West Point Lighthouse

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 6/02/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4183
The West Point Lighthouse, built in 1881 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, marks the hazardous shoal and northern entrance into Elliott Bay. The beacon, located in Seattle's Discovery Park at the base of Magnolia Bluff, is a small squat tower, rising only 23 feet above the low sandy point. The West Point Light Station, which remains essentially unchanged from the time it was built, in on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to being an important piece of Seattle's maritime history, the lighthouse continues to be a vital aid-to-navigation.

A Hazardous Shoal

In the spring of 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition under the command of Navy Lieutenant Charles T. Wilkes (1798-1877) entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sailed south into Puget Sound, making charts and naming many features. Lt. Wilkes named the prominent shoal that jutted into Puget Sound marking the northern entrance into Elliott Bay, West Point, evidently for the direction in which it lies. This low sand spit, made by the opposing currents on the sound, was known to the Duwamish Indians by "Per-co-dus-chule," or "Pka-dzEltcua," which translates "thrusts far out." It was known to early mariners as Sandy Point.

In 1872, the Lighthouse Board, expecting vessel traffic to increase around Puget Sound and Elliott Bay, recommended that this hazardous shoal be marked with a signal light. Congress eventually appropriated $25,000 for the project and in 1881, the U. S. Lighthouse Service built Puget Sound's first manned light station at West Point.

The squat, square light-tower, rising only 23 feet above the low sandy beach, is sandwiched between an attached fog-signal building and a workshop. These buildings are made of brick and concrete, for strength and durability, with a stucco exterior. Approximately 100 yards east of the lighthouse, at a location less precariously near the water, are two spacious Cape Cod style houses built for the lighthouse keepers, outbuildings, and a launch house.

Fitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens with 12 separate bull's-eyes, the light began operation on November 15, 1881. Fresnel lenses capture and direct light by prismatic rings to a central bull's-eye where it emerges as a single concentrated beam of light traveling in one direction. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, used mainly for shoals, reefs, and harbor entrance lights, is about two and a half feet high and 20 inches in diameter, and weighs approximately 500 pounds. Each lens was made in brass-framed sections that were easy to disassemble for maintenance. The illumination was provided by a 750- candle-power kerosene lamp which produced a 13,000 candle-power beam of light, visible for 15 miles. Because of its remote location, electricity was not provided to the light station until February 1926, when the lamp was replaced with an electric bulb. However, old kerosene lamps were always kept handy in case the electricity or bulb failed.

A Clockwork Light

The lens, resting on wheels or ball bearings, was operated by an enormous clockwork mechanism with descending weights activating the rotational movement. The turning of the lens caused the viewer of the light to see a flash, with periods of darkness. Several times a night, the keeper would have to wind the mechanism with a hand crank, raising the weights to the top of the tower, to keep the lens turning. The weights in the clockwork mechanism were replaced in 1926 with an electric motor.

The first fog-signal at West Point was a large bell suspended in a wood-frame tower. as with the lens, weights powered a timing mechanism which activated a hammer, striking the bell every 15 seconds. When it was learned that mariners had difficulty hearing the bell, it was replaced in 1887, with a steam whistle. In 1901, the Lighthouse Board reported that the steam engines activating the whistle had worn out and needed replacement. In 1906, the Lighthouse Service attached a new brick/stucco fog-signal house to the west side of the light tower, installing a Daboll trumpet fog-signal, invented and manufactured by Celadon L. Daboll of New London, Connecticut. The new fog-signal was operated by compressed air, produced by two diesel engines, which passed across a vibrating reed. The trumpet extended through the west wall, enabling the keeper to project a distinct signal through the fog.

Pleasant on Pleasant Days

Although, seemingly a pleasant location with a spectacular view, during the stormy winter months the light station takes quite a beating. Logs and debris have been tossed up on the station grounds, sometimes against the stout masonry buildings. In 1885, a winter storm washed away much of the sandy beach and grounds at the light station. Logs were used to build a protective bulkhead and the damaged area was backfilled with sand and gravel. Over the years, large quarry rocks and riprap have been placed along the beach as a breakwater to further protect the lighthouse from the elements.

