The Browns Point Lighthouse was built in 1933 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and marks the hazardous shoal and north entrance to Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. It was first marked in 1887 with a post lantern, which was replaced in 1903 with a two-story wooden tower to house a brighter light and a fog signal. The lighthouse and keeper’s cottage, located in Pierce County’s Browns Point Lighthouse Park near Tacoma, are on the Washington State Heritage Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The beacon and fog-signal at Browns Point continue to be key navigational aids for vessels in south Puget Sound.
Exploring and Naming
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 of the prominent features. In May 1841, the 224-ton brigantine Porpoise selected an anchorage (near present day Tacoma) they named Commencement Bay and sent boats out surveying.
Lieutenant Wilkes named a point of land marking the north entrance to Commencement Bay, Point Harris, in honor of Alvin Harris, a sailmaker’s mate on the Porpoise. In 1877, Navy Lieutenant Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff (1848-1922), commanding the schooner Yukon, and making a hydrographic survey of upper Puget Sound and Commencement Bay, noted the same point of land on his charts as Point Brown, a name used by local residents to honor an early settler.
The Post Lantern Era
The Lighthouse Board, aware that vessel traffic had increased around Puget Sound when the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Tacoma in 1873, recommended Point Brown be marked with a light. The shoal was an important turning point for ships entering Commencement Bay. On December 12, 1887, a “post lantern” displaying a white light at a height of 12 feet was erected on the tideflats, about 50 yards off shore. At high tide, the light could only by reached by rowboat.
Post lanterns were only used until a more permanent structure could be built. Mounted high on scaffolds, post lanterns had a drum-type lens which produced a bright fixed light. The lantern had a large tank encircling the top of the lens that held enough fuel for eight days. The Point Brown post lantern was maintained by a contract light keeper, who rowed from Tacoma once a week to clean the glass, replenish the fuel tank, and trim the wick.
The East Channel, from Commencement Bay to Elliott Bay, was renowned for its persistent fog blankets. Unfortunately, the light at Point Brown could not be seen in the fog. Mariners complained that the point was in urgent need of a better light and a fog signal.
The First Lighthouse
In 1895, the Lighthouse Board realized that the Point Brown post lantern was an insufficient navigational aid and recommended that the shoal be marked with a lighthouse and fog signal. But it wasn’t until 1900 that finally Congress appropriated $6,000 for the Lighthouse Service to purchase land and build a lighthouse and station keeper’s dwelling. Because the landowner’s asking price was too high, in 1901 the U. S. government condemned several acres of land on Point Brown to build a light station. On July 9, 1901, the a federal jury decreed the landowners be paid a total of $3,000 in exchange for giving the Lighthouse Service free title to the property, including the tidelands. In this same year, the residents of Point Brown and Dash Point voted to secede from King County in favor of annexation by Pierce County.
In 1903, the Lighthouse Service erected a lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling on Point Brown. The lighthouse was a 30-foot high, two story wood-frame tower, perched on pilings off the point. It was accessible by beach at low tide, but required a rowboat at high tide. In 1906, the tideflats were filled in with riprap and dirt, allowing the lighthouse keeper ready access to the tower. The keeper’s dwelling was a one-and-a-half-story Georgian-style house built on a knoll approximately 100 feet from the shoreline. Additional outbuildings included a pump house for fresh water, an oil house, and a boathouse.
The Fog Bell
A fog bell was suspended near the top of the two-story light tower in an open cutaway. The 1,200-pound bronze bell, cast in 1855 at the J. Bernhard Foundry in Philadelphia, had seen duty at the Dungeness Spit Lighthouse from 1857 to 1873, and at the Point No Point Light Station from 1879 to 1900.
The clapper was activated by a 1,440-pound device called a Gamewell Fog Bell Striking Apparatus, manufactured in 1852 by the John N. Gamewell Company, Newton, Massachusetts. The Gamewell mechanism, which used a complex system of descending weights causing the bell to ring every 20 seconds, had to be rewound every 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the apparatus was unreliable and often broke down, requiring the light keeper to strike the bell manually for endless hours.
