Browns Point, located at the entrance of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Washington, was rated in 2010 by SmartTravel.com as one of the “Ten Best Lighthouses to Sleep In.” However, since you actually sleep in the keeper’s house and not in the tower that statement probably should have used the words “light station.” However, without a doubt, anyone with even the slightest interest in lighthouses and history would want to spend the night here.
The entire light station, inside and out, has been meticulously restored and maintained. The entire station is a living history museum, with period antiques, maritime artifacts, displays, exhibits and so much more. You can even ring the original fog bell. The U.S. Lighthouse Society stated that Browns Point Lighthouse is one of the finest examples of restoration of a lighthouse property in the United States.”
All this history dates back to the late 1700s when the area had a different yet very similar name that had its own evolution over the years. The point here was mentioned in Captain George Vancouver’s log book when he sailed and surveyed Puget Sound for King George III of England. Although Vancouver stopped here on May 26, 1792 and had lunch with the Native Americans who were clamming on the shore, he did not name the point at that time. That was done much later in time by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who surveyed Puget Sound for the United States in 1841when he named it Point Harris for a sail maker’s mate. Another survey of Puget Sound was done in 1877 by Navy Lieutenant Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff who also named it Point Brown on his charts. It wasn’t until a 1903 Notice to Mariners that Point Brown was officially changed to Browns Point (no apostrophe) by the Department of Commerce and Labor.
Native Americans on the Point
For centuries, Native Americans came to this area to fish, catch crabs, and dig for other shell fish. They hunted for deer while the women dug for roots and picked berries to dry for their winter food storage. They also came for relaxation and summer fun just as people do today. By the mid-1800s, life began to change for the natives when white men began to claim land on which they settled which cause obvious conflicts with the natives.
After several years of war followed by years of negotiating and deliberating, the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed by the Washington Territorial Governor, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and the chiefs of the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, and other Native American Tribes in 1854. The Puyallup Reservation was created, and eventually in 1886 individual Indians were each allotted 160 acres of land. Jim Douette, a member of the Puyallup Tribe, was given a patent deed signed by President Grover Cleveland for a parcel of land that was a part of his 160 acres. This parcel included the property on which Browns Point Lighthouse Station now stands.
Native Americans were not allowed to sell their property until the state legislature and the U. S. Congress gave their approval for the sale. These requirements were finally made possible after 1889 when Washington became a state. In 1901 a deal was made with the U.S. government to purchase several acres from the descendents of Joe Douette to include the tide lands owned by Jerry Meeker, also a Puyallup member, for a total of $3,000. The federal government also came up with another $3000 for building the lighthouse and the light keeper’s house on Point Brown.
First Light on Point Brown
In 1887 a light on a pole was erected by the United States Light-House Board, which was more commonly known as the United States Lighthouse Establishment (USLHE). However, by 1898, because of the long periods of fog at Browns Point as well as increased mariner traffic, the decision was reached to build, as soon as possible, an actual lighthouse with a fog bell and a keeper’s house at the site.
First Light Keeper, Oscar Brown
Mr. Oscar Brown came from Binghamton, New York in 1887. Before he was hired by the U. S. Light-House Board, he sold yachts and gas engines all over the Pacific Coast, and as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska. His first lighthouse assignment was in 1891 as Assistant Keeper at the Cape Flattery Lighthouse. He recalled, “It was a wild life. The winds were terrible. The waves lashed the lighthouse, and we had to crawl along, holding to the railings and carrying the lantern in our teeth.” In 1895 he was transferred to New Dungeness Lighthouse where he met and married Annie Wayson. In 1900 they were transferred to Smith Island Lighthouse until they were transferred again.
And so it was that Oscar Brown and Annie stepped off the lighthouse tender Heather, onto the beach at Point Brown. It was October 26, 1903. The surrounding panoramic view before them on that day was a massive forest on a hill beyond, and behind them Puget Sound, the connecting inland waterway to the Pacific Ocean. To their right was the entrance to Commencement Bay and the small settlement of Tacoma. There were no inhabitants in sight. The beach on which they stood blended into a large flat area which changed into a lagoon at very high tide and gradually rose to a slight hill and the new light keeper’s house. Next to Oscar and Annie stood a tall pole from which hung the lantern that had led marine traffic around Point Brown since 1887. A lamp lighter from Tacoma had been contracted to come out to clean, refuel, and relight the lantern every eight days. However, the pole and lantern would no longer be needed because Oscar Brown would now be the lighthouse keeper of the new Point Brown Lighthouse. Coincidently, this was about the time that Point Brown officially became Browns Point.