In 1881, there were two lighthouse keepers stationed at West Point, Mr. A. W. Martin and his assistant, Mr. A. Prusham. The following year, to reduce costs, the Lighthouse Service eliminated the assistant keepers position, but the work was so arduous for one keeper, that the position was soon reinstated. The keeper's duties were a rigorous daily routine of cleaning and polishing lenses and lamps, trimming wicks, and maintaining the machinery, not to mention standing watch every night to assure the light was operating. Lighthouse keepers were expected to man their station regardless of the climate or weather conditions. A keeper was allowed 30 days leave every year, if a replacement could be found to assume the responsibilities.

West Point's next lighthouse keeper was George Fonda who took over the duties in 1883. In 1885, the U.S. Lighthouse Service adopted uniforms for their keepers, consisting of a navy blue double-breasted coat with brass buttons and insignia, matching vest, trousers and visored cap. By creating uniform regulations for the Lighthouse Service, the Lighthouse Board intended to bolster the keeper's image and add to their esprit de corps. George Fonda, apparently becoming an unwilling model for the new uniform, found it a nuisance, and wore the uniform only when inspectors or important guests were visiting the station.

When the West Point Light Station was built, there was no road leading to it, only a trail from Magnolia Bluff. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the Army, garrisoned at Fort Lawton (later Discovery Park), got around to building a crude road down to the bottom of the bluff. Then, it was another half a mile walk along the sandy spit to the station. The road was eventually improved and extended to the light station during the Great Depression (1929-1939) by an Emergency Relief Administration work project. From the foot of the bluff to the light station, was one enormous tide-pool, more than 100 yards wide and 600 yards long. West Point was nine-tenths an island, only connected to the mainland by the narrow beach on the south side of the tide pool. This entire area was later filled, and in 1966, became the grounds for Seattle Metro's West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Before the road was built, the light station was supplied by a Lighthouse Service tender, which delivered fuel and supplies to the beach every few months. For mail, appointments, and additional supplies, the keepers and their families had to row a launch from the light station to Ballard, and then catch a streetcar. In marginal weather, the trip could difficult if not dangerous. On the trip back to West Point, the launch had to be landed on the beach in the surf, with the potential for capsizing. On December 3, 1913, assistant keeper James E. Shaw was returning from Ballard in an open boat with his family when he fell overboard and drowned.

The Lake Washington Ship Canal

On May 8, 1917, the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which linked Lake Washington and Lake Union to Puget Sound through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, was opened for navigation. The importance of the West Point Light Station grew as the number of vessels plying the waters of Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, and Shilshole Bay (just outside the locks) increased.

Congress created the U. S. Coast Guard on January 15, 1915, by merging the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U. S. Life Saving Service. On July 7, 1939, Congress disbanded the Bureau of Lighthouses and the U. S. Lighthouse Service, transferring the responsibility for lighthouses and aids-to-navigation to the U. S. Coast Guard. The civilian lighthouse keepers were allowed to remain in their jobs until retirement, and were gradually replaced with Coast Guard personnel. Seattle became the headquarters for the 13th Coast Guard District.

In June 1944, West Point's Daboll trumpet was replaced with a diaphragm air horn, also activated by compressed air. The new fog-signal's time characteristic was changed to one three-second blast repeated every 30 seconds, the same as it is today.

A Historic Lighthouse

In September 1977, after being recommended by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the West Point Light Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places (listing No. 77001336). The station is also listed on the Washington Heritage Register of historic places.

On November 15, 1981, the West Point Lighthouse was 100 years old. First Class Bosun's Mate Marvin Gerbers, one of the station's last lighthouse keepers, celebrated the centennial by climbing to the roof and dousing it with a bottle of champagne.

The West Point Lighthouse was finally automated in February 1985. It was the last station to be automated in Washington state. Today, the original hand-ground Fresnel lens, illuminated by a 1000-watt quartz lamp that produces an 80,000-candle-power beam, rotates 24 hours a day. The beacon's signal is characterized by one flash, alternating red and white, every five seconds. The white light is visible for 19 miles while the red light is only visible for 16 miles. The fog-signal is activated by a photoelectric cell when visibility is reduced to three miles.

