Lighthouse Friends Home Page
 Cape Hinchinbrook, AK    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: On the night of September 13, 1906 the steamship Oregon, captained by H.E. Soule, was en route from Seattle, Washington to Valdez, Alaska with fifty passengers and about 900 tons of freight aboard. Due to heavy fog, the vessel was three miles off course when it ran hard aground on rocks fifty yards offshore from Hinchinbrook Island. This point of land, which marks one side of the entrance to Prince William Sound, had long been regarded a menace to navigation, and just a few months prior to the Oregon’s accident, a Congressional act of June 20th, 1906 had authorized the construction of a light and fog signal station there.

First Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse
The passengers aboard the Oregon were rightly frightened, and some anxious men attempted to abscond with one of the lifeboats, until Captain Soule discovered the act and threatened to shoot them. After this encounter, the captain’s orders were obediently followed, and the passengers and crew all took to the lifeboats in an organized manner the following morning. Providently, the lighthouse tender Columbine was surveying the area for the pending construction of Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse and was able to pick up the castaways and safely deliver them to Valdez the next day.

Under the act of 1906, the cost of the Hinchinbrook Lighthouse was limited to $125,000, and an initial appropriation of $25,000 was made on June 30th of that same year, with $50,000 appropriations following in 1907 and 1909. Fully funded, the project got underway in the early spring of 1909 supervised by A.B. Lewis of Standard Building Company of Seattle, Washington. Progress was slow that first year due to inclement weather and a couple of mishaps, which included the collapse of the derrick during its erection, causing the loss of large quantities of cement, and the subsequent loss of a scow filled with supplies valued at $12,000. Two Indians eventually discovered the vessel on the beach of neighboring Montague Island, and its contents were returned. When work was halted in September, the tramway was complete along with the first story of the main structure. A keeper and his wife remained on the island through the winter to maintain a temporary light, exhibited from atop the incomplete lighthouse.

The contractor was apparently better prepared for the second year of work as C.W. Leick, chief draftsman of lighthouse construction in Alaska, remarked that “in all his experience he never saw more substantial preparations and arrangements…than is going on at Cape Hinchinbrook.” The lighthouse, which one reporter described as “practically indestructible,” came in under budget at $100,323 and was officially activated on November 15, 1910.

Cape Hinchinbrook's Fresnel Lens
The combination fog signal, light tower, and keepers’ dwelling took the form of a two-story octagonal concrete building with a central octagonal tower rising an additional seven feet above the structure’s pyramidal frame roof. A cast-iron deck and a first-order lantern capped the tower, while part of the fog signal room was a one-story extension from the westerly side of the building. Perched atop a 188-foot cliff, the tower’s light, produced by an incandescent oil vapor lamp and a Barbier, Benard & Turenne, third-order Fresnel lens, had a focal plane of 235 feet. A clockwork mechanism was used to revolve the four-panel lens, which floated in a bed of 187 pounds of mercury, producing a white flash every five seconds. Concrete walks and a tramway connected the lighthouse to the station’s outbuildings, which included a carpenter shop, oil house and, far below on the shore, a boathouse.

The first story of the lighthouse was home to the furnace, bathroom, storeroom, and the fog-signal machinery, consisting of two six-inch sirens powered by duplicate air compressors and eighteen-horsepower engines. Four bedrooms for the keepers were located on the second floor along with a kitchen, pantry and dining room. Considered “thoroughly modern in every respect,” the lighthouse was heated by a hot water plant. The station’s water was stored in a 15,000-gallon concrete cistern placed underground to prevent its contents from freezing in winter.

Lighthouse Superintendent Ralph Tinkham paid a surprise visit to Hinchinbrook Lighthouse and found all three keepers asleep, a violation of service rules. This, however, was just the first of many problems to be uncovered that day. Upon requesting breakfast, Tinkham was told that the station’s supplies were exhausted. A quick look in the station’s pantry revealed empty racks, bins and meathooks. There was, however, one eighteen-foot-long shelf full of Aunt Jemimah’s pancake flour. None of the keepers cared for it, but a pancake breakfast was just fine for the superintendent.

As the inspection continued, Tinkham discovered that the three keepers had not spoken a word to each other during the prior six months. As related by Tinkham, this all occurred after “one of the assistant keepers had lost a ring. Failing to find it after a diligent search, his brooding eventually convinced him that the other assistant had stolen it. Accusation had started a row and the principal keeper had stepped in in an attempt at reconciliation. As usual with would-be peacemakers, both assistants turned on him, thereafter all three ceased to have anything to do with each other.”

Fortunately, the three silent men did fulfill their duties for the most part and would even divide the spoils of any hunting or fishing expedition. Two weeks after the inspection, the six-month standoff came to an end when the lighthouse tender Cedar arrived with a load of supplies and a relief keeper.

