Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2020

Herbert C. Scott

The True Story of an Alaskan Tragedy

By Debra Baldwin


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Assistant keeper Herbert C. Scott was in trouble. It had been storming now for three days, and he was lost. Not only that, he was lightly clad, without food, and had no real shelter from the blowing wind and freezing rain as he desperately fought for his life in finding his way back to Mary Island Lighthouse in the blinding Alaskan winter conditions.

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Mary Island Light Station, Inside Passage, ...

Herbert, age 62, had set out from the lighthouse on a short hunting trip on Thursday, December 30, 1920 with two high school boys from Ketchikan, Leslie E. Williams, age 17, and Charles W. Chapman, age 18. They had come to spend their school holidays with Herbert, who was a family friend, and to do some game shooting on Mary Island, situated 25 miles southeast of Ketchikan. When they left on their one-day trip, they had no idea it would end in such a tragic outcome.

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Herbert C. Scott, sitting front center with his ...

After all, Herbert had been stationed at Mary Island Light for at least two years, so he had certainly been out exploring the eight-square-mile thickly wooded land­scape several times. He was familiar with the trails that led to the Keller ranch which was their trip destination in the center of the island. He also was very comfortable in that kind of forested surrounding due to his family roots.

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This photo of Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse in ...

A Midwest Heritage

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In 1918, Herbert C. Scott was stationed at the ...

Herbert Cooper Scott was born on June 10, 1858 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to Charlotte White and Jesse R. Scott. The pioneering family had come from Calais, Maine three years earlier and Jesse was in the burgeoning lumber industry. He owned one of the 11 mills to spring up in Oshkosh, which was considered “the Sawdust Capital of the World” at the time. He also managed other mills in Iowa and was an officer in the Northwestern Sawmill Protective Association.

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Seventeen-year-old Leslie E. Williams was a close ...

Just like his older brother Frank, Herbert likely spent his late teenage years plying the family trade before leaving Wisconsin in the early 1880s. Unfortunately, his departure had to do more with matters of the heart than with business. The family tale is that he had wanted to marry Elizabeth “Lizzie” Babcock, who had gone to school with him in Oshkosh, but Lizzie ended up marrying Henry Harwood instead, so Herbert left to escape the pain.

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Charles W. Chapman was co-editor of the Ketchikan ...

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the next 13 or more years, and dabbled in many interesting trades: clerk, company manager, fruit and confectionary, poor farm and quarantine hospital superintendent, train conductor, traveling agent for a shirt company and glove-maker. Herbert was able to overcome his bitter love disappointment enough to get married to Abbie Partridge there in 1888.

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Charles W. Chapman, seated front right, ...

In 1891, scandalous accusations were made against Herbert Scott in his post of superintendent of the quarantine hospital. It was alleged in the Saint Paul Globe that “he had been renting rooms in the hospital building to people who used them for immoral purposes. . . Mr. Scott is exceedingly wroth. He says that he believes the story comes from a man who wants his place and who some time ago offered $200 to get it.”

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The 1917 U.S. Lighthouse tender Fern was assigned ...

The next day, the Globe retracted its stance with a headline stating “Scott Vindicated,” and reported that, “The stories against him seem to have been started by personal enemies, and were wholly rumors.” It was too bad that the newspaper had printed the rumors at all. Herbert hired lawyers to find out who had spread the malicious lies so he could “prosecute them for defamation of character,” but the outcome of that action is unknown. Three weeks later, Herbert resigned from his superintendent’s post.

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Leslie E. Williams is buried in the Ketchikan ...

In 1892, Herbert C. Scott was the conductor of the Pullman car of the special Northern Pacific Railroad train that was transporting the Andrews Opera Company. It derailed in Brainerd, Wisconsin when it hit a broken rail and resulted in a fiery inferno that killed two of the company and severely injured several others. Herbert was the first one out of the Pullman car and assisted in rescuing others who were trapped in the blaze.

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The 1921 Ketchikan High School yearbook devoted a ...

