Digest>Archives> April 2008

Cape Spencer Was Not A Romantic Light Station

By Timothy Harrison


Alaska’s Cape Spencer Lighthouse Station was by no means the most isolated or dangerous lighthouse to be stationed at, but when lighthouse keepers got assigned here it was almost as if it was a punishment of sorts.

Although the keepers had all the comforts of home, that home was more like an institution or could even be compared to a concrete prison built in the middle of nowhere on top of a rock surrounded by water and escape was impossible.

Today the Cape Spencer Lighthouse sits as a empty cold concrete structure, a ghostly reminder, of an era when rugged lighthouse keepers tried their best to make life as comfortable as possible while attending to their daily chores which were vital to saving the lives of the men on the vessels at sea.

Cape Spencer Lighthouse is a relatively new lighthouse compared to many others. Although plans to build a lighthouse had been approved in 1919, the government expenses associated with Word War I delayed constriction. A beacon of sorts was here as early as 1912, but the lighthouse wasn’t completed here until 1925. Building it must have been a nightmare of a project.

Although the men who lived here generally had all the food they needed as supply ships from Ketchikan made stops as often as possible, how well the keeper ate, depended on how good they could cook. In the early years the lighthouse tender would only visit once every six months. In later years the stops were more frequent. But just in case the lighthouse tender didn’t make it the station crew had a couple of freezers packed with extra food. In later years they even had a pool table in the dingy basement for entertainment of sorts. But how many games of pool can one play? To avoid boredom, the men answered mail order ads just to get stacks of mail when the next visit of the lighthouse tender arrived. They would slowly enjoy the mail opening it a little at a time to make it last. The supply ship brought movies to them; the kind on the movie reels shown with a projector for those of you who remember what that was like.

There were many times when a keeper, generally assigned here for a one-year period, never left the island during that time. When the weather was bad and the lighthouse tender could re-supply the station, they relied on the less favorable food stock and reruns of the same movies over and over.

Keeper’s often wondered what would happen to them if the suddenly the base in Ketchikan would simply forget about them and supply ship would stop coming. Then what? How would they survive? Could their small station boat safely reach civilization?

In a 1958 interview by Richard Kaplan for Coronet magazine, Kaplan found that all five of the men stationed there at that time had volunteered for the duty here. There reasons varied. Each man told Turner, as he wrote in Coronet, that each had his own description of life on the island. Alton Turner said, “With so much time to think, you begin to wonder who your are,” George Donachy said, “I don’t know what man’s instincts are, but living alone isn’t one of them.” But Lewis Offord probably said it best of all, “If I live to be 69, I’ll consider myself 68. This year doesn’t count.”

In 1974 Cape Spencer Light Station was automated and its Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by a modern optic and human life ceased to exist on this 88-foot rock projection that sits in the stormy waters of Cross Sound, 90 miles north of Sitka.

Today the station still holds the remnants of its glory days. At low tide the litter that accumulated over the years is evident in the rocks and crevices. Remains of original red brick foundations for the wharf lay under the docking area and foundations of other out buildings are still exposed and clearly visible. According to a government report that although the ground is saturated from age-old oil spills, an amazing variety of vegetation now flourishes on the island.

Although the Coast Guard maintains the beacon, signs of neglect are evident. However, the actual building appears to be structurally sound, which like many ancient ruins around the world, is a tribute to the men who built the Cape Spencer Light Station.

In 1975 the Cape Spencer Light Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, this however, does not insure its protection. Today the lighthouse is within the boundaries of the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and because of the dangerous landing, visits to the island by boat are not frequent. Coast Guard visits are now done by helicopter and then only for brief maintenance checks and minor work on the station.

This story appeared in the April 2008 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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