Point Wilson Lighthouse

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 4/21/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5680

The Point Wilson Lighthouse was built in 1914 by the Lighthouse Service. At a height of 51 feet, the beacon is the tallest on Puget Sound, marking the entrance to Admiralty Inlet. The lighthouse replaced an earlier wooden light tower built in 1879 on the roof of the station keeper’s house. The Point Wilson Lighthouse, located in Fort Worden State Park near Port Townsend, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington State Heritage Register. It is one of the most important navigational aids in Washington, a link connecting Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Entering Puget Sound

Point Wilson is situated on the Olympic Peninsula at the northeastern most point of Jefferson County, approximately two miles north of Port Townsend. This low, broad sand-spit, extending over a half-mile into the water, marks the entrance to Admiralty Inlet from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Here, the main shipping channel narrows and makes a sharp turn to the south into Puget Sound. Nearby shoals, heavy rip-tides, and persistent fogs influenced the placing of a lighthouse on Point Wilson in 1879.

The Chimacum Indians named this point Kam-kam-ho; the S’Klallum Indians called it Kam-Kum. Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Navy named Point Wilson on June 6, 1792, in honor of a colleague, Captain George Wilson.

Safe Harbor at Port Townsend

Founded in 1851, Port Townsend, on the tip of the North Kitsap Peninsula, was perfectly situated for sailing ships. At a time when commerce and travel in the Pacific Northwest were almost entirely waterborne, it was first safe harbor encountered on Puget Sound. In 1854, the Treasury Department moved Washington Territory’s Port of Entry into the United States from Olympia to Port Townsend. Sailing ships usually stopped for at least a few hours, both entering and leaving Puget Sound, to clear customs and await favorable winds and tides for continuing their voyage. Port Townsend residents believed their city was destined to become the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest.

In 1855, Alfred A. Plummer (1822-1883), one of Port Townsend’s founders, had a large log building in the town converted into a blockhouse, named Fort Plummer, for the defense of the new settlement during the Indian War (1855-1856). As captain of the local militia, known as the Port Townsend Guards, Plummer also had a small fortified guardhouse built at the point. The outpost, named Fort Wilson, was the Port Townsend’s early warning system, guarding against surprise attacks by roving bands of hostile Indians. The primitive fort was abandoned when hostilities ended, and it fell into disrepair.

Marine surveys of Washington’s inland waterways, commissioned by the Lighthouse Board in the 1850s, recommended the entrance to Admiralty Inlet be marked with two lights; on Whidbey Island to the east, and on Point Wilson to the west. In 1856, Congress appropriated only enough money to build one lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board decided Whidbey Island was best suited to help sailing vessels clear the shallow waters around Point Wilson for the south turn into Admiralty Inlet and Port Townsend. On January 21, 1861, the first light was established on the 90-foot bluff at Admiralty Head; Point Wilson wasn’t to have a light or fog signal for another 18 years.

A Thriving Port

Meanwhile, in Port Townsend ships arrived daily from all over the world, stopping for customs inspection, supplies, refitting, and to load and unload passengers and goods. In 1865, frequent and persistent fogs prompted Captain J. W. Seldon to donate a ship’s bell to the new St. Paul Episcopal Church in Port Townsend with the condition the bell be rung during foggy periods. Even though the Customs House had been moved to Port Angeles in 1862, sailing vessels continued to use Port Townsend as their major off-loading point. In 1866, the Customs House was moved back to Port Townsend, and remained there until 1911, when the Treasury Department moved the Puget Sound Customs District Headquarters to Seattle.

As vessel traffic increased, shipping interests and the citizens of Port Townsend continued lobbying the Lighthouse Board for a light and fog signal to mark the western shore of Admiralty Inlet and the entrance into Port Townsend’s harbor. Eventually Congress appropriated funds to establish a light station on Point Wilson. In 1879, the side-wheeler S. S. Shubruck, a 140-foot lighthouse tender, delivered building materials to the point, and construction of the light station began immediately.

The First Lighthouse

The first lighthouse was a square wooden tower built on the roof of the two-story, Cape Cod style, keeper’s quarters. In addition, Lighthouse Service built a fog signal building, housing a boiler and 12-inch steam-powered fog whistle. A fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens, used mainly for shoals, reefs, and harbor entrance lights, was installed in the tower’s lantern. This lens, known as a beehive or barrel, captures and directs light by prismatic rings to a central prism where it emerges through the convex lens as a concentrated beam of light. A fourth-order Fresnel lens is approximately 2 foot, 4 inches high, and has an inside diameter of 1 foot, 8 inches. The light at Point Wilson, illuminated by a kerosene lamp, showed a fixed white light visible for 13 miles from any point along a sweeping 270 degrees of horizon.

The new Point Wilson Light Station was commissioned on December 15, 1879. That night, Laurence Nessel, lighthouse keeper at Admiralty Head, four miles across the inlet, saw the beacon and noted in his log “Light at Point Wilson in operation for first time.”

