Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2023

A Day in the Life of Rasmus Petersen: The Willapa Bay Years

By Debra Baldwin


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After six long years of “contented confinement” at desolate Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in Oregon, Rasmus Petersen could finally begin his highly-anticipated family life in his new assignment as head keeper at Willapa Bay Lighthouse, located near Tokeland and North Cove on the coast of Washington.

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The Petersen family c.1905: Rasmus, Charlotte, ...

Rasmus arrived on June 15, 1894, and four days later, “went to North Cove after my wife who arrived here in good health and had an oyster cocktail the first thing to brace up on and all is OK.”

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Charlotte Petersen and her son, Alexander, are in ...

Settling In

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Anders Gjertsen was the assistant for the entire ...

Rasmus Petersen let no moss grow under his feet which now stood firmly planted on agricultural land, and a short two weeks after they had unpacked, his first order of business was to expand their household by the addition of some basic livestock. He “got a cow from Capt. Brown [from Point Adams Lifesaving Station] with a young calf. Paid $30. I also got 32 chickens from A. Gjertson [his assistant] $16.00; a horse $70 and wagon $66.” In another entry, he announced that “our cat got 5 kittens in the stable,” and a week after that, “I got a cow and a calf $36 and a pig $2.50 to the household.”

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Known from the time of its construction in 1858 ...

Considering Rasmus’ annual salary in 1894 was $800, this was quite an initial outlay on his part. But he had probably saved most of his salary while on Tillamook Rock, dreaming of a day when he could spend it on a smallholding such as he was setting up at Willapa Bay Lighthouse, so he was more than ready to make the investment, which would later include purchasing land parcels.

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Head keeper Rasmus Petersen stands next to the ...

Next, Rasmus worked on the garden. He decided with it being so late in the year, he probably wouldn’t have much of a harvest, so he tilled on July 9th and planted cabbage and radishes. In later years, when he could get the normal earlier start, he planted a much larger and more varied crop of vegetables, which included the yearly potatoes and onions. After the little garden soil boxes he made on Tillamook Rock just for the summer, he must have enjoyed having all the space he wanted to grow whatever he wanted for the next twenty years.

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Rasmus is shown wearing his Knights of Pythias ...

The Visitor Journal

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Rasmus Petersen (far right), six-year-old son, ...

Having gotten all the necessities organized and out of the way, starting at the end of July of 1894, Rasmus and Charlotte Petersen could then turn their attentions to their long-awaited social life as a married couple.

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The Poltalloch was beached at Willapa Bay near ...

Their first recorded outing was to go “berrying” with some of the locals. On July 22, Rasmus wrote: “My wife and I went to Cedar River on a Black Berry trip in company with Misses Maggie, Jessie and Isabella Smith and Mr. Nels Hanson, and returned on the 23rd in the evening with a full bucket of berries and we had a splendid trip with lots of fun.”

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Shell biologist Alan Rammer and Rasmus Petersen’s ...

So began the Willapa Bay Lighthouse social calendar in earnest. For the next 300 pages in Rasmus’ journal, he recorded everyone who he and Charlotte visited or were visited by, the multitude of activities that they attended at the Cove or in Tokeland, the dances, balls and dinners, his lodge meetings with the Knights of the Maccabees, and later, Knights of Pythias and the Brotherhood of American Yeoman, and all the chores he did around the farm to tend to the animals and crops. If you didn’t know he was a lighthouse keeper, you would not be able to tell it very quickly by what he recorded in his daily log.

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Due to erosion of the cliff face from under it, ...

Since Charlotte had been a mail-order bride, she possessed the requisite qualifications and training to act as the perfect hostess, and that is exactly what she did for all their guests on a regular basis. Rasmus still dutifully recorded visits by the lighthouse tender bringing supplies or the inspector to do the regular inspection visits, but for the most part, life at Willapa Bay Lighthouse revolved around enjoyable activities and a lot of people.

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Rasmus and Charlotte Petersen rest together in ...

In the beginning years, there was rarely a day when they didn’t go to the Cove or have someone stop by at the lighthouse for an afternoon or evening. Rasmus had six years to make up for, having been so isolated on Tillamook Rock, and he thoroughly thrived in his family station environment.