The Browns began their life at
Oscar and Annie stood next to a brand new light station, a two-story wood structure shaped like a soda cracker box on end. A 1,200-pound fog bell hung from under the roof overhang. The kerosene lantern sat on a shelf below the fog bell. The lantern, which slid to the outside platform from the inside, is where Oscar, for nineteen years, would regularly clean, polish, refuel, and light the lantern before he would slide it out at sunset. Ahead of them also stood the newly built keeper’s house. It had two stories with two bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and Oscar’s office downstairs. Although there was a bathroom in the plans, there was no major plumbing in the house, except for a pump over a dry sink in the kitchen, Indoor plumbing wouldn’t come until years later. Outside the house next to the kitchen was a large, wooden, 10,000 gallon water tank that collected rain water. There were a few run-down shacks on the property, probably built by the former owner Joe Douette, which Oscar used temporarily for his cow and horse that had been delivered to the site from the lighthouse tender Heather via a sling.
According to his log book, when they arrived on that October day in 1903, amazingly, the crew of lighthouse tender did not offer to help them get their household belongs from the beach to the keeper’s house, a distance of about 50 yards. It took them five days. Since they were the only inhabitants on Point Brown at the time, there was no one to welcome them or lend a helping hand. However, this was not the worst of their problems.
The major portion of their furniture, which included Oscar’s upright and very ornate and valuable grand piano, were delivered a week later by the Heather. Again the crew did not help them; they simply left the items on the beach. Obviously, the couple could not move the piano by themselves and it rained off and on until the 2nd of November when help came from Tacoma to move the piano into the house.
Finally, with a great deal of relief, their carpets were laid, the furniture was in place, and somehow the piano survived. They were finally at home in the house that would be theirs for the next 36 years. During that time Oscar Brown kept meticulous log books, which helped to record his family’s life at the lighthouse.
Oscar’s First Year
Oscar’s first year at Browns Point seemed to deal with organizing everything that had to be done. Besides seeing to the light and the fog bell details, the next priority was gathering, sawing, and chopping wood and also combing the beach for driftwood for the furnace and kitchen stove. All of it had to be hauled to the house. This was a job done almost every day, even in the warm months whenever there was a slow time in preparation for the winter. The site had to be cleaned up after the building project was finished. Reels had to be made to roll up the old barbed wire that the past owner had left. A spring near the beach was boxed for fresh water. In the summer months, Oscar painted the bedroom floor, the roofs on the tower (his reference to the lighthouse), and the dwelling (his reference to the keeper’s house), In fact most of the painting had not been done by the builders and was left for Oscar to finish. One of the out-buildings became the temporary oil house which he whitewashed. Another became the hen house after some repair to the floor and splitting shingles to repair the roof. Other buildings he disassembled and burned, and removed the foundations. He also laid wooden planks for sidewalks.
In February he plowed and harrowed an area in front of the dwelling and planted potatoes, rhubarb, onion, and lettuce among other things he probably did not have room to list in the log book. He made a milk closet for the cellar and a meat safe, a screened box on tall legs which probably sat on the back porch. A water trough and feed bins were made and hay was delivered for the livestock, which had to be hauled to the barn. There was an established orchard of fruit trees on the property. In July he picked cherries to sell in town and in August he picked pears for shipping. In September he picked apples for storage.
Thus went Oscar Brown’s first year, which in no way encompassed all his regular duties, all of which foreshadowed the tasks with that he would be confronted with in years to come.
Life on the Point
Throughout the years that followed, his monthly work was predictable: cleaning the tower, boathouse, barn, henhouse, and dwelling, a constant effort several times during every month. January was fence and sidewalk fixing after high tides and sometimes flooding the dwelling’s basement. Weather permitting, he began pruning the fruit trees, plowing, fertilizing (with manure of course), harrowing, and removing stumps. February, March, and April brought more plowing or spading of new ground for more vegetable and flower garden space, and planting more fruit trees. Some years he removed clay to be replaced with good soil from the woods and good soil from the fill (all the decayed brush and debris that he deposited in the lagoon which we call compost). Special tasks were mixing a lime and sulphur solution to spray the fruit trees. He seeded white clover and oats. In later years he planted shrubs and berry vines. Window screens for the dwelling were repaired and put up for the summer. May, June, July, and August brought more tending of the gardens and painting of all the buildings including the roofs as needed. It seems that every building had to be repainted inside and out every two or three years. The walls and ceilings in the kitchen and dining room were always washed before they were repainted. All the paint had to be mixed from recipes given by the government. The row boat, canoe, and later a launch often required repairs and painting. Hay was cut, dried, and stored in the barn for the livestock. Cherries, plums, and flowers were picked throughout the summer and taken to town for sale. September was the time for picking and storing pears and apples and making apple cider. Any buildings still requiring painting were done before the rains began. Even the water tank and flag pole were painted. November and December always brought the cleaning up of the yard and, with the beginning of high tides washing away at the tower foundation, it required almost constant repair.