The new Point Brown Lighthouse had a lens lantern that perched on an outside shelf below the fog bell cutout. The lenses were made in sections and mirrors were often used behind the lamp to amplify the light. Similar to post lanterns, lens lanterns had a large tank encircling the top of the lens that held enough fuel for five days.
Keepers of the Light
On October 21, 1903, the new station keeper, Oscar V. Brown (1869-1946) and his wife Annie L. Brown (1869-1960) arrived at Point Brown on the lighthouse tender Heather. At high tide, the crew unloaded their household furnishings, including a piano which sat outside under a tarp for several days until the Browns got help from Tacoma to move it into the house. The Browns also had a horse and a cow which were lowered over the side of the vessel in a sling and had to swim ashore. The new lighthouse was commissioned on October 26, 1903, when the first light shown in the tower.
Oscar V. Brown came from Binghamton, New York, and his wife, Annie, was from Port Townsend, Washington. He came to Washington in 1887 and joined the Lighthouse Service in 1890. Brown served as a lighthouse keeper at Cape Flattery, New Dungeness, and Smith Island before being assigned to Point Brown.
Oscar Brown, with Annie’s help, tended the light and fog bell for the next 30 years, with almost no time off. He polished the lantern’s lenses and trimmed the wicks and lit the lamp every night. When fog set in, Brown tended the Gamewell Fog Bell Striking Apparatus. And when the Gamewell broke down, as it often did, Oscar struck the bell with a sledge hammer while Annie monitored the time sequence with a watch. For this, Brown was paid the salary of $800 a year plus housing.
In addition to his lighthouse duties, Brown, an accomplished musician, gave piano lessons to the local children. His wife, Annie, an avid gardener, festooned the light station grounds with flowers. People loved to visit the Browns and the lighthouse. Most of the visitors arrived by motor launch or rowboat from Tacoma where rentals were available from the Foss Launch and Tug Company. Oscar and Annie Brown became such fixtures in the community that soon everyone referred to the light station as “Brown’s Point” rather than Point Brown.
In 1922, Browns Point was finally supplied with electricity and life became a little easier for keeper Brown. The old lens lantern was replaced with an electric floodlight and the Gamewell Fog Bell Striking Apparatus was activated by an electric motor. And both systems could be operated with switches from the lighthouse keeper's residence.
A New Lighthouse
In 1933, the wooden lighthouse on Browns Point was replaced with a 9 ½ foot square, Art Deco (or “Moderne”) style concrete tower standing 38 feet high. The new lighthouse, designed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, was erected by Strangberg and Company of Seattle at a cost of $2,300. The new optic, a non-rotating, 375 mm drum lens, used an electric light bulb to produce a 1,500 candlepower light visible for 12 miles, giving three white flashes every 15 seconds. The beacon, later upgraded to 11,000 candle power, sat on the tower’s flat roof, protected by a small square glassed-in enclosure called the lantern.
On June 26, 1933, the old wooden tower was demolished and burned on the beach. The Brown’s Point Garden Club dedicated the new lighthouse “in memory of May 26, 1792, when Captain George Vancouver and his associates dined at this point.”
The fog bell was retired from service, replaced by a new foghorn, activated by an electric air compressor, mounted high on the tower’s west side. In 1934, the 1,200-pound fog bell was sold for a nominal $50 to the College of Puget Sound (now the University of Puget Sound), where it was used to announce the changing of classes. In 1984, the University of Puget Sound donated the fog bell to the Fox Island Alliance Church.
U. S. Coast Guard Takes Over
On July 7, 1939, Congress eliminated 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.
On July 31, 1939, Oscar V. Brown, age 70, retired from the Lighthouse Service after serving 49 years, 36 of them at Browns Point.. He and his wife Annie took up residence in an apartment at 323 N “J” Street in Tacoma. The Coast Guard appointed “Shorty” Wood as the new station keeper at Browns Point. In addition to routine light station duties, Wood was given the added responsibility of maintaining a large clock in the light tower at Point Defiance.
