchikan old timer recalled, “Bootlegging and gambling were rampant in the Southeast. It wasn’t that uncommon for folks who got in over their heads to show up dead.” And a couple of them did arrive in that condition at Guard Island, stashed in the cabin of a drifting boat that two keepers discovered near the shore.
Otto Gibbs arrived at Guard Island in December of 1947 with his wife Dorothy and two small children. One evening, Dorothy was listening to the popular radio show “Truth or Consequences,” when she was stunned to hear that the consequence for one of the guests, William Livingston, was to deliver a bucket of ice to Guard Island Lighthouse! Not too long afterwards, Livingston, bucket in hand, showed up at Guard Island accompanied by Coast Guard Lt. Commander Cannon. This photograph shows Livingston on the left, an unknown woman, Keeper Gibbs (with bucket), Dorothy Gibbs, and Lt. Commander Cannon. The weekend after the visit, the Gibbs family traveled to Ketchikan to be part of a “Truth or Consequences” broadcast, wherein their isolated existence on little-known Guard Island was described to people all across America.
Eventually, Guard Island Lighthouse was converted into a stag station, run by four Coast Guardsmen. For company, the crews usually had a dog or two, but for several years the station was well known for its pet deer. In fact, during the first few months of 1966, there were actually two fawns at the lighthouse, Wickie and Kado. The station dogs were not too happy with the situation, as they had been supplanted as man’s best friend.
The deer had a pampered existence at the lighthouse. Wickie loved to be petted and to have her chin and ears scratched, and, at night, she would sleep at the foot of Daniel Young’s bunk. A feeding box was kept in one corner of the living room, but the deer didn’t exactly keep to their vegetarian diet, becoming quite fond of such delicacies as pepperoni and sausage. The deer were free to roam around the entire island and wandered in and out of the dwelling at will. The only complaint the men had regarding their unique pets is that they couldn't figure out how to housebreak them.
April 25, 1966 was a sad day at Guard Island. Kado came up missing. Based on past experience and a thorough three-day investigation, it was believed that Blackie, one of the station’s dogs, had chased Kado from the island. Blackie was accordingly brought to trial, with three of the Coast Guardsmen filling the roles of judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer. The scars on Wickie’s legs were presented as evidence against Blackie, but absolute guilt could not be proven. Spared a harsher sentence, Blackie was banished to a nearby island for the remainder of the year. Sadness returned to the station just a few months later when an accident claimed the life of Wickie on August 1.
Just three days later, a plane landed at the station bringing an unexpected surprise, another small doe. The entry in the station's log for that day reads: "Due to the recent death of Wickie and the new deer coming from the sky, the deer was named ‘Angel’ and was sincerely welcomed by the crew at Guard Island.” Almost two years later, Stan Oaksmith of Ketchikan flew out to the station by float plane, and presented a one-month-old buck. Angel apparently didn’t care too much for the new arrival, but eventually grew to accept his presence.
The final entry in the station’s Register of Visitors, made on July 31, 1960 by William McKey, reads “Disestablished Guard Island Light at 14:45 this date.” Thus ended the reign of keepers on the island. The vacant buildings repeatedly fell victim to vandals in the “hippie sixties,” prompting the Coast Guard to dynamite the outbuildings and keeper’s dwellings to rubble.
The Southeast Area Council of the Boy Scouts were prepared to enter into a long term lease for Guard Island in 1997, but the amount of work to restore the lighthouse and some requirements in the lease agreement made them decided against it. Guard Island Heritage, Inc. hopes to obtain the lighthouse under the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The group hopes to transform the lighthouse into a maritime art gallery and to circle the island with a boardwalk. A self-guided trail around the island would inform visitors about the wildlife, vegetation, and history of the island. If their plans are realized, many interested visitors could experience, at least briefly, what life would have been like for the hardy keepers of Guard Island Light.
Head Keepers: John A. Carlson (1905 – at least 1912), John C. Johnson ( - 1915), David Oliver Kinyon (1916 – 1918), George F. West (1919 – at least 1930), Charles Brown (at least 1940).
Located twelve miles northwest of
Ketchikan on Guard Island, marking the
northern entrance to the Tongass Narrows
from Clarence Strait. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
When I was in Alaska, I was quite shocked to learn that between 1917 and 1953 the Territory of Alaska would pay $2 for each pair of eagle talons. This bounty was intended to reduce eagle depredations on fox farms and the fishery stock. As a result, over 100,000 eagles were killed during this period. Some of the lighthouse keepers in Alaska shot their share of eagles including this one being displayed at Guard Island.
See our List of Lighthouses in Alaska
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Marilyn Stiborek, used by permission.