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 Eldred Rock, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Hurricane winds, estimated at ninety miles per hour, were howling down narrow Lynn Canal as the Clara Nevada started her multi-day journey from Skagway to Seattle. It was February 5th, 1898, near the peak of the Alaskan gold rush, and the three-masted passenger ship was loaded with over 800 pounds of the prized mineral, an illegal shipment of dynamite, and some one hundred passengers, including more than one frustrated fortune seeker. Just over thirty miles into her southward voyage, the ship ran aground at Eldred Rock and exploded into flames.

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The remains of the Clara Nevada are now a popular dive site, but oddly no trace of gold has ever been discovered in the wreckage. According to the initial report, all passengers and crew members on board the vessel that evening perished. However, weeks after the accident, a skiff belonging to the ship was found hidden in a grove of trees on the mainland. A few members of the crew likely escaped the disaster that night, as it was later discovered that C. H. Lewis, captain of the Clara Nevada, had resumed his profession on riverboats in Alaska’s interior and that the ship’s fireman was subsequently employed in Nome’s gold fields.

Whether the loss of the Clara Nevada was an accident or an act of sabotage may never be known, but Congress viewed the incident as sufficient evidence that a lighthouse on Eldred Rock was needed. The Lighthouse Board approved plans for the lighthouse in May 1905 and hoped that hired labor could have the design completed before November and the coming of harsh winter weather. Mother nature, however, did not cooperate, and the lighthouse was not activated until June 1, 1906, making it the last of the ten lighthouses constructed in Alaska between 1902 and 1906.

Like many of the early northern lights, the Eldred Rock Lighthouse consisted of an octagonal tower protruding from the center of an octagonal building with a sloping roof. The building at Eldred Rock, however, was markedly larger than the others and had two stories instead of one. The bottom story was built of concrete, while the second story and tower were wood. Perhaps it was this solid foundation that has allowed the Eldred Rock Lighthouse to survive for over a hundred years, while all of its Alaskan contemporaries were replaced with stouter structures after just a few decades of service.

The lighthouse provided ample living space for the keepers as well as a noisy neighbor, a first class fog signal. A wooden boathouse and tramway were also part of the 2.4-acre lighthouse reservation and were built just north of the lighthouse.

A fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern room, near the top of the fifty-six foot lighthouse, at a focal plane of ninety-one feet. This unique lens, crafted in Paris by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, consists of two bull’s-eye panels – one about four feet in diameter and the opposing one a smaller, 14-inch panel. A sheet of red glass was placed between the light source and the larger prism, causing the revolving lens to produce alternating red and white flashes.

On May 14, 1906, a letter was sent from the office of the district inspector to Nils Peter Adamson, assistant keeper of the Desdamona Sands Lighthouse on the Columbia River, directing him “to proceed to Eldred Rock, Alaska, Light Station and take charge of that station as Keeper.” Adamson was ordered to make no unnecessary delay as the light and fog signal were scheduled to begin operation in just over two weeks. Head Keeper Adamson reached the station in time, and with his two assistants took up residence on the tiny island.

On the evening of March 12, 1908, a violent gale struck Eldred Rock. When assistant keeper Currie ventured out of the lighthouse the next morning, to his astonishment he saw a ship stranded on the northern end of the island. The powerful storm had brought the Clara Nevada up from her watery grave, just days after the tenth anniversary of her sinking. Keeper Currie didn’t have much time to examine the resurrected vessel for the storm picked up again that evening, returning the ship to the bottom of the canal.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy David Hardman
On February 26, 1910, the two assistant keepers at Eldred Rock, Currie and Selander, set out in the station’s launch for Point Sherman. With light snow falling, the assistants left Point Sherman at about 4 p.m. the following day for the return. When his assistants hadn't shown up at Eldred Rock after an absence of three days, Adamson rowed out to the Justina Gray to put out notice of the overdue men. Two days later, the station's missing launch was located “with all gear gone excepting mast, sail & anchor.” Adamson, who was tormented by the presumed drowning of his assistants, later wrote: “I myself am unable to account for any accident that could have happened to them as there was no wind to speak of and a smooth sea & in my opinion they should have reached home easily by 8 p.m., though they had an ebb tide to contend with.”

For a month, Adamson searched the waters of Lynn Canal for his assistants when time and weather permitted. At night, he would often rise in his sleep, stand at his bedroom window, and call out their names – a nightmare that continued the remainder of his life. To escape the tragedy, Adamson resigned as keeper at Eldred Rock on January 5th, 1911 and moved to Astoria, Oregon. He returned to lighthouse service the following summer accepting an appointment at Coos Bay.

During World War II, the five members of the Coast Guard stationed at the lighthouse divided the day into three eight-hour shifts to keep a continuous watch. Three men would serve watch duty each day, while one functioned as cook and the other performed maintenance work. To prevent too much boredom, the assignments were rotated monthly.

When Jack Goehring arrived on the island he was asked if he knew how to cook. “I replied in the negative,” said Goehring, “but was assured that if I knew how to read, I could learn to cook. This wasn’t exactly true, because I had to write to my mother to learn how to fold in an egg. But the rule was, if you complained about the cooking, then you got to cook.”

Dogs of Eldred Rock Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy David Hardman
Dave Hardman served as station engineer at Eldred Rock for a year starting in September of 1961 and was responsible for the diesel-powered generators, the air compressors for the fog horns, and the radiobeacon. A crew of four were typically at the station along with two dogs, Kenmore and Willie, to keep them company. Supplies and mail were delivered every couple of weeks except during winter months when winds that could exceed 90 knots cut back on the frequency of the visits.