On October 24, 2000, the 106th Congress passed the National Historical Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, 16 United States Code 470, authorizing the disposal of historic lighthouses and stations. The Act allows lighthouse properties to be transferred at no cost to public or nonprofit organizations for park, recreational, cultural, educational, or historical purposes. In most cases, lighthouses are working aids-to-navigation and the U. S. Coast Guard has been mandated to maintain the optic and electrical systems.

The West Point Light Station was made available in September 2002 and the offer was published in the Federal Register on January 16, 2003. One of the applicants was Seattle Parks and Recreation, which acquired 534 acres of historic Fort Lawton in 1970, turning it into Discovery Park, the largest and most natural park in the city. In April 2004, the Seattle City Council approved $600,000 for roofing and repairs to the lighthouse, using money from the Shoreline Park Improvement Fund. Finally, on October 14, 2004, the U.S. Department of Interior announced its decision, awarding ownership of the West Point Light Station to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. It includes the lighthouse, the two station keepers' houses, a maintenance building, and 2.5 acres of waterfront property.

The West Point Light Station is accessible via Discovery Park. It is located about a mile and a half from the park entrance and is accessible either by foot or, on weekends, by shuttle bus from the visitor center's parking lot. After renovation, the light station will be open to the public for environmental education, public tours, and other programs.


Sources: Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1916); Samuel Willard Crompton and Michael J. Rhein, The Ultimate Book of Lighthouses (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2001); Randy Leffingwell and Pamela Welty, Lighthouses on the Pacific Coast (Stillwater, Minesota: Voyageur Press, 2000); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Sharlene P. and Ted W. Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Publishing, 1997); Dennis Noble, Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997); Zoe Kincaid, "Beacon and Fog Horn at West Point Lighthouse; How They Guide an Endless Procession of Sea Craft Into and Out of Elliott Bay," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 28, 1906, Magazine sec., p. 12; Jack Bechdolt, "West Point Light; A Visit to the Guardian Tower at Seattle's Water Gate," Ibid., March 23, 1913, sec. 7, p. 1; "Wife and Child Unable to Stay Tragic Death," Ibid., December 4, 1913, p. 1; "Once Lonesomest Spot in Seattle, West Point Glows with Hope," Ibid., February 9, 1926, p. 13; "Light Passes 60th Birthday," The Seattle Times, November 16, 1941, p. 29; "West Point Fog Horn to be Changed" Ibid., June 22, 1944, p. 15; "64 Years of Guiding Ships," Ibid., May 6, 1945, Sunday Rotogravure, p. 8; "Lighthouse Dolled Up," Ibid., March 31, 1950, p. 37; David Suffia, "Seattle Historical Vignettes: 93 Year Old West Point Light Station Carries On," Ibid., September 30, 1974, p. A-13; "West Point Light a Historic Site," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 7, 1977, p. A-9; John Hahn, "Last Lighthouse Keepers; Machines Trip the Light Fantastically," Ibid., August 25, 1979, p. A-1; Ranny Green, "West Point Lighthouse: A Landmark Turns 100," The Seattle Times, May 31, 1981, p. 21; Charles E. Brown, "Seattle's Guiding Light Still Burning Bright: West Point Beacon Has Withstood Storms For Over 100 Years," Ibid., November 17, 1981, p. B-1; "Beacon Beckons the Lost Tourist," Ibid., November 30, 1985, p. C-2; Mike Barber, "Price Is Right in Government Lighthouse Giveaway, Take a Shine to This Property," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 3, 2002, p. B-1; Mike Barber, "A Shining Example of Bureaucratic Bungling; Deadline Extended for Getting Free Lighthouse," Ibid., December 25, 2002, p. B-1; "For Free," Ibid., January 18, 2003, p. B-1; Inventory of Historic Light Stations, Washington Lighthouses, National Park Service website (www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/light/westpt.htm); Sara Jean Green, "Discovery Park Lighthouse Now Belongs to City," The Seattle Times, October 15, 2004, p. B-3.
Note: This essay was updated on January 15, 2005.

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