The Lighthouse Service appointed David M. Littlefield (1840-1913), a local resident, to be Point Wilson’s first light station keeper for which he was paid $800 per year. Littlefield, a Civil War veteran, arrived in Port Townsend in 1867 as a farmer. In 1869, he married Maria C. Hastings (1850-1912), the eldest daughter of Loren B. Hastings (1814-1881), one of Port Townsend’s founders.

In 1884, after four years on Point Wilson, Littlefield left the Lighthouse Service, settling in Port Townsend. Over his years there, he served the community as Jefferson County Sheriff, Mayor, City Councilman, and Collector of Customs. In 1887, the Littlefields built a house at 1839 Washington Street, overlooking Port Townsend’s harbor. It is located within the Port Townsend Historic District, listed on the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places (listing No. 76001883).

Mishap of the David Hoadley

On December 15, 1880, the 948-ton bark David Hoadley ran aground at North Beach on Point Wilson, not far from the lighthouse. The vessel, traveling inbound from San Francisco to Port Gamble in ballast, was driven onto the shoal during a gale. The crew was able to escape over the side of the ship and make it ashore. All efforts to save the Hoadley failed. Her hull was too badly damaged. After salvaging the hardware, tackle, and other useable materials, the hull was abandoned on the beach, becoming a local landmark for several years.

The Lighthouse Service Tender Manzanita arrived at Point Wilson in 1894 to repair the boiler for the steam-powered fog whistle. The ship also brought a new fourth-order Fresnel lens with a revolving apparatus, which was installed in the lantern. This new lens projected a fixed white light with short flashes of red.

Triangle of Fire

In 1896, the federal government started work on the construction of Fort Worden on the high bluffs above the Point Wilson Light Station. Activated in 1902, the imposing fortification was the third of three major Coast Artillery forts built around the turn of the century to protect Puget Sound. Along with Fort Casey at Admiralty Head, and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, just south of Port Townsend, the three forts formed a “triangle of fire” that would rain death on any enemy vessels attempting to enter Admiralty Inlet.

By 1904, the Point Wilson Light Station was threatened by erosion caused by winter storms, strong currents, and extreme wave action. The Lighthouse Service dumped 1,542 tons of large quarry rocks and riprap on the north side of the point, creating a 1,200-foot breakwater to protect the lighthouse and outbuildings. The damaged areas were refilled with sand and gravel. The Lighthouse Service also installed a backup boiler and fog whistle at the station.

In February 1905, the Point Wilson Light Station was connected to Port Townsend’s freshwater supply through Fort Worden. Before, the station keepers had to depend on collecting rainwater from the sheds and buildings for the household and for the boilers. During seasons when rainfall was light, barrels of water had to be brought to the station in barges.

A New Lighthouse

As maritime traffic increased around Puget Sound and through Admiralty Inlet, the importance of the Point Wilson Light Station grew. In 1910, the newly created Bureau of Lighthouses finally received appropriations to build much-needed lighthouses in Puget Sound. The Lighthouse Service decided to replace the aging wooden tower on Point Wilson, and in 1914, built a 46-foot tall octagonal concrete and masonry tower with an attached fog signal building, just east of the original structure on the most exposed part of the point. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed from the old tower and installed in the new lighthouse.

The new beacon, with its focal plane at the height of 51 feet, was the tallest on Puget Sound. Electricity had arrived at Point Wilson in 1907, and the incandescent oil vapor lamp illuminating the lantern was replaced with a 120-watt electric bulb. The steam-powered fog whistle was retired from service, replaced by a new chime diaphone foghorn, activated by compressed air. After the lighthouse became operational, the wooden tower was removed from the roof of the station keeper’s residence. The house was remodeled and continued to be used as a home for the families stationed there.

Tragedy at Point Wilson

At 12:04 a.m. on Friday, April 1, 1921, Point Wilson was the scene of a tragic accident when the 417-foot passenger liner S. S. Governor, traveling inbound to Seattle from San Francisco with 240 passengers and crew members, collided with the freighter S. S. West Hartland, departing Port Townsend for India. Although the night was clear, the Governor’s pilot mistook the West Hartland’s running lights for fixed lights on Marrowstone Point and failed to yield the right-of-way. The West Hartland’s bow struck the starboard side of the Governor amidships, ripping a 10-foot gash in her side. As the Governor began taking on water, West Hartland’s captain managed to keep the ships together and the hole plugged for several minutes while the Governor’s passengers and crew abandoned ship.

Point Wilson’s station keeper William J. Thomas, hearing the ship's whistles and sounds of the collision, telephoned authorities in Port Townsend with the information and rescue efforts were immediately organized. While most of the passengers manned the lifeboats, many were able to climb from the mortally wounded Governor onto the bow of the West Hartland before the vessels drifted apart. The Governor sank within 30 minutes in 240 feet of water, one mile off Point Wilson, with a loss of eight lives. Escorted by the tugboat Warrior, the West Hartland steamed slowly to Seattle with all the survivors on board. The Governor’s pilot house, ripped off while sinking, was towed into Port Townsend’s harbor the following morning.

War Years

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, allowed to remain in their jobs until retirement, were gradually replaced with Coast Guard personnel.

