Keepers of the Light -- The Settles Family at Lime Kiln Lighthouse (San Juan Island)

  • By Jan Anderson
  • Posted 12/18/2019
  • Essay 20942
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Arvel and Helga Settles, with their five children, spent seven years (1935-1942) as keepers at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island, in the Salish Sea between the Northwest Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island. Located on the west side of the western-most major island in the San Juans, the lighthouse faces across Haro Strait to Canada. Lime Kiln was the last of five West Coast lighthouses, including the Grays Harbor Lighthouse in Westport, where the family lived and worked from the time Arvel joined the United States Lighthouse Service in 1919. After he retired from the Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 1942, the family moved across the island to Friday Harbor. Helga and Arvel lived the rest of their lives on the island, where several of their children raised families, and many of their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren still call the island home. This People's History of the Settles family as keepers of the light is by Jan Anderson, daughter of Agnes Settles Murray and granddaughter of Helga and Arvel Settles.

Their First Lighthouse

Arvel Amos Settles and Helga Christina Linnea Lindquist met at church in Hammond, Oregon. Arvel was a soldier training at Fort Stevens during World War l. Helga's sister, Svea, told her, "You can have him -- he's too short for me!" He was quite short -- barely five feet three -- but Helga thought he was handsome in his uniform and they began dating, eventually marrying in 1918 when he came home from France. A son, Jack, was born in 1919 and daughter Evelyn in 1920. Jobs were scarce, but Arvel's cousin told him about a job at the Point Arguello, California, lighthouse as an assistant keeper. At that time, lighthouses were operated by the United States Lighthouse Service (Bureau of Lighthouses). Arvel accepted the job, which paid $83 a month, plus a furnished house and firewood. He and Helga didn't know what they were getting into, but away they went to their first lighthouse.

Point Arguello was a desolate place -- a post no one else wanted -- far from any town and often cold and foggy. Another daughter, Eleanor, was born at Point Arguello in 1922. In September 1923, during the family's time there, a severe storm, unusual currents, and heavy fog brought seven naval destroyers onto the rocks despite the lighthouse and fog horns. Arvel was able to save five people, but 23 sailors died, and the Settles family tended to those brought ashore. It was a night Arvel and Helga would never forget. It became known as the Honda Point disaster.

Point Arena, Desdemona, and Grays Harbor

Later in 1923 the family moved to the lighthouse at Point Arena, California, which was much less isolated. Helga learned to drive a car and could transport the children to school as well as do shopping in town. Another son, Charles, was born there in 1925.

Wanting to be closer to their parents in Oregon, the couple transferred a few years later to the Desdemona Lighthouse, located on a small island at the mouth of the Columbia River. Arvel would row out to the lighthouse and be gone for a week at a time. The family lived in Hammond, Oregon, which was nearby, but would often stay on the island during the summer.

The next posting was at the Grays Harbor Lighthouse in Westport, Washington, where the family spent nine years. Here Arvel earned about $120 a month plus housing. The fifth and last child, Agnes, was born in 1931. Lighthouse keepers worked hard, not only making sure the light was lit from dusk to dawn, but also maintaining the lighthouse, grounds, and facilities. There were usually two families at the lighthouses, which had a main keeper and an assistant. Each would work a 12-hour day, seven days a week, on alternating schedules. The families had to make sure their houses were always kept spotless as they never knew when a lighthouse inspector would arrive to run his fingers across the door sill.

The keepers also had to house engineers and other workers who came to service the lighthouse. These workers would stay anywhere from a week to a month. Helga would spend her time cleaning, washing clothes with a scrub board, baking, and caring for the five children. Since the keepers' houses were some of the few with indoor plumbing, two teachers from the local school came every Friday for their weekly bath and a hot meal. Besides hosting frequent guests, Helga also found time to dig clams for a seafood company (getting 7 cents a pound), work in the cranberry bogs, and make and deliver soup to the local school each day. Once a month the family would drive to Aberdeen in their Buick to get a supply of groceries. While there, they would take in a vaudeville show for 10 cents each and get ice cream treats. The family would have stayed at this post longer had it not been for younger son Charles, who suffered from severe asthma.

Move to Lime Kiln

Arvel and Helga heard about a job at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island, where the climate was drier, and decided to go there in 1935. They packed their belongings and five children in the car and drove from Westport to Anacortes, in Skagit County, to catch the ferry to Friday Harbor on the east side of San Juan Island, the only incorporated town in San Juan County. After driving off the ferry, they stopped at the drugstore to ask directions to the lighthouse and were told to follow the road until they couldn't go any farther. The washboard road was bumpy and dusty, and at the one-car wooden bridge around the head of Deadman Bay one would have to honk to make sure the road was free. The lighthouse was about 10 miles out of town along the island's western shore, and there were few other houses nearby, but occasionally there would be a traffic jam at the bridge!

The Lime Kiln Lighthouse was the last major lighthouse to be built in Washington (opening on June 30, 1919) and would be the last to be electrified (in 1951), but the Settles family loved the new location. Charles's asthma improved, too. Helga had flower and vegetable gardens, chickens, and a lovely home to tend to. The children enjoyed the beaches, woods, and hills.