Hardman's replacement as station engineer in 1962 was Gordon Huggins. Up until that time, nobody had been successful in getting a tree to grow on the island. Huggins took a boat to the mainland, dug up a couple of trees, and planted them on Eldred Rock, where one of them has thrived to this day. Huggins returned to the island for the filming of the PBS special Legendary Lighthouses and paid his surviving tree a visit.

Tom Schmidt served as Officer-in-Charge of “The Rock” from September of 1971 to the following October. For recreation during his stay, the crew enjoyed a pool table, ping pong table, slot car track, and nightly showings of 16mm feature-length movies. By the time his tour was up, Schmidt didn’t care if he ever saw another movie. Everyone ate dinner together on weeknights, and the food was generally good to keep morale up. In this photograph, a delicious meal of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, carrots and a salad was being enjoyed.

The station’s power was provided by three Caterpillar generators, only one of which was used each day on a rotating basis. Every hour, a hand crank was used to pump fuel from the outside diesel tanks to the generator’s small day tanks. The station’s water supply was provided primarily by snow and rain. Boards on the roof would keep the snow in place so it could melt, drain into the roof gutters, and feed into the cistern located on the lower level of the lighthouse. The water was chlorinated and according to Schmidt tasted awful, especially when an extra dose of chlorine was added after a dead bird was discovered in the cistern. In winter, each man was allowed just one shower per week to conserve water, but luckily the crew didn’t sweat much in the extreme cold. A separate small cistern, filled with seawater pumped up from Lynn Canal, was located in the attic and used for flushing the toilet.

Personnel were removed from Eldred Rock Lighthouse in 1973, at which time the fog signal and radio beacon were discontinued. Soon after the automation, the Chilkat Valley News in nearby Haines wrote, “Haines has been made more isolated than ever before from its nearest neighbor to the south. A cold, lifeless lighthouse stands guard amidst the whims of wind and weather in Lynn Canal. The most important facet of this facility is gone: the human observer.”

After being replaced by an automatic beacon, the original Fresnel lens from the Eldred Rock Lighthouse was acquired from the Coast Guard by the Alaska State Museum in 1976. The lens was then loaned to the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center where it was placed on display in 1981. A handsome wooden case, resembling the lantern room atop the Eldred Rock Lighthouse, was crafted for the lens in 1992. The museum has formed the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Committee to work towards obtaining the lighthouse through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In mid-summer 2004, Eldred Rock appeared on the list of available lighthouses, until the Forest Service, who controls a portion of Eldred Rock, refused to let its property be conveyed into private hands.

To help raise funds for the eventual restoration of the lighthouse, Haines resident Pam Randles teamed with Dan Henry, drama coach at the University of Alaska Anchorage, to produce a play entitled “The Strange Fate of the Clara Nevada.” The play, which features strong visual and sound effects and two powerful storms, has been performed at the Sheldon Museum and in other local communities. Now, the wreck of the ship that led to the establishment of the Eldred Rock Lighthouse is taking a leading role in saving and restoring the lighthouse a century later. If only some of the gold that was aboard the Clara Nevada could miraculously be found and fund the complete restoration, the story would have a perfect ending.

Head Keepers: Nils Peter Adamson (1906 – 1911), A. Jewett (1911 – 1912), H. F. McBride (1912 - ), Robert McKlem (at least 1917 –1918), Nils C. Monsen (1919 - at least 1921), George Stinson (at least 1922), Samuel L. Atkinson (at least 1930), J. Paul Mestrezat (at least 1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6

References

  1. Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska's Lighthouses and Their Keepers, Shannon Lowry, 1992.
  2. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.

Location: Located on Eldred Rock in the Lynn Canal, twenty miles southeast of Haines.
Latitude: 58.97091
Longitude: -135.22092

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


Travel Instructions: Eldred Rock Lighthouse is visible from cruise ships and ferries that pass through Lynn Canal to and from Haines and Skagway. Specific options include the Alaska Marine Highway ferries and Alaska Fjordlines, Inc.

The lighthouse can also be seen from small planes that regularly fly between Juneau and Haines/Skagway.

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

Find the closest hotels to Eldred Rock Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
A helicopter pilot "visiting history" at Eldred Rock on July 22, 1991, left the following handwritten message on an interior wall of the lighthouse: "Here lies peaceful tranquility we all yearn for, but loneliness that is unlike the social creature that is man." That sentence succinctly captures what most of us would experience during a prolonged stay at Eldred Rock. The natural beauty and peacefulness of the setting are remarkable, but even with modern planes and ferries now passing the island at regular intervals, the isolation of the small rock would soon impact even a less sociable person.

Inscribed on what appear to be two shingles nailed to a wall in another room of the lighthouse is a list of improvements made by the Coast Guard over the years. The most recent work took place from mid-June to mid-July 2005, just a month or so before our visit, and included painting of all the buildings and repairing the water tank and boathouse. The Coast Guard is doing a commendable job of maintaining Eldred Rock Lighthouse, but hopefully a deserving organization will soon inherit the lighthouse and have the vision to turn some of its many spacious rooms into overnight accommodations so that the public can experience the tranquility and loneliness of this special place.

For the curious, the rock was named by Marcus Baker in 1880 for his wife Sarah Eldred.

It seems like Eldred Rock inspired people to wax poetic. Gordon Huggins, who was stationed there in 1962, provided the following poem that was at the lighthouse.

To The Isolated
Look not upon these empty walls with emptiness in your soul.
Look not out of the window into the night black as coal.
For in all your loneliness, things are not so bad, that they will not improve.
Remember that I too, once felt the same, and now things are running smooth.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, David Hardman, Tom Schmidt , used by permission.