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 Five Finger Islands, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Five Finger Islands are a collection of rocky islets located in the northern extreme of Frederick Sound some forty miles from Petersburg, the closest community of any significance. These five islands, some of which are only visible at low tide, resemble a set of bony fingers reaching up from the icy waters to snare inattentive mariners. Situated along the Inside Passage, this cluster of natural navigational hazards was recognized early on as a prime site for a lighthouse.

First Five Finger Islands Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Alaska State Library
On July 6, 1901, a contract of $22,500 was awarded for a lighthouse on the southernmost of the Five Finger Islands. During the following months, a two-story structure rose from its three-acre island home. Protruding from the southern end of the rectangular lighthouse was a square tower, elevated several feet above the surrounding hipped roof. Atop the tower sat a lantern room from which a fourth-order Fresnel lens produced a fixed, white light at a focal plane of 68 feet. Alaska’s first two American-built lighthouses, Five Finger Island and Sentinel Island, were both activated on March 1, 1902. However, Five Finger Lighthouse is often credited as being Alaska’s first lighthouse since its structures were completed before those on Sentinel Island.

One of the early keepers of Five Finger Lighthouse was Nick Kashevaroff, who, like Alaska, was of Russian heritage. Having been raised on remote Kodiak Island, Kashevaroff adapted well to the isolated life at Five Finger Lighthouse and stayed on for twenty years, with only seasonal fishermen and a few fox farmers on nearby islands as his neighbors.

In 1933, the country was suffering through the depths of the Great Depression, and Dorothy Young Croman, having exhausted her savings, was forced to drop out of college. At the time, Dorothy’s younger brother Ed was working at the Patten family fox farm on Akusha Island, just over two miles north of Five Finger Lighthouse, and the Patten’s generously invited Dorothy to come live with them and provide companionship for Mrs. Patten. Island life was new to Dorothy, but she quickly adjusted to drinking goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk, and when the cold winter weather arrived, she gained an appreciation for the fur-lined seat in the outhouse.

The Patten family was in close contact with the keepers at the lighthouse and visited the station once a week to collect their mail. Dorothy and Ed would often make the trip in a rowboat powered by a small engine, but only when the sea was relatively calm.

During the first week of December in 1933, bad weather settled over Frederick Sound. When the low-lying fog and clouds finally lifted, Dorothy grabbed a pair of binoculars to check on their neighbors at the lighthouse. There was just one problem - she couldn’t find the lighthouse. “I looked all around to make sure I was looking at the right spot,” recalls Dorothy. “Maybe something was wrong with my eyes. That building had to be there.” In a panic, Dorothy had her brother and the Pattens search for the lighthouse too, but it really had disappeared.

“We got the boat and its kicker down from the high platform to the rocky beach, and left for Five Finger light,” remembers Dorothy. “I’ll never forget climbing up that cold metal ladder and stepping on the big rock. Shivers go up my spine even now.” All that was left of Five Finger Lighthouse was a pile of ashes, tangled pipes, and a portion of the foundation.

The spell of cold weather had frozen the water pipes in the lighthouse, prompting two of the station’s keepers, Alfred Schlaisa and John Ellingsen, to attempt thawing the pipes with a blowtorch. The torch’s flame was quickly warming a section of the pipe, but unfortunately the temperature of the nearby wall was also increasing, and eventually it caught on fire. With their water source frozen, the keepers could do little but watch as the fire spread until the entire lighthouse was engulfed in flames.

The lighthouse tender Cedar, which had been delivering supplies to the lighthouse, was anchored offshore, and its crew was dispatched to help fight the blaze. Even with the extra personnel, the attempt to save the lighthouse proved futile. One of the keepers reportedly raced back into the burning lighthouse to retrieve the station’s logbook. Fighting his way through thick black smoke, he quickly grabbed a hefty book that felt like the logbook and made a speedy exit. Only when he was safely outside again, did he happen to notice that he had risked his life to save a Sears Roebuck catalog.

The loss of the lighthouse interrupted mail service for Dorothy and the Pattens on Akusha Island. Dorothy kept a detailed record of her visit that winter in Frederick Sound, and years later, she wrote a children’s book, Trouble on the Blue Fox Islands: An outlands adventure, based on her experiences.

A temporary, unattended light having the same characteristic as the lighthouse was soon established on the island. This beacon would serve for over two years while funds were obtained and work commenced on the replacement lighthouse. Built of reinforced concrete, the new lighthouse is practically fireproof and consists of a square base, forty feet to a side, with a 13-foot-square tower rising from the middle to a height of sixty feet. Four bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, storage area, and a common room are located in the base. The lighthouse was completed at a cost of $90,000 as part of a depression-era public works program under the Roosevelt administration and was first lit on December 16, 1935, two years and a week after its predecessor burned down.