By 1898, his marriage with Abbie fell apart. Either they officially divorced, or decided to separate, and this time Herbert went as far away as he could to escape the situation – all the way to Alaska. Abbie stayed in Minneapolis and took over the glove-making business for another three years until she died there, one day shy of her 42nd birthday.

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Herbert Cooper Scott is buried in the Bayview ...

Meanwhile, Herbert once again tried a variety of trades in Ketchikan. On the 1910 census, he was listed as a cook. His friend, William Morgan, who also became a lighthouse keeper, later wrote of him that, “He followed various occupations and businesses here until his finally accepting employment as assistant lighthouse keeper; serving at Hinchinbrook, at which place the writer relieved him in [1916]. Having a long vacation, he went to Puget-Sound and shortly afterwards married.”

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Charles W. Chapman was the only one of the three ...

Amazingly, in an act of felicitous Kismet, Herbert C. Scott’s new wife was none other than Lizzie Harwood, née Babcock – his first love from the Wisconsin days of his youth! Lizzie’s husband, Henry Harwood, had passed away and Lizzie, who had been a nurse for at least ten years, came out to Washington State to work for a private family.

How she and Herbert heard about each other or renewed their relationship is unknown, but it must have been a great source of joy in Herbert’s life to finally marry the woman he had first chosen over 30 years earlier.

Herbert C. Scott, age 58, and Elizabeth Babcock Harwood, age 55, were married in Seattle on December 8, 1916. Herbert brought Lizzie back to Alaska to live with him and by 1918 had transferred to Mary Island Lighthouse. But their happiness would not last long.

A Struggle for Life

On that fateful day in December of 1920, Herbert and the two teenage boys made it easily to Keller’s Ranch, which was their intended destination two miles inland, but on their way back it had started to storm. Through torrential icy rain which resulted in blizzard-like conditions, they lost the path and ended up emerging from the woods late in the afternoon at the beach near Snail Rock, still quite a distance from the lighthouse.

They tried to light a fire for warmth but failed in the damp conditions, so it was decided that Charles Chapman, who was the “sturdiest” of the trio, would try to make it back to the lighthouse to bring back lanterns and help. Unfortunately, it took young Chapman over twenty-one hours to reach the lighthouse in the storm as he tried to navigate along the slippery kelp-lined rocks along the shoreline and by the time he arrived, he had suffered severe exposure and exhaustion.

He was barely able to inform head keeper Sylvenus F. Shepard of the dire predicament of his two companions. Shepard then set off immediately to search for Scott and Williams, but he was unsuccessful in finding them and another day went by without any help, food, or shelter from the storm for the unfortunate pair.

It can only be imagined what the two must have endured in waiting to be rescued. At some point during the next day, they separated and struck out on their own. Perhaps Herbert thought Leslie stood a better chance of making it without him, being very weakened by then. It had now been three days since they had left on their one-day hunting trip and the storm had not abated.

By Saturday evening, the U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Fern, along with other search vessels, had arrived at the Island, in response to Keeper Shepard’s distress flag. According to a full account of the tragedy given in The Daily Northwestern, “At 8:30 P.M. a party from the Fern was sent ashore near the point described by Chapman where he last left his companions. The search was continued along the shore for two hours in the dark night, lighted considerably by searchlights from the Fern. All through Saturday night searchlights were played along the shore by the Fern in the hope of encouraging the missing men.

“Early Sunday morning, the search was again resumed. About a quarter of a mile northward and within a mile of the lighthouse, the party came upon the limp body of Williams. It was lying just at high-water mark at the foot of the cliff from which he is thought to have fallen.” He apparently had died only two hours prior to the time he was discovered.

The search for keeper Herbert C. Scott continued on and the next day, Sunday, four days after he had left the lighthouse on the hunting expedition, Herbert was finally located by the search party of the crew of the Fern.