Second Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The lighthouse was originally built thirty-six feet from the edge of the cliff, but earthquakes in 1927 and 1928 caused large sections of the cliff to fall, endangering the lighthouse. Relocating the structure was considered, but it had been cracked by the earthquakes and was not built of reinforced concrete, so a replacement structure was built farther removed from the cliff’s edge. The second Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse, designed by Edward Laird and Dwight Chase in the Lighthouse Service’s Sixteenth District office in Ketchikan and completed in 1934, is unique amongst American lighthouses. Built of reinforced concrete in an Art Moderne/Art Deco style, the lighthouse features a square, sixty-seven-foot tower built into one corner of the 44’ x 54’ one-story base, with decoratively capped pilasters rising from the ground and projecting above stepped parapets. The initial appropriation of $30,000 for the project was made in 1931, and the total cost came to $91,793.

Work on the new lighthouse began in May of 1931, but work was halted the following year after footings for the foundations were poured as the funds were exhausted. After an additional appropriation of $65,000 was made, work resumed in May 1933, and the lighthouse was ready for use in the spring of 1934. The lantern room from the original lighthouse was relocated to the new tower, and a bulldozer unceremoniously pushed the old structure over the cliff.

After the Coast Guard took over the nation’s navigational aids in 1939, the job of lightkeeping became a year-long assignment rather than a lifelong vocation. The keeper’s tours of duty were staggered so experienced men were always at the station.

Charles Umpstead served at Cape Hinchinbrook in 1947 and related a tale of a New Year’s Eve spent at the lighthouse by fellow coastguardsman Ed Baker – “The weather was calm and still and the four men were sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee when they thought they heard voices and music. Coffee cups in hand, they climbed the stairs to the weather deck to peer out. The water was so flat and calm, it was spooky. An Alaskan ocean liner was passing by, and a New Year’s Eve party was in full swing. Ed could see people dancing and laughing. He said he just stood there and cried like a baby.”

When Tim Escher arrived at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse in 1968, his first thought was “I’m going to be here for a whole year?!” It wasn’t long though before he adapted to the station’s routine life, and he now has fond memories of his Hinchinbrook experience. Escher kindly provided a collection of pictures that provides a rare glimpse of a coastguardsman’s life on an offshore station.

During Eshcer’s assignment, the basement of the lighthouse held water storage tanks, tanks for the fog horn, a furnace, and a food pantry. The main floor of the lighthouse consisted of four bedrooms along the east wall, a central kitchen, a bathroom along the south wall, an engine room just inside the main entrance, a radio room below the tower, and a living room, where movies were often shown, along the north wall. The second story of the tower housed equipment for the station’s radio beacon.

Clearing Snow at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Tim Escher
Once when the radio beacon went out, a private contractor flew to the island in a small floatplane to make repairs. As the water near the station was too rough, the plane radioed that it would land in a protected cove north of the island. Escher and another crewman wheeled the station’s launch from the boathouse to the end of the pier, where the crane was used to launch the boat. By the time they reached the floatplane, the winds had picked up to about 30 mph, and the swells were running between eight to ten feet. The repairman wasn’t sure he was up to such an adventurous boat ride, especially since he didn’t have the added protection of a wetsuit like the coastguardsmen did, but with a life jacket and a fair amount of courage, he managed to survive the trip and repair the radio.

Supplying the station could be problematic, as weather would often delay delivery of items, such as the station’s highly anticipated mail. When supplies did arrive, they were typically lightered to shore where, enclosed in a cargo net, they were hoisted skyward by the station’s crane. Three diesel generators were used on a rotating basis to supply power to the lighthouse. When the diesel tanks needed filling, a ship would anchor offshore, and a hose would have to be run from the vessel, to the landing area, and up the tramway to reach the tanks. In emergency situations, such as when Officer-in-Charge Jerry Bennett experienced a nosebleed that could not be stopped, a helicopter could be dispatched to the island.

One of the main duties performed by the station personnel was to stand radio watch, twenty-four hours a day. On one night, with visibility at a quarter mile and winds gusting to 75 mph, Escher received a distress call from the captain of a fishing vessel ten miles away. The captain radioed that his bilge pumps could not keep up with the amount of water he was taking on and that he was trying to reach the safety of a small bay. At one point in the radio exchange, the captain alerted Escher that two of his crew had just been swept overboard. Not long thereafter, the third crewman went over the side and disappeared, leaving the captain alone. Escher had advised Air Station Kodiak of the situation, but conditions prevented any rescue attempt. After about thirty minutes of radio contact, the captain’s radio went silent mid-sentence. Escher tried repeatedly to hail the captain with no success. The next day a seaplane, dispatched from Kodiak to search for the vessel, found remains of the boat but no bodies. It was an experience that Escher would never forget.

