Most keepers lived a life of relative obscurity, quietly going about their service without fanfare in the newspapers or complaints to the Lighthouse Board in Washington D.C. But Charles W. Sheldon traversed both ends of that spectrum and even went far beyond it as he spent the last three decades of his life in true obscurity committed to an asylum for the insane.
Charles was born in 1859 in Buffalo, New York. Not much is known of his early life except that he married his wife, Katherine Nichols, in 1885 and had two children: Charlie, born in 1887 in Port Angeles, Washington, and Hazel, who was born in 1888 in Seattle. It was through an incident with his children that Charles obtained notoriety in the newspapers as a hero, reported all the way down the Pacific Coast.
A Rescue in the Nick of Time
It was the last day of July in 1896 and Charlie and Hazel wanted some candy. The family was living at Cape Arago Lighthouse near the entrance to Coos Bay in Oregon. The two children had taken their father’s small “cockle-shell” skiff out into the waters off the lighthouse several times before when the seas were calm and never had a problem, but this time they were in trouble as they attempted to reach the town of Empire across the bay.
The tide started to come in and the ocean waves became rougher as they got nearer the bar. At some point, they lost one of their two oars, so they couldn’t make any real progress and were being precariously tossed about. Instead of moving toward Empire, they were being carried out toward the bar and open sea.
Back at the lighthouse, it was almost a full hour before they were missed and after a fruitless search, keeper Sheldon noticed the skiff was missing, so he scanned the horizon with his powerful marine glass. What he saw totally alarmed him. The children were almost four miles away and in danger of overturning at any moment.
Charles and his assistant keeper, Thomas Wyman, quickly raced to procure a second boat and the two set out to rescue the hapless children from a sure drowning in the choppy waves. Miraculously, they were able to reach them just as a large ocean steamer passed within 200 feet of the skiff, which resulting wake caused the small boat to swamp.
The children were quite unconscious of their near catastrophe. As Hazel later reminisced about the affair, “Much to our disgust, we were towed home just before the tide broke the bar.” They would have to get their candy some other day.
Keeper Charles W. Sheldon would remain at Cape Arago for another three years before transferring to Point Wilson Light in Washington in 1899. He had started service at Cape Flattery Lighthouse, located on Tatoosh Island off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a decade earlier and had come to Cape Arago by 1893.
Accusations and Investigations
Charles had had a rough time at Cape Flattery. He had been accused of contributing to the death of head keeper Alexander Sampson in 1893 by encouraging him to go out in a boat while drunk. Sampson did not drown, but caught a bad cold which resulted in his demise. The executor of Alex Sampson’s estate, John F. Church, then showed up at the lighthouse demanding to take Sampson’s possessions and Sheldon, who had been promoted to head keeper at the time, turned him away, which also added fuel to the fire.
Letters of complaint were sent to the Lighthouse Board in Washington D.C. concerning the matter and the 13th district inspector, Oscar W. Farenholt, was sent to investigate. In the flurry of correspondence regarding the incidents, Sheldon responded to the accusations. He wrote, “I have heard the charge was sending, or letting, Sampson leave the station in the winter time during bad weather. On Jan. 3rd, Sampson began drinking, this being Tuesday, and continued drunk till Saturday when the mail came and it being the first opportunity for him to get away he took it and went up North where he died on Jan. 29th of old age and over indulgence in intoxicants.
“I had nothing to do in his going, except telling him he would not bring any more liquor on the island, and if he persisted in it, he must leave the island, which he did… In the last 12 years Mr. Sampson has spent his vacations in the house of Jno. F. Church where he lay drunk for the entire month. He has supported the family of Church, and this Church is the instigator of charges made against me only to satisfy a personal spite.”
Regarding the refusal to let Mr. Church take possession of Sampson’s belongings, Sheldon replied, “When the late keeper of this station died, [his] effects were mixed up with Light-House property in closets and rooms; when Mr. Church came to take the things away he tried to take several things belonging to the Light-House, among which was a set of scales, some 4 or 5 lbs. of glue, the tools in the chest, towels &c.
“I as 1st Asst. Keeper defended the property to the best of my ability and received the worst kind of abuse, and was threatened with bodily harm, and of being reported of various offences, and Mr. Church swearingly remarked, ‘I will spend all Sampson gave me but I will get you discharged.’”
In a follow-up letter detailing to the Lighthouse Board his investigations into the matter, District Inspector Farenholt also mentioned a charge against Charles Sheldon of being drunk while on duty. Sheldon’s response to this was to vehemently refute the allegation. He stated, “I am not in receipt of any specific charges but have heard that it was drunkenness.
“This I positively and unreservedly deny. I am ready to take an oath that it is absolutely false; and if used was done because it was thought to be more effective in having me discharged… I lived in Port Angeles before entering the Light-House Service and am well known there and I will stake my reputation for honesty, sobriety, and industry against my accuser.”
Farenholt questioned the three assistant keepers as well as others during his investigation and concluded that while there was no culpability in the first two charges, Sheldon was indeed known, at times, to drink, though not to the level of interference in his keeper duties. Apparently, it was considered acceptable for keepers to drink to excess off-duty so long as it didn’t affect their jobs or abilities to perform their work.