The Seward Gateway newspaper reported, “Within half a mile of the lighthouse where he was keeper, and where, if he had gone two hundred feet further he would have had an unobstructed view of the light, the dead body of Herbert Scott was found by members of the volunteer searching party from the Lighthouse tender Fern. The body lay on a high headland, in the underbrush and woods about fifty yards from a large clearing cut, to allow a larger sweep for the light along the shore.

“One shoe had been thrown aside by the aged keeper which lay, with his hat, some more distance from the body. It appeared that he had also started to pull off a sock, as if long along the rocky shore and wet woods bordering it had caused chafing and pain. The ground about was scratched and pawed. He had evidently been dead for some time when discovered.”

Just as it was providential destiny that Herbert C. Scott would marry his beloved Lizzie 30 years later, so it was a bitter irony that instead of burning to death in the train accident 30 years earlier, he would freeze to death in the Alaskan wilderness.

Charles W. Chapman was brought back to Ketchikan and had a slow recovery. He was able to eventually give a full account of everything that had happened to the trio until he struck off for the lighthouse alone. Unfortunately, Charles passed away nine years later at the young age of 28 in 1930 due to a burst appendix.

The 1921 Ketchikan High School yearbook eulogized Leslie E. Williams by reporting, “During the Christmas vacation, the class of ’21 lost its president, Leslie E. Williams. Leslie met his death from exposure while on an outing at the Mary Island Light Station. This tragic occurrence not only stunned the class but shocked the entire community as Leslie was well known and well-liked by all who knew him. He met his death under a terrifying and awesome circumstance, yet his heroism and manliness at the end reflects great credit upon his Alma Mater. The entire school attended the funeral services and accompanied their departed friend and classmate to his final resting place.”

Herbert C. Scott’s funeral was also very well attended. The Seward Gateway reported that, “Members of the Lighthouse Service from Ketchikan and vicinity were there in a body and all branches of the Lighthouse Service here were closed during the services.”

His friend and fellow keeper William Morgan, who was also the historian to the Pioneers of Alaska group to which Herbert belonged, eulogized him. Morgan paid a fitting tribute when he said that Herbert “has been an acquaintance of mine for more than twenty years and during that time his good deeds and generous purse, and finally his passing while making an heroic effort to secure aid for his companions in distress, was a fitting end of the life’s chapter of an Alaskan Pioneer.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Lighthouse Service did not feel the same way. With a certain sense of ignominy, the Bureau’s announcement of Herbert C. Scott’s death on the front page of the February 1921 Lighthouse Service Bulletin gave a partially felonious account by stating that he and Leslie Williams lost their lives “while attempting to render assistance to a boat which had previously been wrecked in the vicinity of the light station . . .”.

They made no mention of the storm but put the blame for the deaths on Herbert, insinuating that he had not been aware of his surroundings due to negligence. They warned that, “Keepers in remote localities should familiarize themselves with the physical characteristics of the country in the vicinity of their stations, particularly in heavily forested regions such as southeastern Alaska, and should take such other precautions as necessary to avoid such a needless accident.”

The Bureau couldn’t very well say that Herbert Scott had just been out on a hunting trip with two high school boys, so they fabricated a rescue just so they could put the entry in the bulletin as being work-related. They wanted to make a point to all keepers about developing awareness of their surroundings, but unfortunately did so at Herbert’s expense.

It is also very sad that Lizzie Scott did not get a chance to live with Herbert for very many years. It was reported that the couple had a ranch back in Kirkland, Washington where they planned to retire the next year. Lizzie went back to the ranch alone and lived another ten years until her death on February 25, 1931. However, the Scott family brought her back to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for burial where she lies in the Scott family plot with the name simply inscribed, “Lizzy A. Scott” to mark her resting place. It is nice that the Scott family accepted her as one of their own.

As with many stories that Lighthouse Digest uncovers in the course of our research, there is more to a keeper’s history than just a name on a page, or even a newspaper account or listing in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin. In the case of Herbert C. Scott, it is gratifying that his full story could now be brought to light after 100 years and the account of his death put to rights in this edition of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2020 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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