|Cape Spencer, AK|
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 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.
A beacon at Cape Spencer was requested as early as 1906, but it wasn’t until 1912 that this rocky region received its first light – an unmanned acetylene lantern. Funds for a lighthouse to properly mark Cape Spencer were later granted, and construction commenced in May of 1924. One can only imagine how difficult the initial landings on the rocky islet must have been. Surely the first project completed was the landing platform and derrick to facilitate the transfer of further supplies to the construction site.
A single-story reinforced concrete building (51’ x 62’) was built at the summit of the rocky mass to house both the fog signal equipment and the keepers. From the center of the squat structure’s roof, a 14-by-14-foot tower rose another twenty-five feet. A third-order Fresnel lens, designed and constructed in Paris by Barbier, Benard and Turenne, produced the lighthouse’s flashing characteristic. 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 summer, Alaska’s first radio beacon was installed at Cape Spencer, further indication of the station’s importance to maritime navigation.
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.
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.
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. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
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.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 its location. 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.
See our List of Lighthouses in Alaska
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Marilyn Stiborek, used by permission.