As a little girl growing up in a sod house on a farm in Albion, Nebraska, little could Katie Poor have realized that she would someday marry a lighthouse keeper and raise a family on the rugged Pacific Coast about as close to the ocean as anyone can live.
Fortunately, many years later, Katie’s daughter, Mary Savery, at the age of 83, wrote down some of her memories of the Dunson’s lighthouse life to save it for future generations. Otherwise, much of what we are about to tell you would have been lost forever.
After finishing high school, Katie Poor attended summer school to get her teaching certificate and started teaching school in Nebraska. In 1909 Katie was invited by some friends to go with them to Seattle, Washington to visit the highly promoted Alaska Yukon and Pacific Exposition. This was an opportunity of a lifetime to view the biggest and best of all things new in an era before television and the Internet. It was here where her friends introduced her to the Dunson family and she met Ray Dunson who not only had grown up at a lighthouse, but had followed in his father, Joseph’s, footsteps to become a lighthouse keeper.
At the Alaska Yukon and Pacific Exposition, Katie was astounded at what she saw and was probably impressed with the exhibit of the machinery and the gigantic Fresnel lens that were set up there by the U.S. Light House Board. As they strolled on the grounds of the massive displays of the World’s Fair, Katie learned of Ray’s interesting life of growing up at places like the Patos Island Lighthouse and the New Dungeness Lighthouse, which was quite different from the farm life that Katie had known most of her life. She was now seeing things that she had only known about from the books that she used to teach her students.
Mary Savery wrote that it was obviously “love at first sight” between her mother and Ray because after Katie returned to Nebraska, the couple kept up an intense correspondence. Later that same summer, Ray took leave from his lighthouse keeping job at Smith Island Lighthouse in Washington, where he was the assistant keeper, to travel to Nebraska where he met Katie’s parents and officially asked for her hand in marriage. Ray Dunson was fortunate that his father Joseph was the Head Keeper at Smith Island Lighthouse; otherwise, he might not have been given the time off work to leave the lighthouse and travel to Nebraska. The couple set up a wedding date of October 9, 1909, but the wedding would take place at the home of Ray’s brother in South Bend, Washington.
After the wedding, the newlyweds went to live at Smith Point Lighthouse, but their life there was short. Shortly after Ray and Katie were married, he received a new appointment as the assistant keeper at Cape Arago Lighthouse in Oregon. Interestingly, in 1913 Ray’s father, Joseph, was also transferred to become the head keeper at Cape Arago Lighthouse and Ray would again be working under his father. But Katie didn’t mind. She got along well with her in-laws.
On July 30, 1911, Ray and Katie gave birth to Mary Eleanor, the first of six children, who is the person who later would record some of her and her mother’s memories of the family life at the lighthouses. Although the original 1866 tower was still standing at Cape Arago, the Dunson’s were actually the keepers of the second lighthouse that was built there in 1909.
Mary Savery recorded from her mother’s memories, “The lighthouse at Cape Arago and the fog horn were about one and a half blocks from the duplex keepers’ dwellings. Each dwelling had three large bedrooms upstairs plus a large storage closet. There was also a closet in each bedroom. Downstairs there was a large entrance hall that leads either into the kitchen or into the living room which had a free standing wood and coal heater. Adjacent to the living room was the dining room. The kitchen could also be entered through this room. There was a pantry off the kitchen. This was used for storage of large amounts of staples such as flour, sugar and canned items put up from the garden as well as those purchased form the mainland. The fish caught from the ocean was also canned and stored there. The kitchen had an extra large wood and coal stove as well as a hot water tank. The tank served all our water needs. The fire never seemed to be out because of meal requirements, baking (about three times a week) and the four flat irons used to iron, it saved time and effort to maintain the right temperature so it was ready when needed.
“An addition was put on to the back of the house when the cistern went dry. Water was then piped from the mainland across the 40 foot bridge to the dwelling. This addition included a room for a bathtub and wash bowl, as well as a separate room for the toilet. The rooms were heated by kerosene. There was a laundry area and more room for storage as well as plenty of room for drying cloth inside.
“The government furnished all the cleaning supplies with such things as soaps, mops, lamps (three sizes with brass bases) and solid brass dusting pans.
“Our food was canned, butchered, or caught in the sea. The acre and a half garden across the foot bridge at Cape Arago Lighthouse to the mainland provided us with fresh vegetables. Also, at the garden area were a barn, chicken house, pig pen and smoke house that my father built so we could raise, butcher and cure all our pork as needed. We raised all items form the garden except fruit and that was purchased from farmers who lived nearby. It was sometimes a problem getting milk across the bridge each day when the winds were especially bad. With no protection from the wind, those days crossing the bridge were a challenge.”
When schooling the children became a problem, Ray Dunson requested a transfer, which was approved, and in 1917 he was sent to Willapa Bay Lighthouse in Washington. But Dunson was not happy with the school arrangements at his new post. The children had to walk 1 ½ miles over sand dunes to a one room schoolhouse that was used for all eight grades, and the teacher, Miss Holiday, was 80 years old. In notes that Katie Dunson had written in the family Bible, it was recalled that the teacher had applied for the job and was accepted for the position using a “much younger” picture with her letter of application. Ray Dunson requested anther transfer, and after about a year, the request was granted and he was sent to Alki Point Lighthouse near Seattle, Washington where the family arrived on March 20, 1920.
Life at Alki Point Lighthouse was pretty good for the family. The schooling was good and the family was now near to proper medical attention, which Mary needed for her ear problems which required surgery. Two of the Dunson children were born at Alki Point: Edith Pharose on May 7, 1920 and Jack William on March 6, 1922. Dr. Kitner from West Seattle delivered them both at the lighthouse. Edith’s middle name of Pharose was given to show the family’s love for their lighthouse life. However, Edith’s life was short lived - she died at the age of eleven from cancer. Mary and two of her sisters, Sara and Alice, graduated from West Seattle High School.
As time passed, Ray Dunson wanted an assignment that would pay him more money, and when the opportunity arose in 1931, he accepted a transfer to Yaquina Head Lighthouse. However, the entire family did not immediately go with him. Dunson’s wife Katie stayed in Seattle so that children Arthur and Jack could finish the school year before they would join him at Yaquina. So, children Mary and Alice went with their father to help him at Yaquina Head Light until the school year was over and Katie could rejoin her husband. Alice then returned to Seattle to her job at the Frederick and Nelson Department Store, and Mary went to live with a family friend back in Seattle who would eventually become her mother in law. In 1934, Mary married George Savery who was a purser on The President Jefferson, a steamship of the President Line.
While stationed at Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Ray Dunson developed health problems, and at the Tumor Institute in Seattle at the Swedish Hospital he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease that would require him to have X-Ray treatments at Swedish Hospital. Mary wrote, “This would mean long trips to Seattle once a month for treatments. Chemotherapy was not known at that time,” so in 1936 he was transferred Mukilteo Lighthouse which was closer to the treatment center.
However, as his health deteriorated, Ray Dunson decided it was time to retire, which he did in September of 1939. After living nearly his entire life at lighthouses, from his childhood as the son of lighthouse keeper to his own days following in his father’s footsteps, he was now going to manage an apartment building in Seattle. However, after only a few short months, at the age of 56, he passed away on January 19, 1940. For the next 42 years, Ray Dunson’s wife, Katie, had many memories of her years as a lighthouse keeper’s wife to share with others. As one of America’s last surviving wives of the lighthouse keepers of the old United States Lighthouse Service, her mind was good until they day she passed away at the age of 95 on March 23, 1982.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 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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