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 Cape Spencer, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: Oh the stories that can be told of life at lonely Cape Spencer Lighthouse. According to Coast Guard lore, no one ever reported sober to begin his year-long tour of duty on the rock, and that single year of service for some seemed more like a life sentence. At this remote outpost, it was said that the Coast Guard motto had been changed from “Semper Partus” (Always Prepared) to “Simply Forgotus.” The work crew present on the island when the color pictures shown here were taken (note the excess material being burned) might have felt forgotten too. Their stay at the lighthouse had to be extended as inclement weather prevented a helicopter from reaching them.

Cape Spencer Lighthouse as seen from water
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Prominent Cape Spencer was given its name by Captain George Vancouver during his exploration of Southeast Alaska in 1793-1794. The cape’s namesake was George John Spencer who served as England’s First Lord of the Admiralty from 1794 to 1800. Cape Spencer is an important turning point for vessels sailing between Southcentral and Southeast Alaska. North of Cape Spencer, ships are exposed to the full fury of the ocean as they are forced to transit the Outside Passage, but at Cape Spencer, ships can turn east and pass through Cross Sound and Icy Strait to reach the relatively calm waters of the Inside Passage.

Congress appropriated $115,000 in 1912 for aids to navigation in Alaska, and while this was nearly double what had been provided the previous year and included funds for a major light at Cape St. Elia, Territorial Governor Walter Clark wanted major lights constructed at Cape Spencer and Cape Decision as well. “Since April 1910 – twenty months ago – 58 aids to navigation, including a number of acetylene gas lighter beacons have been installed in Alaska water,” Clark noted. While this increased the number of lights in Alaska severalfold, Clark felt it would be better to postpone additional small lights in favor of formal lighthouses at Cape Spencer and Cape Decision.

The Lighthouse Board requested a light and fog signal at Cape Spencer as early as 1906, but it wasn’t until 1912 that this rocky region received its first light – an unmanned acetylene lens lantern. Despite Governor Clark’s plea, mariners had to be content with this small beacon for nearly two decades. In 1922, the Lighthouse Service requested $165,000 for a light and fog signal at or near Cape Spencer and provided the following paragraph as justification:

Cape Spencer is at the entrance to Cross Sound and Icy Strait, through which pass all vessels running between Puget Sound ports and Prince William Sound, Seward, Cook Inlet, and Kodiak, excepting only occasional freighters proceeding by outside route. Traffic by way of Cape Spencer is materially increasing owing to work on the Government railroad, which will probably be completed within the next two years, and the consequent development of southern and southwestern Alaska. A small unwatched light is now maintained on the Cape, but a more powerful watched light and- a fog signal of the first class should be provided. A landfall must be made in this vicinity by all vessels returning from the westward, and as the entrance to Cross Sound is difficult to make, especially in thick weather, it is important they be given all the assistance possible. Maritime interests are urging the establishment of this aid as their most important need in Alaska.

Cape Spencer Lighthouse as seen from air
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
An experienced captain described the necessity of a light at this location to prevent additional shipwrecks: “With a ship arriving at Cape Spencer during the foggy or snowy weather, it is necessary to lie outside until the following day at daylight, and of which during the winter we have only six or seven hours at most. With no fog signal there, as at present, we have to stand a safe distance off at sea, and if the weather is still foggy or snowy next day it is almost impossible to find the entrance, which may mean another night at sea.”

Congress allocated $66,000 toward the project in 1923, and construction commenced in May 1924. One can only imagine how difficult the initial landings on the rocky islet must have been. A landing platform, derrick, and hoisting machinery were put in place first to facilitate the transfer of further supplies to the construction site, and during the first work season, which ended in September 1924, a boathouse, blacksmith shop, tram, and excavation for the lighthouse foundation were completed.

A single-story reinforced concrete building (51’ x 62’) was built at the summit of the rocky mass in 1925 to house the diaphone fog signal equipment, the light, and the keepers. From the center of the squat structure’s roof, a fourteen-foot square tower rose another twenty-five feet. A third-order Fresnel lens, constructed in Paris by Barbier, Benard and Turenne, produced the lighthouse’s light characteristic of a white flash every fifteen seconds at a focal plane of 105 feet above the surrounding water. The only part of the station that could be easily traversed was the hundred yards of plank walkways linking the lighthouse to the boathouse, crane, and garbage chute. The remote station was built at a cost of $174,881 and commenced operation on December 11, 1925. The following July, Alaska’s first “radio fog signal” or radiobeacon was placed in operation at Cape Spencer, further indication of the station’s importance to maritime navigation. Ships at sea with a radiocompass could pick up the radiobeacon at distances of over 100 miles and use the signal to safely approach the station.

As evidenced by the following stories, a year’s tour of duty at Cape Spencer seems to have provided ample material for a lifetime of interesting dinner conversations. Paul Reager was stationed at Cape Spencer during 1946. He recalls that the station’s groceries came from Pelican City, but the weather often interfered with their regular arrival. As a result, at times they had to be both creative and conservative with their supplies. “I once made a lemon pie out of brass polish, which was high in citric acid. Made a darn good pie too,” remembers Reager. The crew also saved all its cigarette butts and used a rolling machine to make new cigarettes.