On August 14, 1974, the crew at Cape Hinchinbrook carried out a direct order to put down the station’s dogs, Red and Snowball, in preparation for full automation of the lighthouse. The final entries in Cape Hinchinbrook’s Register of Visitors capture the crew’s feelings about being forced to carry out the task. After noting that the dogs had done their best to make the stays of the station’s personnel more enjoyable, the Officer-in-Charge concluded with the following lines. “No one seemed to care but us and the task of getting rid of them was left to us. God forgive us for taking their lives. We are sure they are up in heaven with you now. We wish there would have been someone to at least do the job for us. It was hard to swallow, and it will be harder to live with. It is over and done with now; but God forbid we will be called upon to do something like this again.”

Cape Hinchinbrook’s third-order Fresnel lens, which had been replaced in 1967 by a two-headed aerobeacon, was officially transferred to the State of Alaska in 1975 under the condition that it be placed on public display. In the memorandum of agreement the lens was described as “consisting of four 90-degree lenses, each with seven central elements, eleven elements above and four elements below.” In 1976, the lens was relocated to Valdez and placed on display.

From its beginning, Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse has proved invaluable at directing vessels to and from Prince William Sound. In the early years, steamship lines carrying passengers and supplies, barges bearing ore from the world’s largest copper mines at Kennecott, and ships transporting oil from the fields at Katalla all relied on the flashing beacon at Hinchinbrook. Today, supertankers laden with oil from the Alaskan pipeline, huge cruise ships chock-full of tourists, and fishing vessels filled with valuable catch pass under the shadow of the lighthouse. Though no longer used by many as a primary navigational aid, the beacon still serves as a reassuring presence along the rugged Alaskan coast.

Head Keepers: Harry F. McBride (1910 – 1911), Sigvard G. Olsen (1911 – at least 1917), William A. Shoemaker (at least 1919 - at least 1921), Lee Harpole (at least 1930), George F. West (at least 1940).

References

  1. Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaskan History, U.S. Coast Guard.
  2. Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska's Lighthouses and Their Keepers, Shannon Lowry, 1992.
  3. "Threatens to Shoot His Cowardly Crew," The Washington Post, September 16, 1906.
  4. “Tinkham Tales IV,” The Keeper’s Log, Summer 2001.

Location: Located on the southwest end of Hinchinbrook Island, thirty-seven miles southwest of Cordova.
Latitude: 60.23752
Longitude: -146.6466

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


Travel Instructions: Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse is best seen by boat or plane, and the closest town offering these services is Cordova. The original third-order lens from the lighthouse is on display at the Valdez Museum.

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

Find the closest hotels to Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
I had always thought it would be an adventure to spend some time at a remote Alaskan lighthouse, but after reading through the Register of Visitors for the Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse, I might be too preoccupied with bears to enjoy my stay. Here are a couple bear stories I found in the lighthouse logbook:

William E. Morris III, 4 June 1965: At 0200 31 May, myself and two M + R (maintenance and repair) men from Base Ketchikan (Stien and Brooks) were beached at English Bay by CGC Sedge. At 0745 we arrived at the light station after a rather eventful trip. While tramping along a seemingly endless trail we unwittingly disturbed the peace of one damn unfriendly female brown bear. On a knoll 20’ above the trail and about 60’ away, she stared at the oncoming intruders. Upon realizing we had company I hollered a warning to unarmed Stien and Brooks with his springfield and military ’06 ammo. Almost immediately the bear grunted and ran down the steep slope toward me. Quickly I raised my .338 magnum rifle and searched for the onrushing bear in the 4x scope. After what seemed a very long time the bear appeared behind the crosshairs in the waving brush. The shot quite fortunately traveled through its neck downing the bear instantly. Two quick headshots at the brute 15’ away solved our immediate problem. This memorable event took place halfway between two large streams at the base of Signal Mountain. The station crew were quite surprised to hear that they had such rash neighbors and are presently contemplating buying a .375 magnum rifle.

Harold G. Gardner, 21 July 1971: BM1 Gardner and FN Oleaton left station to go on a hike over the trail by Baldy Mountain and look along beach for glass balls. At 1225 arrived in one hell of a position along the trail by Baldy Mountain. About 100 yds from the cliff line along the beach, two unfriendly bears, male and female, were in the trees doing a little “hanky panky” when we arrive and were disturbed, and they came chasing at us. The female went to the left and the male came between Gleaton and I. Then we killed the bear with 10 shots from the 303 British and the station’s 30.06, 5 rounds from each rifle. The bear weighed about 800 lbs and was about 10 feet in length. It was a close call. The man upstairs saved our life.


See our List of Lighthouses in Alaska

The lighthouses The Maps Our friends Lighthouse Resources Lighthouse Events Lighthouse Store Lighthouse Posters
Copyright © 2001- Lighthousefriends.com
Send us an e-mail - please note that lighthousefriends.com is not affiliated with any lighthouse

Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Derek Campbell, used by permission.