Life in the 20s and 30s
Within the first decade of the 1900s, the area around the light station was platted as a residential area for vacation homes, camping, and also permanent residences. Several families were moving in very close to the lighthouse. His was not the role of a typical light keeper in a remote area, living on a rock, on an island, or spit. He became a part of the Browns Point community. When asked by a reporter from the Tacoma News Tribune regarding how he felt about people calling it his point, he was quoted as saying, “No, it wasn’t named after me. From all I can find out it was named by Vancouver’s party who saw the mountain first from here. Being named Brown didn’t have anything to do with my coming here either. Why, at Smith Island, they used to call me Smith.”
By the 1920s Oscar had quite a comfortable life. In 1922 electricity came to Browns Point. A flick of the switch in the dwelling house entry turned on the lighthouse light. The fog bell mechanism was adapted with an electric motor, keeping the hammer hitting the bell automatically. Oscar had three jersey cows and four hairy goats plus a henhouse full of hens. The vegetable garden was bountiful as were all of the fruit trees and berry vines. The station was a place that people visited often, not just for the lighthouse, but also because of the beautiful flower gardens surrounding the dwelling.
As the 1930s began, the foundation around the wooden tower continued to be thrashed by the strong waves and high tides. New rip rap had to be built up and a new lighthouse was required. The old wooden building had to be replaced. The concrete lighthouse, all electric with a foghorn, was dedicated in June, 1933. The lagoon was filled with rocks, sand, and dirt many times throughout the years and is still in evidence today when there is a great deal of rain and high tides. A lake forms in the middle of the light station.
By the time Oscar Brown retired in 1939 at the age of 70, he was somewhat of an institution at Browns Point. Children loved him and some took piano and cornet lessons from him. He was a trained classical pianist and harpist and often attended concerts. He was a member of “The Ladies’ Music Club” for many years. We know he played trombone in Wagner’s band on his arrival in Seattle from New York State back in 1887. Both he and Annie were avid readers of books in their library, newspapers, and several magazines including the Saturday Evening Post and Etude, a music magazine.
Coast Guard Era
The man assigned by the United States Coast Guard as Oscar Browns’ replacement in 1939 was Boatswain’s mate 1st class Arthur “Shorty” Woods. However, now under military control, life at Browns Point, although somewhat similar, would never again be quite the same. Woods served at the lighthouse until 1944.
Amazingly, at that time, the Coast Guard chose a civilian keeper, Cyril “Cy” F. Beaulieu, to be the keeper at Browns Point. Beaulieu served at Browns Point for 12 years until his retirement in 1956. During Beaulieu’s tenure, light keeper duties were increased to controlling the light and foghorn at Point Defiance across Puget Sound, which is about six or so miles away, but within view from Browns Point. A two-man crew assisted Beaulieu. They lived in a crew quarters building that was built in the 1950s. Their day was divided into three “watches” so that someone was on duty at all times in “the watch building” (the power house). The person on “watch” was responsible for raising and lowering the flag at sunrise and sunset, making log book entries, which included recording the weather every four hours, and turning on and off the light and foghorn as required. A turn of the crank on the telephone, a few seconds wait, and the foghorn turned on at Point Defiance. The power house also contained a Kohler electric plant that went on in case of a power failure.
Coast Guardsman Engineman First Class William “Bill” Covington was then assigned as the keeper. During his short tenure at the lighthouse from 1956 to 1957, the keeper’s house was remodeled. Covington was followed by Harold Nelms who served from 1957 to 1960. Unfortunately, very little is known about him and photographs of him are yet to be discovered.
The man who had the distinction of being the last keeper when the lighthouse was automated was Boatswain’s Mate First Class Robert “Bob” Deason who served at Browns Point from 1960-1963 when the lighthouse station was leased to Metro Parks of Tacoma.
In 1990, Points Northeast Historical Society entered into an agreement with Metro Parks to restore the buildings and create exhibits. Today the fully restored keeper’s house is available as a vacation rental with reasonable rates in exchange for some basic lighthouse keeping duties including opening the building for public tours.
Browns Point Lighthouse is located near Tacoma, Washington which has several world class museums, including the LeMay American Car Museum, which is one of the largest car museums in the world. Seattle is only 40 minutes away and scenic Mt. Rainer is just a 90 minute drive – all good reasons to include Browns Point Lighthouse on your next lighthouse itinerary.
For more information or to rent the keeper’s house, go to www.pointsnortheast.org or call them at 253-927-2536.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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