Keepers of the light get a financial boost

HANSVILLE – One hundred years ago, a visitor to the Point No Point lighthouse would have found a manicured outpost in a rugged setting.

Under the constant watch of a lighthouse keeper, the lawns were kept trim, paint fresh and the light always shining.

“In the days of the Lighthouse Service, this place was kept immaculate,” said United States Lighthouse Society Executive Director Jeff Gales, whose organization has its headquarters at Point No Point.

The Lighthouse Society has plans to restore the grounds to their former, fastidious glory through a series of renovation projects beginning this winter.

Its mission was boosted by a recently awarded $72,000 grant from the Seattle Foundation. The money will pay for an overhaul of the historic lighthouse keeper’s workshop, a small building near the entrance to the county park.

The society plans to restore the workshop’s exterior to its historic look, and create an interpretive center and gift shop inside.

“It will be the first place people stop when they come to visit the light,” Gales said.

The U.S. Coast Guard owns the lighthouse and the grounds are used by the county as part of a larger park. The Coast Guard recently declared the property surplus and it may be soon be transferred to the county.

The lighthouse society moved its offices to the historic keeper’s residence in 2008 and manages the other half of the residence as a vacation rental. In recent years the Coast Guard had only used the workshop for storage, and the building had fallen into disrepair.

Lighthouse Society employees have already repaired the workshop’s sagging roof, replaced its door, fixed wiring and done drywall and painting work.

With the grant in hand the society has a laundry lists of renovations planned.

It will start with foundation repairs, then there are historic barn doors to replace, windows to refurbish and floors to finish. Outside the building will get a new paint job and the modern chainlink fence will be replaced by a white pickets.

Gales said the society plans to have the work done by Memorial Day of 2010.

“It doesn’t look like much now,” he said, “but it will be great when we’re done.”

A history of service

The U.S. Lighthouse Service built the Point No Point lighthouse in 1879, making it the first on Puget Sound.

Before the light was installed, the sandy shoal had a treacherous reputation among mariners. Most famously, the three-masted schooner Iconium ran aground there in 1868, an accident that helped prod the federal government into establishing a navigation light.

The early lighthouse keepers had to be resourceful.

There were no roads to the point until the early 1900s and supplies were brought in by boat. The light station needed to be as self-sufficient as possible. The keeper’s workshop was a storage depot, as well as a place to mend equipment.

“Basically, it would have held everything you can think of to maintain the property,” Chad Kaiser of the Lighthouse Society said.

The Point No Point light was equipped with a Fresnel lens, an elaborate set of glass panes that focused the light of an oil burner into a beam that could be seen from 10 miles.

To keep the light burning, the keeper and his assistant maintained a regimented nightly schedule. Before it was converted to an electric drive, a mechanical device similar to a clock mechanism rotated the light. It had to be wound every four hours.

The keeper’s monotonous duties were broken by moments of excitement and occasional danger.

On a foggy night in 1914 two passenger liners, Admiral Sampson and Princess Victoria, collided off the point, nearly tearing Admiral Sampson in half. Most of the passengers from the stricken liner were rescued before Admiral Samson sank into deep water, dragging with it 11 passengers and five crew.

The fog was so dense that night the keeper at Point No Point was blind to the drama unfolding offshore until the morning shed light on the tragedy.

In 1923 the pressurized oil burner in the lighthouse tower malfunctioned and bellowed out a flame so hot it cracked several panes of the Fresnel lens, scorched paint from the roof and shattered storm windows.

For the most part, the keeper’s duties were important but mundane. Much of their time was devoted to tending the pristine grounds, which were subject to stern inspections under the Lighthouse Service.

Kaiser said the Point No Point keepers left a legacy of resourcefulness.

“They were jacks of all trades,” he said.

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