There were times, however, when he would only spend time with Charlotte alone, such as on July 8, 1894, when he wrote: “My wife and I had a drive around the beach in the cart with Push and a walk through the pasture weather being fine and all went pleasant.” They would frequently go “shelling” down on the beach and many days were spent riding their horses there. In later years, Rasmus bought Charlotte a big wheel bicycle which she enjoyed riding on the firm sand.

Rasmus also was able to take frequent fishing and hunting trips with various people and recorded his fine “mess of fish” of cod and flounder and all the geese and ducks he came back with, as well as days spent crabbing and clamming.

The Lighthouse Farmer

Mixed in-between all the activities with friends were his farming and husbandry chores. At one point, he had 43 sheep and Rasmus spoke of hauling hay and manure, trimming the horses’ hooves, repairing harnesses, having the cow be visited by the “gentleman” (neighboring bull), shingling the stable roof, cleaning the turkey coop, lambing and taking 295 pounds of wool to Tokeland to sell. He cleared roads though the pastures, sawed and hauled wood up from the beach, trimmed trees, fixed fences, and worked on the wagon and buggy.

Occasionally, he would even mention the lighthouse work, most of which had to do with his assistant Anders Gjertsen’s comings and goings, and in dividing up such tasks as painting, repairing and maintaining the lighthouse buildings. There were also mentions of visits from other keepers and lifesaving crew who came on their leave to spend some days with the Petersens - for example, Alexander Pesonen, who had taken over as head keeper at Tillamook Rock when Rasmus left, and Otto Hanson, who was at the Willapa Bay Lifesaving Station.

Of course, there were also the small mentions here and there of cleaning the lens and brass-work, hauling oil cases and supplies, filling out and mailing reports, and the annual painting of the lighthouse, lantern, flagstaff and whitewashing the interior; but it was amazing to note his level of energy as he would paint the tower in the morning, kill sheep in the afternoon and then go out visiting at night. When did he ever take his turn standing watch all night long or actually sleep?

He also recorded his trips, sometimes with Charlotte, to Westport and Tokeland for supplies, and the Cove for the mail. And when on leave, they made longer trips together, such as to the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair and one in September of 1900 to attend the Portland Street Fair and Carnival for five days in Oregon. He wrote almost an entire page in his journal detailing the exciting events and spectacles they witnessed, such as the Floral Parade, Elk Parade, Street Fair, and Traveling Men’s Parade. But Rasmus was most impressed by the Ringling Brothers circus “which was Grand.”

While in Portland, they visited former Tillamook Rock Lighthouse keeper Henry C. York, who had served with Rasmus in 1889, and on their last night there, they went to the theater to see “The Brownies of Fairyland.” The next day, “being Sunday and fine weather, we took a spin on our Wheels out towards Oregon City in the afternoon and we left Portland in the evening for Astoria by Rail.” It took them two days to get back to Willapa Bay, where lighthouse life resumed again on its normal, busy schedule.

The Visit of the Poltalloch

Two months later, on November 26, 1900, a little local excitement ensued with the beaching of “a fourmasted ship run ashore during the night and we was [sic] out on the beach watching her all day. She came on the beach in the evening. Her name is Poltalloch, her home, London, England and of 2,138 tons steel vessel.”

Over the next month Rasmus and Charlotte became good friends with the crew and visits were made between the lighthouse and ship almost daily. When the Petersen’s friends came over from the Cove, they would take them down to see the ship as part of the visit. On New Year’s Eve that year, the ship’s crew put on a play and invited all the locals to attend. Rasmus wrote “We all had a Grand Time dancing out the Old Year and in the New.”

Repairs were made to the ship during the beginning of the following year and in February, the ballast was discharged from the bilges in an effort to refloat her. Rasmus and Charlotte went down to the beach almost every day for a week to collect the shells that came out of the ship’s hull. Since the vessel had frequented international waters, they were excited to see the South Pacific money cowries, as well as the other species of shells from South America, Mexico and even Africa.

Rasmus made Charlotte a present of a box decorated in the shells which she treasured and has been passed down in the family until today. The Poltalloch was finally able to depart in June of 1901 after having made an unintended seven-month stopover to learn first-hand why Willapa Bay was named Shoalwater Bay originally.

