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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 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
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.

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.

Cape Spencer Lighthouse Lens
The Coast Guardsmen stationed at Cape Spencer provided weather reports to nearby villages and private fishing vessels, and kept the light and radio functioning. Still, there was plenty of downtime for the men, which isn’t always a good thing. To pass time, Reager remembers they “did 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.

Head Keepers: George Alexius (at least 1930), Nicholas H. Kashevaroff (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 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 the 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 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.

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