During World War II (1941-1945), the Point Wilson light was turned off, as a defense for nearby Fort Worden and Puget Sound area. Strategically located, Fort Worden was the headquarters of the Harbor Defense Command that monitored new underwater sonar and sensing devices and radar sites, and coordinated Canadian and U. S. defensive activities in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Fort Worden was home to the 14th Coast Artillery Regiment of the regular army, the 248th Regiment of the Washington National Guard, the 2nd Amphibious Engineers, and miscellaneous Navy personnel.

Fort Worden After the War

In June 1953, the Harbor Defense Command was deactivated and Fort Worden was officially closed, ending 51 years of military jurisdiction. On July 1, 1957, the State of Washington purchased Fort Worden for $127,533 for use as a diagnostic and treatment center for troubled youths.

On March 24, 1971, the Point Wilson Lighthouse was officially designated as an historic place by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. EO 003). This same year, the lighthouse was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places (listing No. 71000870) maintained by the National Park Service.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired most of Fort Worden on September 30, 1971, when the state closed the juvenile treatment center. The 433.53-acre Fort Worden State Park and Conference Center was opened and dedicated on August 18, 1973. Since that time, the Washington State Parks has made the fort's buildings available as conference facilities and recreation housing, and developed full-service camping and recreational facilities at the beach. On March 15, 1974, the National Park Service listed Fort Worden on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District (listing No. 7400194). and a designated National Historic Landmark.

During the 1960s, the Coast Guard constructed additional housing on Point Wilson for the 10-man crew of the 82-foot patrol boat Point Bennett (WPB-82351) stationed in Port Townsend. In the 1970s the Coast Guard erected a 90-foot radar/radio signal tower east of the lighthouse, enabling the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service to monitor and guide ships in north Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In November 1976, the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse and fog signal and installed a radio-beacon transmitting a signal used in locating a ship’s position. Although Coast Guard personnel from Seattle maintained the optic and navigational aids, the Point Bennett’s crew was responsible for the station’s general maintenance.

In February 1999, the Point Bennett was decommissioned, replaced in June 1999 by the new 87-foot cutter Osprey (WPB-87307) built at Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, Louisiana. The Coast Guard continues (in 2004) to use the three government-owned houses at the Point Wilson Light Station to billet the Osprey’s 10-man crew.

Today (2004) the Point Wilson Lighthouse, using the fourth-order Fresnel lens installed in 1914, operates 24 hours a day. The lens, at 51 feet above grade, is illuminated by a 1,000-watt quartz lamp that produces a 60,000 candlepower beam visible for 16 miles. The beacon’s unusual signal is characterized by a fixed white light on a 20-second cycle; on for 15 seconds, off for 5 seconds with one red flash during the dark period. In the event of a power failure, a battery-powered light, located on the outside of the tower, flashes white every six seconds. An electric foghorn, sounding one three-second blast every 30 seconds, is activated by automatic sensors that detect moisture in the air.

All the systems at Point Wilson are monitored by computer at the U. S. Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles, but maintenance of the light, foghorn, and specialized navigational equipment is the responsibility of the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Branch located at Pier 36 in Seattle.

The Point Wilson Light Station is still under the ownership and control of the Coast Guard Station, and not open the public. Including the point, Fort Worden State Park has more than two miles of shoreline on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the lighthouse is easily viewed from the nearby sandy beach. Meanwhile, Washington State Parks and Recreation is working with local members of Congress and the Coast Guard to acquire possession of the entire Point Wilson Light Station for the public’s enjoyment.


Sources: Jim Gibbs, Twilight on the Lighthouses (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996); James Hermanson, Rural Jefferson County: Its Heritage and Maritime History (Port Townsend: James S. Hermanson, 2002); James Hermanson and Peter Simpson, Port Townsend: Years That Are Gone (Port Townsend: Quimper Press, 1980); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Seattle: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca’s Strait (Portland, OR: Binfords and Mort, 1937); Sharlene P. and Ted W. Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Publishing, 1990, 1998); Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones, Pacific Northwest Lighthouses (Guilford, CT: The Globe Piquet Press, 2000); “D. M. Littlefield Passes Away,” Port Townsend Daily Leader, October 17, 1913, p. 4; “West Hartland Had Right Of Way When She Rammed Liner,” The Seattle Times, April 1, 1921, p. 1; “Ten Lives Lost When Governor Went Down,” Ibid., April 2, 1921, p. 1; “Death List Down to Eight,” Ibid., April 5, 1921, p. 16; “Fort Worden-The Park,” Fort Worden Website accessed February 2004 (www.fortworden.org); “Inventory of Historic Light Stations; Washington; Point Wilson Light,” National Park Service Website accessed February 2004 (www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/light/ptwilson.htm); “National Register of Historical Places; Washington; Jefferson County,” National Register of Historical Places Website accessed February 2004 (www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com); “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation Website accessed February 2004 (www.oahp.wa.gov); “Point Wilson Lighthouse,” Keep the Lights Shining Website accessed February 2003 (www.angelfire.com/va3/keepthelightsshining).
Note: The date of the lighthouse was corrected to 1914 on September 6, 2012.

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