However, in another follow-up letter, Farenholt recommended that Sheldon be transferred from Cape Flattery to Cape Arago due to his inabilities to maintain a clean and efficient station. He wrote that he had found the station “in unsatisfactory condition” upon his last inspection visit and that Sheldon was “unsuited for this large station. I give him credit that he means well, but he lacks force, has no control over the assistant keepers and is “too slow” for this first order light and fog signal.”
The Board concurred and Charles Sheldon was moved over to Cape Arago as head keeper with only one assistant to manage. It was also a better situation in which to raise a young family, being in a more accessible location than Cape Flattery since it was closer to larger towns.
Cape Arago Reminiscences
Charles’ daughter, Hazel, had fond memories of her childhood years at Cape Arago between the ages of four and ten. Beyond recounting the rescue of her and her brother in the skiff, she wrote, “I loved Cape Arago and the deep roaring sea. Puget Sound seemed tame to me and I was always hoping for a big storm where the waves would break high and roar like they did at Cape Arago. Our most exciting and happiest times were when there was a stormy sea. I remember shipwrecks on the Coos Bay bar…
“I remember old Government Bill, a horse that belonged to the station. We walked three miles to the slough and then my father rowed about four miles to Empire for supplies. Old Government Bill carried our supplies home. I remember how terribly frightened my mother was of that rowboat trip to Empire. We had to make the tide and cross over cribs and tide rips.
“My brother and I grew up alone until I was 10 years old. When we came to Port Townsend, we lived at Point Wilson and walked three miles to school. Point Wilson seemed tame after Cape Arago. But my brother had an Indian canoe and we went every place in it. He learned to handle a boat about the same time he learned to walk.”
More Complaints and a Dismissal
Keeper Charles Sheldon’s time at Point Wilson was very short-lived, however, as yet more letters of complaint were written to the board concerning him. This time, the district 13 inspector was E. D. Taussig who handled the investigation. The charge was that Sheldon had not returned to the station for his appointed watch after his leave and had left the light unlit.
The assistant keeper, Charles J. Smith, who notified the district office, sought witnesses as to Sheldon’s drunken state that kept him from returning to duty. Charles E. Coon, a former treasury official living in Port Townsend, stated that “While I have not personally seen the Keeper in a state of intoxication in any of his resorts, I will say that it is a matter of common knowledge here that he is in the habit of indulging in such practices, and, at times, for several days running.”
Coon then recounted an instance where he was sent a message by Sheldon’s wife asking him to locate her husband, and upon inquiry, found that he was in a “maudlin” condition in Ferguson’s Saloon. Coon “engaged a man to go to Point Wilson and stand watch” in Sheldon’s place. “This was done; Sheldon’s wife returning from a visit next day, found him and took him home.”
As a result of this report, Charles W. Sheldon was dismissed from Lighthouse Service. This had a very stressful impact on his family. Hazel later wrote in her memoirs that the summer that followed was one of “worry and sadness.” Charles Sheldon left his family to take a job with a company that was starting a rail line to Nome, but it didn’t pan out. Charles then tried gold mining and work at a sawmill, but it proved too much for his marriage to endure and it ended in divorce that same year, though amicable.
The Long Sad Road
For the next seven years following the divorce, it isn’t known what Charles did exactly. Apparently, being separated from his family after having struggled to support them in addition to living with the shame of his dismissal from the Lighthouse Service became too much for his mental state and he continued to drink even more heavily.
By 1907, at age 48, Charles Sheldon was having delusions and dementia attributed to alcoholic psychosis which resulted in him being committed by a judge to the Western State Hospital at Fort Steilacoom, Washington. His admittance papers state that he was insane due to hard whiskey drinking and self-neglect leaving him unable to take care of himself.
His yearly clinical evaluations stated that he was quiet, sometimes irritable or melancholy, but that he was an “agreeable old man who never has a complaint and seldom a request. Never is a behavior problem.” He worked in the dining room and was “always neat and quite gentlemanly in his manner and appearance.” It was also noted that he never had any visitors.
Although Charles’ physical condition improved somewhat over the years, his mental state remained delusional. One report, written in 1935 gave an example of his dementia mixed in with true facts. “He states that from 1890 to 1902 he was lighthouse house keeper at Flattery, later at Point Wilson. Claims to have been dismissed in 1902 because his wife was guilty of adultery and when he reported it to the United States Inspector, he was dismissed…. That en route from Alaska to Seattle they got caught in an iceberg [in a shipwreck.] Some got ashore, some died of starvation, some killed themselves and some were killed by wild animals. He was the only survivor and was rescued and taken directly here to this institution by a cousin who lived here and has since left and left him here.”
As time progressed, and his health slowly deteriorated, he became more absent-minded and forgetful though always contented with his surroundings. Charles W. Sheldon passed away on December 27, 1940 at age 81. He was buried there at the hospital cemetery with only his name placed on a group slab marker list.
Even though he had a serious drinking problem, Charles still provided 11 good years of service as a lighthouse keeper. He was able to be promoted through the ranks from 3rd assistant to head keeper at Cape Flattery before being reassigned, even after he had been investigated. He served well at Cape Arago for the six years he was head keeper there and the newspapers reported at that time that he was a “kind and friendly gentleman.”
It is sad that his lighthouse service was thought of as a delusion by the hospital staff and that he was completely forgotten and alone for more than 30 years at the end of his life. Whatever his faults, Charles Wesley Sheldon still deserves recognition for his service to our country as a veteran U.S. Lighthouse Service keeper.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 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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