Besides making the box for Charlotte, Rasmus created other things for their family. Most notable were his entries regarding the fashioning of a small toy box and a baby crib. After almost 10 years of marriage, Rasmus and Charlotte were undoubtably thrilled at the prospect of having a baby!

A Blessed Event

On February 26, 1903, Rasmus Petersen recorded the joyful event: “My wife gave birth to a 10lbs baby boy at 8:30AM. Mrs. James Smith and Mrs. C.K. York was [sic] in attendance. All went well . . .

Our boy Alexander was born under the sign of the Zodiac the Waterman, or Aquarius.”

This was a poignant event as just five days earlier, Rasmus wrote: “I was [sic] to Tokeland to attend a funeral. Mr. & Mrs. C. Wilson’s baby got buried at the Cove cemetery.” Charlotte was 42 years old when Alexander was born. This must have given them sobering pause followed by great relief when Charlotte was safely delivered of a healthy boy.

After Alexander’s birth, the social calendar took a decidedly different turn for a few months with friends coming out to the lighthouse to see the new baby rather than the Petersens traveling into town for activities, though Rasmus, along with Gjertsen, continued to attend the Knights’ lodge meetings. Rasmus also got out of the house on a regular basis to spend some time on projects away from home: the nearby land that he purchased, a cottage he owned in the Cove, and a community ditch project to bring water from the “Big Lake.”

In June of 1903, Rasmus moved Charlotte and Alexander over “to the Cove to stay for a while on account of the baby so I could clean up the house here as well.” Gjertsen also moved into town temporarily, after cleaning out his room in the lighthouse. Rasmus moved furniture around and then whitewashed the inside of the entire dwelling and laid new carpet in the parlor over the next couple of months besides the normal outside station painting. He frequently went to the Cove in the evenings to have dinner and see Charlotte or sometimes she would come back to the lighthouse to visit him in the day and see how the remodeling was progressing. It wasn’t until the end of November that everything was done and Charlotte and Alexander came back to the freshly refurbished lighthouse for the winter.

When Alexander was 16 months old, Charlotte took him on the long 2,600-mile trip to visit her family in Mooresburg, Ontario, Canada for almost three months. Rasmus took her as far as Seattle to see her off on the train. When he got back, he started going to other people’s houses for visits which, presumably, included dinner; and at one point, he had a dinner party at the lighthouse for ten people, for which one of the wives did the cooking. He also went to the nearby ditch camp and lifesaving station for other dinners, so it appears he did not go hungry while Charlotte was away.

A Sad Ending

Over the next nine years, life continued on at Willapa Bay Lighthouse with the normal daily account of visitors, chores, town trips and animals, mixed with the occasional lighthouse inspector, keeper or tender visits and maintenance duties. All continued well until Rasmus’ health became an object of worry toward the end of the following decade. Several entries in the last months of his journal state that he was sick, even to the point of not being able to tend to his duties for several days, which was a first for him.

On October 11, 1913, several Washington newspapers carried the distressing news: “Captain Rasmus Peterson, keeper of the Willapa Bay Light at North Cove, was found dying on a lounge in his room yesterday as the result of a revolver wound and died without regaining consciousness…. His friends say the shooting was accidental, the pistol being discharged while Petersen was cleaning it.”

The funeral, held four days later, “in spite of the stormy weather, was very largely attended. The services were under the joint auspices of the Knights of Pythias and the American Yeoman. The captain had been keeper of the light at North Cove since 1894 and was about [60] years old….He leaves a widow and an 11-year-old son.”

After Rasmus’ death, Charlotte and Alexander moved to South Bend where she managed their property. She never remarried and died 16 years later as the result of a stroke at the age of 69. She and Rasmus are laid to rest in the North Cove Pioneer Cemetery in Washington, not far from the former site of the Willapa Bay Lighthouse where they spent their married life together.

Plans are being made by the Westport Maritime Museum to host a ceremony soon to place a U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Marker at Rasmus Petersen’s grave to honor him and his 25 years of devoted lighthouse service at Tillamook Rock and Willapa Bay Lighthouses. As he would undoubtably have written in summing up his many years of lighthouse service, “All is well.”

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2023 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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