In 1911, just months after Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse was placed in operation, the Lighthouse Service provided the following justification for a light and fog signal at Cape St. Elias that was expected to cost $115,000:
This point is one of the most important to navigation in southern Alaska, being a landfall for nearly all vessels between southeastern and western Alaska and for vessels bound to Prince William Sound. This is a coast frequented by fog and storms and many requests have been received for this aid to navigation, and it is believed to be the most urgently needed in Alaska.
The first attempt at establishing a light to mark Cape St. Elias was in 1912, when the lighthouse tender Armeria left Seattle, bound for Alaska where it was scheduled to deploy fourteen acetylene light buoys. Each of these lights was equipped with storage tanks that could keep a beacon burning day and night for at least six months. While anchored off Cape Hinchinbrook in preparation for delivering supplies to the lighthouse established there in 1910, the Armeria was driven onto an uncharted rock by heavy swells. With a hole in the hull and water entering the engine room, the captain had no choice but to beach his craft.
On October 1913, Congress appropriated $115,000 for a permanent lighthouse at or near Cape St. Elias. Much money was being allocated towards improving transportation in Alaska around this time, as the following year Congress agreed to fund the construction of the Alaskan Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks at an expected cost of $35 million. Cape St. Elias Lighthouse would certainly help vessels sailing to and from the southern terminus of the planned railroad. Everyone, however, was not pleased with the plans for a lighthouse at Cape St. Elias as some believed a lightship would better mark dangerous Southeast Rock, situated two-and-a-half miles off the cape. A compromise was struck wherein the lighthouse would be built and a lighted buoy would be anchored at Southeast Rock.
A party of six men, supervised by engineer Harry Fuller, landed at Kayak Island on May 13, 1915 to set up a camp, consisting of two bunkhouses, a mess house, a warehouse, and shops, and to conduct a topographic survey of the site in preparation for the imminent construction of the lighthouse. Superintendent Ralph Tinkham arrived at the island on June 1 from Ketchikan with lumber, skilled labor, provisions, and a cook. Tinkham noted that a good cook was essential for camp morale and was pleased to have found Tom Pierce, a “good natured and irrepressible Negro who was the life of the camp.” Pierce “had been in practically every gold camp in Alaska since 1898,” working magic with his portable cook stove. F.J. Dohrer would serve as the project foreman.
Tinkham spent five weeks on the cape finishing his designs for the station’s structures and selecting their locations. The lighthouse was built on a terrace, forty-two feet above the water, and consisted of a two-story, twelve-foot-square tower attached to the southwest corner of the one-story, twenty-five by thirty-six-foot, fog signal building. Most of the construction party left the cape on October 7, having completed a storage building, a retaining wall for the keepers’ dwelling, and most of the reinforced concrete work required for the lighthouse. Two men were left behind to tend a small light and serve as camp caretakers during the winter.
Tom Pierce returned in May 1916 with the construction crew to serve as cook for the second season at Cape St. Elias. However, he was already in ill health and succumbed to a “paralytic stroke” later that month. When healthy enough to travel, Pierce was taken to a hospital in Ketchikan, where, after a three-week stay, he seemed like his old self. On June 30, just three days after being released from the hospital, he was found dead in his cabin from a self-inflected gunshot.
Since supplying the construction site was troublesome, the island’s resources were used whenever possible. Over 190,000 bricks were made on site from sand and gravel procured from the beach and then used during the second season to construct a boathouse, a hoist house, and the keepers’ dwelling. Besides having storage space for three dories, the boathouse sheltered a six-horsepower engine for pulling a car up the tramways that extended to both the east and west beaches. The hoist house stood just east of the dwelling and contained a nine-horsepower engine for pulling a cart up the tramway from the boathouse to the storage house, located just north of the lighthouse.
