Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2013

A Lighthouse Family Reflection

By David McKee


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New Dungeness Lighthouse keeper Edward A. Brooks ...

In mid-July I did a week’s stint as a last minute fill-in volunteer keeper at the New Dungeness Light Station.   While it is a special experience for anyone, in my case the stay was particularly meaningful, since my maternal great grandfather Edward A. Brooks was the longest serving keeper at that light.

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The rays of the sun on New Dungeness Lighthouse ...
Photo by: David McKee

I took delight in telling many of the nearly 300 spit hikers and kayakers that week that I was lodged in the same upstairs bedroom, the Tower Room, where my ancestor had slept for 20 years beginning almost 110 years ago.  Just like he had done, I would wake up in the night with my head still on the pillow to view the revolving beacon framed like a painting in the tall center window. Actually, the tower was 27 feet higher at that time, so maybe he would have had to get up and step over to the window to look up to the lantern room.

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One can only wonder how many people have walked ...
Photo by: David McKee

Edward A. Brooks arrived there around 1902 with his wife, Anna, two daughters, Irene and Janice, and my two-year old grandfather Clarence. Their final child, William, was born in 1904 after the assignment to New Dungeness, but the family may have awaited his birth to make the move. They were the first family to occupy the new keeper’s quarters.  

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David McKee (l) with his wife Dorothy and Dean ...

Edward A. Brooks had been offered the Dungeness head keeper position after just six months at Point No Point.  The four years before that he spent as First Assistant Keeper at Turn Point on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands. A native of Salem and recently wed, he had begun his career with the U.S. Light House Establishment in 1895, with four years at Cape Mears, Oregon as 2nd Assistant Keeper before the transfer to Washington State.

A first child was born to the couple in the “sea-girt fastness” of Cape Mears in 1897 and was named Victor Hunt after the old mariner who was the head keeper. Tragically, the boy died at the age of two-and-a-half of spiral meningitis on a family visit back to Salem in 1899 from Turn Point, its first return home in four years.

My grandfather Clarence Brooks always told us that he was born at the lighthouse too. His version may be apocryphal, since in 1903 the family would have been at Turn Point.  His brother Bill’s birth was recorded in Port Angeles, probably just before the move to the spit.  But it is likely that the two brothers were the only persons to spend nearly their entire infancy, childhood, and youth at that light station.

The family did have a small house in the town of Dungeness, bought in 1909 and carrying a $200 mortgage. It was at the end of Collins Avenue near the dike on the bank of the Dungeness River close to its mouth and just a few minutes walk from the mile-long pier.  During the school year Anna and the children resided there. 

Edward had a rowboat, and then a sailboat, for going back and forth, and later took over a steam engine launch that had been abandoned on the end of the spit. This wood-burning craft took a good half hour to get fired up. Weather permitting during his time off, he made frequent private sailings from the lighthouse wharf to the Dungeness pier.

In the summer the whole family gave up their cramped cottage in town to live full-time at the spacious new keeper’s quarters at the light station. They took with them their cow and chickens, and kept a vegetable garden.  The cow sometimes swam across the bay entrance to Cline Spit and the greener pastures of the mainland. They also grazed sheep around the lighthouse for their wool.  These animals liked to balance and promenade on top of the wood fence surrounding the station. Some summers, the small herd was moved to pastures near Hurricane Ridge where the boys tended them.

As teenagers, the four Brooks siblings would walk the spit and march past the farms on into the town of Sequim, nearly a dozen miles, to attend dances. After staying with friends they would hike back home the next day.

Ira Marshall, a son of early settlers in Dungeness, courted the head keeper’s oldest daughter Irene by frequently rowing out to the lighthouse, which he learned how to operate.  Edward must have really liked the young suitor, since family lore has it that he would sometimes leave Ira alone with his daughter to man the light. They married, but Irene died of strep throat before many years had passed.  A couple of decades later, her widowed husband became one of the local trio of partners to start up the Three Crabs Restaurant at the foot of the Dungeness pier. I learned about the recent closure of this long-time landmark during my last visit.

My grandfather Clarence worked a couple of high school summers on the salmon pile trap that was reconstructed by Booth Fisheries every spring just a quarter mile down the spit from the light, with pilings extending 1800 feet into the strait. He claims that one year they caught 50,000 fish in one day at the height of the pink run. This haul was lifted from the salmon trap spiller on to the scow and tender for delivery to a cannery in Everett.

While duck hunting somewhere on the lower spit, my grandfather blasted off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, an ugly accident that I repeatedly contemplated while surveying Dungeness Bay from the gallery of the lantern room that week. He was holding the shotgun by the barrel end when he jammed the stock onto the ground while climbing over a fence. Edward’s younger brother, Benjamin Brooks, a surgeon in Mt. Vernon, sailed over to sew up his nephew’s hand.

He had to quit piano lessons, but later this physical handicap did not prevent Clarence from becoming a low handicap golfer. He once played 108 holes in a single day with one ball. Walking the world’s longest sand spit to attend dances in his youth no doubt was a factor in his fitness for the green marathon.

Edward bought an established octopus fishing business in Dungeness from an old Scotsman for his two sons about the time they graduated from Sequim High School. My eight-fingered grandfather and his brother wrestled with the eight armed creatures for just a couple of years before giving it up to set out to Seattle to make their fortunes.

My great grandfather left Dungeness in 1925 for the Mukilteo Light Station, where he retired from the lighthouse service in 1937.  He died at his home in Everett on December 8, 1942, the day after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  He had spent the day working on the foundation of his house, which, combined with the shocking war news, must have triggered the heart attack that killed this life-time government servant, or so the family speculated.

Edward was a redhead and a gregarious storyteller and jokester, a quality that probably endeared him both to both his superiors and subordinates, as well as to the numerous lighthouse visitors.  He loved to listen to Seattle Rainiers baseball games while at Mukilteo. Like many men who lived by the sea, he passed the idle hours playing cribbage, a game I learned summers at a remote set-netting site in Alaska from a great uncle on my mom’s grandmother’s side, who told me he had “played crib” with my great grandfather in Everett.

My great grandmother lived to be 90, dying in 1962. I still have the childhood memory of having to hold the bony hand of this bedridden, ancient, lighthouse wife of French Huguenot descent – her maiden name was DeSart - on family visits after church on Sundays at the Bethany Home in Everett.

Just as in the informal family photo displayed in the NDLS museum where Anna stands peering out from behind a column and the others seated on the front porch of the Keeper’s Quarters, in life she steadfastly remained in the background of her outgoing husband and children, patiently cooking meals for the numerous guests they would invite for Sunday dinner to the Mukilteo Lighthouse, including many friends of their unmarried daughter Janice who died at that time while a school teacher in Everett.

Over a span of 42 years, Edward Aubrey and Anna Margaret Brooks worked and raised a family in five lighthouses in Oregon and Washington. During that time they lost three of their five children, including their first son as a toddler and their only two daughters as young adults.  My great grandfather surely had much time to reflect on and grieve these deaths as he combed nearby beaches shrouded in winter fog or on bright summer days. But his native optimism and sense of humor must have done a lot to sustain him and his good wife through the long years in often lonely and solitary outposts.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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