After the Coast Guard assumed control of all U.S. lighthouses in 1939, a four-man crew was stationed at Five Finger Lighthouse. Officer-in-Charge Dan Peckham, Machinery Technician Brian Dunlap, and Fireman Apprentices Steven Stoce and Kirt Whyte were the crew in April of 1982. “The hard part is being away from the family,” said Peckham, who left a wife, a daughter, and a baby on the way to accept a one-year tour at the lighthouse.

Signatures of Last Crew
The crew’s lifeline to the outside world consisted of a weekly delivery of food, mail, and movies via helicopter from the Coast Guard station in Sitka. During the winter of 1982, the crew developed a bad case of cabin fever when the helicopter was unable to make the regular trip for a couple of weeks. During this period, the water surrounding the lighthouse was rolling with thirty-foot swells topped with five-foot seas, and the wind was howling an incredible 85 mph. A layer of ice encased the lighthouse trapping the crew inside for several days. When the helicopter finally made it out to the island, commander Peckham recalls "We were just tickled to death to see faces out here!”

Life at the island “gives you some time to think,” said Dunlap. “You do a lot of that out here.” Dunlap also had some time to do some calculating as well, as he figured out that running 33½ times around the helicopter landing pad was equivalent to a mile and that the island actual gained one acre at low tide.

The last four-man Coast Guard crew left Five Finger Lighthouse on August 14, 1984, leaving behind their signatures on a basement wall of the lighthouse. This crew was the last stationed at a lighthouse in Alaska, making Five Finger the first and last Alaskan lighthouse to be manned.

When budget cuts severely limited its ability to maintain unmanned lighthouses, the USCG 17th District obtained authorization to lease its lighthouses to non-profit organizations. The Juneau Lighthouse Association was formed in 1997, and that same year it obtained a thirty-year lease on the Five Finger Lighthouse. Besides the lighthouse, the original 1902 boathouse and carpenter’s shed, which survived the fire that claimed the original lighthouse, still stand on the island. The station property was deeded to the Juneau Lighthouse Association by the General Services Administration in January of 2004.

With a motto of “Use and Activity Preserves,” the association is busy restoring the lighthouse and plans to use it as a marine research site and public educational facility where guests can stay and experience the workings of a lighthouse while enjoying the amazing marine life and beauty of Frederick Sound.

In 2011, members of the Alaska Whale Foundation spent five weeks at the lighthouse monitoring humpback whales and investigating how vessel noise affects the whale’s behavior and ability to communicate. On good days, the team was tracking up to 100 whales in Fredrick Sound. The pilot season at Five Fingers was a big success, and the foundation plans to join with the Juneau Lighthouse Association to maintain a whale research station at the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: Herman G. Halkett (1902 – 1903), Charles W. Kennard (1903), Alfred W. Robertson (1903 – 1905), George L. Lonholt (1905 – 1909), Benny M. Hall (1909 – at least 1921), C. P. Mercer (at least 1924), S. Olsen (at least 1927), William S. Hamilton (at least 1930), Oscar Lindberg (at least 1933), James H. Scriver (at least 1940), Tom Thompson (1981), Dan Peckman (1982), George Langlois (1983), M. L. Harding (1984).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References

  1. Southeastern Log.
  2. Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska's Lighthouses and Their Keepers, Shannon Lowry, 1992.
  3. Juneau Lighthouse Association Grant Application.

Location: Located on an island at the northern end of Frederick Sound, where Fredrick Sound, Keku Strait and Stephens Passage meet. The islands are forty-one miles northwest of Petersburg.
Latitude: 57.2704
Longitude: -133.6315

For a larger map of Five Finger Islands Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Views of the Five Finger Lighthouse should be possible from the Alaska Marine Highway ferries passing between Petersburg and Juneau.

Whale watching trips to Frederick Sound out of Petersburg may also provide a good viewing opportunity of the lighthouse. We visited the lighthouse by helicopter from Petersburg.

The lighthouse is owned by the Juneau Lighthouse Association. Grounds open, tower/dwelling open by arrangement with Juneau Lighthouse Association.

Find the closest hotels to Five Finger Islands Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Author Sue Henry spent a week at Five Finger Lighthouse conducting research before writing her book “Murder at Five Finger Light,” the eleventh novel in her Jessie Arnold mystery series. Reading this mystery is a great way to learn about Five Finger Lighthouse, as the characters in the novel explore every square inch of the three-acre island – the helipad, the lighthouse bedrooms and common room, the storage room in the tower’s basement, the trail to the south end of the island, the mask on the tree, the cove, platform and manhole cover in front of the tower, and the storage tanks under the platform.

If you are planning an overnight trip to the island, you might want to read the mystery after your visit or well in advance to allow your mind a chance to disassociate the lighthouse with murder and death. Otherwise, if you have an active imagination, you might spend a sleepless night in Frederick Sound.

Marilyn writes:
This is a personal favorite lighthouse for me. The lighthouse itself, island foliage, crystal clear waters and towering mountains coupled with a pristine environment so quiet you can hear the humpback whales BREATHING and see them from every viewpoint is a mind-blowing, complete lighthouse experience.

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