Cape Spencer Lighthouse Lens
The coastguardsmen stationed at Cape Spencer provided weather reports to nearby villages and private fishing vessels, and kept the light, fog signal, and radiobeacon functioning. Still, there was plenty of downtime for the men, which isn’t always a good thing. To pass time, Reager remembers they “didf some fishing and some boxing, and sometimes the boxing wasn’t just for fun. When you are on a three-quarter-acre rock for twelve months with two other men, you do have disagreements.”

Pat O’Brien spent part of 1963 and 1964 at Cape Spencer with three other members of the Coast Guard and a German Shepherd named Duke. “I observed many things at Cape Spencer that I have never seen anywhere else,” says O’Brien. “Probably the most dramatic was a tsunami warning. Of course, we got the call in the middle of the night. Can you imagine, with all the danger of getting off the station by crane in daylight, on a calm day, what it was like to abandon the station at night? Once we got our sixteen-foot outboard in the water, we had to weave in and out, avoiding the rock garden, until we reached the safety of an inlet called Dick’s Arm. We did this by putting a man on the bow with a flashlight. Any volunteers? We all had our M1 rifles. We were wide-eyed and loaded for bear. Glad we didn’t see any.”

Fortunately, there was no tsunami that night, but the warnings were definitely taken seriously after the Scotch Cap Lighthouse and its entire crew were lost to a tsunami in 1946. Another unique experience O’Brien had at Cape Spencer occurred one evening when a heavy mist enshrouded the station in a halo of light produced by the lens’ four revolving beams.

“It must have been during a major bird migration,” O’Brien said, “because the night sky was filled with millions of little birds, none of them larger than a robin. The beams of light were so heavy with them that it looked like a blizzard in the reflected light. You could hit them with a stick. If you opened the door, the room would fill with birds.”

“The rotating light obviously attracted them. Because we received our drinking water off the roof from rainfall, the seaman and myself checked the roof the next morning, and we threw literally bucketfuls of dead birds off the roof; they had died flying into the light. I have never seen so many birds and so many varieties in my life.”

The Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from Cape Spencer in 1974, the same year in which the lighthouse was reportedly unmanned. The small lighthouse, perched atop the seventy-foot-tall rock, is still considered an important navigational aid and receives regular Coast Guard visits. These crews are likely glad their stays at the secluded station last only a few hours or at most a couple of days. However, they won’t have the storehouse of memories accumulated by the crews who spent a full year at the station that marks the outermost edge of Southeast Alaska.

Keepers:

  • Head: George Alexius (at least 1930), James H. Scriver (1938 – 1940), George C. Francis (1940 – 1941), Lyle E. Kelsey (1941 – ).
  • First Assistant: Daniel Kinnaley (at least 1930), James H. Scriver (1935 – 1936), Lyle E. Kelsey (1937 – 1941), Nicholas H. Kashevaroff (1939 – 1941).
  • Second Assistant: Edward C. Hope (1929 – 1930), Edward C. Hope (additional second assistant) (1933 – 1935), James H. Scriver (1934 – 1935), Lyle E. Kelsey (1935 – 1937), Willie M. Perryman (1937 – 1939), Edward H. Ford ( – 1940), Angus H. Lillie (1940 – 1943), Eugene L. Hopper (1940 – 1941).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska's Lighthouses and Their Keepers, Shannon Lowry, 1992.
  4. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.

Location: Located on the northern side of the entrance to Cross Sound from the Gulf of Alaska. The lighthouse is roughly eighty miles west of Juneau.
Latitude: 58.19885
Longitude: -136.64048

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


Travel Instructions: As Cape Spencer Lighthouse is located within Glacier Bay National Park, the park's Area Visitor Services Directory is a good source of operators who serve the area. We chartered a flight with Air Excursions out of Gustavus.

The third-order Fresnel lens and clock works from Cape Spencer Lighthouse are on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

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

Find the closest hotels to Cape Spencer Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The following information accompanies the lens drive mechanism on display at the Alaska State Museum: The Cape Spencer light flashed every ten seconds, which meant that the whole lens rotated completely every forty seconds. The lens was floated in a vat of mercury, a heavy liquid metal. This produced a highly efficient and virtually frictionless "bearing" for the lens to move in, requiring only a minute amount of power to rotate.

The lens was originally powered by a gravity system. Weights were suspended on the long cable, which was wound around the drum of the device. As the cable unwound from the drum, it set the gears in motion. The cable was periodically wound back onto the drum with the crank, displayed at the base of the mechanism. This function and the maintaining of the light source were the primary tasks of the lighthouse keeper.

Later, the gravity system was replaced by the Coast Guard with an electric motor, but the governor of this mechanism was still used to control the rotation speed of the lens. In the 1940's an electric governor retired the original drive mechanism completely, and in the 1970's the fine old lens, which had served mariners on both the east and west coasts since the middle of the 19th century, was finally replaced by a more efficient but infinitely less beautiful mechanism.

Marilyn writes:
Once you have been out to see the lighthouse and the wild waters and rocks surrounding the light, you better understand the need for it. A visit to the Alaska State Museum is well worth it both for the viewing of the lens as well as learning about Alaska history.

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