In 1944, Cyril Beaulieu replaced “Shorty” Wood as station keeper. Two Coast Guardsmen assisted Beaulieu, who had been with the Lighthouse Service since 1930. After Beaulieu retired in 1956, three Coast Guardsmen staffed Browns Point Light Station. Their responsibilities included tending to the minor lights and navigational aids around Commencement Bay.
Historic Park and Working Lighthouse
In 1963, the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse and closed the Browns Point Light Station. The Tacoma Metro Parks District, realizing the vacant property would make a spectacular public park, immediately began negotiating with the government for a lease. In 1964, The U. S. Coast Guard granted Tacoma Metro Parks a free long-term lease of the 7.2-acre light station for the recreation and enjoyment of the public and gave permission to use the buildings as museums. The Points Northeast Historical Society, a local volunteer group and non-profit organization, promised to help the restore and renovate the light station’s buildings.
The Browns Point Lighthouse was one of the first to be automated in Washington state. The original drum lens was replaced in 1997 with a VRB-25 marine rotating beacon. Sitting at a height of 38 feet, the exposed optic operates 24 hours a day, flashing white once every five seconds. The electric fog horn, mounted high on the tower, is activated by an automatic sensor which detects moisture in the air, sounding two two-second blasts every 30 seconds. The fog horn sounds about 837 hours a year, one of the highest recorded in Puget Sound. A radio-beacon, transmitting a radio signal used in locating a ship’s position, has also been installed. The light, fog signal, and radio-beacon are maintained by the Coast Guard’s Aids-to-Navigation Branch located at Pier 36 in Seattle.
On March 29, 1989, the Browns Point Light Station was officially designated by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as an historic place and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. 093). Also in 1989, the light station was added to the National Register of Historic Places (listing No. 89000208) maintained by the National Park Service.
On August 7, 1994, a scaled-down replica of a 1900s Coast Guard surf boat was launched at Browns Point. The 16 ½-foot surf boat was hand-crafted by Mike Vlahovich, a Tacoma boat builder, in the renovated boathouse. The Points Northeast Historical Society, which raised $12,000 to fund the boat-building project, has the white-lacquered surf boat on permanent display in the boathouse at Browns Point Lighthouse Park.
From 1964 to 2000, Tacoma Metro Parks District leased the Browns Point keeper’s cottage as a private residence, the proceeds going toward the restoration and maintenance of the park’s buildings. In 1998, the Points Northeast Historical Society made the downstairs portion of the house, excluding the kitchen, into a museum, but continued to rent the upstairs. During the summer of 2000, the Points Northeast Historical Society renovated the building, turning it into a guesthouse decorated with furnishings from the early 1900s. The exterior of the two-story house, painted the traditional white with green trim and a red roof, remains essentially the same as when it was first built in 1903.
Through the efforts of the Points Northeast Historical Society, the original fog bell was located at the Fox Island Alliance Church, which then donated the historic relic to the society. On July 25, 2000, Mountain Construction Company removed the fog bell from the church with a crane, trucked it to the Browns Point Lighthouse Park and installed in the renovated pump house. Points Northeast Historical Society volunteers, having previously modified the pump house to hold the 1,200-pound bell, installed a bowling ball as the clapper.
The Points Northeast Historical Society opened the station keepers' cottage to the public in October 2000, offering a "one-week tour of duty" as lighthouse keepers (shorter rental periods were later offered during winter months). Renters' duties included raising and lowering the American flag, logging weather and shipping traffic, and being present for visitors when the cottage and museum were open to the public. In exchange, the "light keepers" had the opportunity to live in the historic 1903 home with access to 1,500 feet of waterfront and unparalleled views of the Olympic Mountains and Commencement Bay. As of 2014, the cottage and museum were open to visitors on summer Saturday afternoons; the lighthouse was not open to the public.