The lantern room and watchroom installed at Cape St. Elias were fabricated in Kenton, Ohio and displayed at the U.S. Lighthouse Service exhibit at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 before being dismantled and shipped north in 1916. A third-order Fresnel lens consisting of two flash panels was installed in the lantern room and rested upon a mercury float. A weight, suspended inside a shaft that extended from the watchroom to the bottom of the tower, provided the force to revolve the lens three times per minute, producing the light’s signature of two white flashes every twenty seconds. Finally lit on September 6, 1916, the light was of 300,000 candlepower and had a range of 15 ¼ nautical miles. A thirteen-ton buoy with an acetylene blinker, whistle, and submarine bell, had been anchored at Southeast Rock on May 12, 1916.
Cape St. Elias’ fog signal equipment, consisting of duplicate sirens blown with compressed air generated by two eighteen-horsepower engines, had also been on display at the exposition in San Francisco. The outlet for the sound, originally a double blast every minute, was a pair of Y-shaped, double-mouthed copper trumpets. The unique shape of the trumpets was used to direct the sound around either side of Pinnacle Rock. The fog signal was placed in commission on January 30, 1917.
When completed, Cape St. Elias was considered one of the most important stations on the Alaskan coast as it was a landfall light for vessels bound to Prince William Sound or Cook Inlet from either the Pacific Coast of the United States or from Southeast Alaska. A radio beacon was installed at the station in 1927 to further aid navigation.
In May 1961, a large Alaskan brown bear, weighing about 800 pounds, tried to force its way into the keepers’ residence at Cape St. Elias. The startled coastguardsmen fired a shot over the beast’s head, and the bruin beat a hasty retreat into the woods. Roughly an hour later, the bear returned and again tried to paw its way into the dwelling. Fearing for their lives, the coastguardsmen were forced to take “the first step toward converting the brownie into a bear rug.”
At 5:36 p.m. on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the largest earthquake ever to occur in the United States struck Prince William Sound. The keepers at Cape St. Elias felt the quake for five full minutes, but it did little damage to the station, even though it caused an uplift of between six to eight feet. Frank Reid was photographing the nearby sea lion colony when his leg was broken by a quake-triggered rockfall on Pinnacle Rock. When Reid didn’t return, his three comrades went to search for him. While carrying the injured Reid back to the station, the crew was caught in a tsunami that flooded the gravel bar leading to Pinnacle Rock with chest-deep water. The men survived the first wave, but just seconds later a ten-foot surge swept them all into the sea. Frank Reid drowned, but the other men survived.
Twenty-two-year-old Reid, who was scheduled to be discharged in just a couple of weeks, sent a request to the armed forces radio station in Anchorage just one day before the earthquake, asking that they play “I Want to Go Home – Detroit City.” The radio station finally played Reid’s request on April 9, dedicating it to the three men and two dogs at Cape St. Elias. Sergeant Ervin Elswick, who ran the radio program, told his listeners, “We hope somehow, somewhere, Frank is listening.” The quake and resulting tidal waves knocked Cape St. Elias Light Station out of commission, but it was back in service after three days.
The Cordova Times edition of October 31, 1968 carried a notice that the Seventeenth Coast Guard District planned to automate five Alaskan light stations, including Cape Hinchinbrook and Cape St. Elias. Technological improvements in automatic aids made possible the automation, which would result in an annual savings of $15,000 per station. The automation, scheduled to begin in July of 1970, was estimated to take approximately five years, but the process finished ahead of schedule at Cape St. Elias and Cape Hinchinbrook as both stations lost their personnel in 1974. Sometime before 1973, the Fresnel lens was removed from the tower at Cape St. Elias and replaced by a smaller beacon.
Kevin Anderson recorded his feelings on the automation of Cape St. Elias in the station’s logbook. “Saint Elias light is now history. It was downgraded to a minor aid. It seems the best things in life weren’t meant to last. This has been the best job I reckon I will ever have the pleasure of doing. I just hope these lighthouses are never forgotten.” The Cape Saint Elias Lightkeepers Association, organized to restore and preserve the buildings on the cape, obtained a thirty-year lease from the Coast Guard in 1997 and is working to fulfill Anderson’s wish.