There was a school bus that stopped about a mile away from the lighthouse, so the children walked there each day and waited on a big rock where the bus could turn around. On their way back home after school, they would stop at a small stream where they kept a cup to drink some fresh water. Once home, they enjoyed listening to programs on their battery-operated radio. Some of their favorites were The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and Amos and Andy. The children built treehouses, roller skated in the large basement, and made homemade root beer. They had a pet dog named Dane that followed them everywhere. One day a nearby farmer came by to tell them Dane had been chasing his sheep and he had to shoot him. They never got another pet after that.

Life at the Lighthouse

Arvel and the other keeper at Lime Kiln, Howard West, made a boat ramp to put their rowboat in the water to fish. There were also lots of commercial fishermen fishing close to the lighthouse and Helga would sometimes go out and wave to them to get a salmon or two. The children would often go out fishing in the rowboat also. Once Charles and Jack decided to row across Haro Strait to Canada. Helga spent most of the day with her binoculars watching them and worrying. When they returned, they just said, "It's the same there as here."

Helga's Swedish mother, Hilma Lindquist, lived with the family for many years after her husband died. She had immigrated to America in 1905 with Helga and her brother after her husband found a job in Oregon. She mostly spoke Swedish at home with Helga. She helped with the cooking and cleaning. Her specialties were Swedish meatballs, Swedish pancakes, and fruit soup. She would often get her violin out and play for the family and entertain the children with stories about Sweden. She also made many quilts for them out of the material from old clothing.

Since there was no electricity, the lighthouse had to be manually lit each night. The keepers would have to wind up the weights that revolved the lens. Kerosene was used to fuel the light. There were two lighthouse families living on site and Arvel and the other keeper took turns making sure the light was on and the fog horn was working when needed. Of course, they had to maintain the buildings and grounds for periodic inspections from the lighthouse service inspectors.

Every week Helga would spend one entire day baking for the family and visitors -- something she would continue to do even into her 90s. Sunday was the day for having visitors, so sponge cake and coffee were always ready to serve. Helga even welcomed strangers into her home. Occasionally, Native American fishermen would come to her door enticed by the smell of stew or fresh bread. She always made room for anyone hungry.

During the War

On December 7, 1941, the family was listening to the radio when an announcement came on that the Japanese military had attacked Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was soon at war with Japan and Germany. All the young men on the island wanted to go join the fight. The Settles' oldest son, Jack, enlisted in the navy and went to Guam. Charles also wanted to go, but he was only 17 and Arvel and Helga refused to approve. However, Charles kept at it until they finally gave in, and off he went to boot camp and on to Europe in the navy. Jack sent Agnes a grass skirt from Guam, and Charles sent her a pea coat and sailor cap. Charles was very homesick and wrote this letter to his younger sister (who he sometimes called Peaches):

Hi Agnes,
How are you and everyone else at home? I sure hope you all are o.k. Jack said dad wasn't feeling so good. I sure would like to know how he is now.
What kind of weather are you having now? Any big storms? Is the boat landing still good? Say Agnes do you see very many rabbits now? Has mom got any chickens now? Gee Agnes I sure do miss the old lighthouse and all you folks. I was thinking about you tonight Agnes so I had to write you and kinda make myself think I'm talking to you. I'll bet you brought some school work home tonight. Sure wish I could help you with it. But I know dad and mom will help you over the rough spots, huh. Do you help mom with the dishes now? I'll bet you do. …
I get to wear a propeller on my cuff of my dress blues. If I can get you a propeller I'll send it home for a souvenir of my progress from seaman to something else -- don't know yet. Haha --
Well sis, I guess there isn't much to say except I feel swell, weigh 145, run 2 miles each day, take a shower every day, sleep eight hours a night, eat three good meals a day, have plenty of money, warm clothes, and a swell room and radio. There is only one little thing wrong -- I'm too far away from you all.
Hope you answer this letter 'Peaches.' I'll be waiting for a letter sis.
Your loving brother,
Chuck Settles
P.S. Tell daddy, mom, and grandma hello for me. Tell grandma I wish I had some good old fruit soup now. Only got 4 weeks left here. I might get to come home."

During the war, the family served as "spotters" for Japanese planes, but they never saw one. At school, the students had drills in case something were to happen on the island. Everyone was asked to buy war bonds and get a ration book for gas and certain basic food items. Everyone wanted to do what they could to help. There was a Japanese family on the island who had many friends there, but they were required to leave and sent to an internment camp. This was very sad for everyone.

After the war ended, Jack and Charles came home safely. Some island men did not. Charles returned home with a beautiful woman, Florence Dunn, who he met and married while in New York. Jack came home to his lovely island sweetheart, Laura Sontron.

Keepers of the Light

The United States Coast Guard had taken over from the Lighthouse Service in 1939, and Arvel happily joined the Coast Guard. However, because of health reasons, he had to retire from the lighthouse in 1942 and the family moved into town. After getting his health problems under control, Arvel worked for Washington State Ferries for several years. He died in 1964. Helga lived on in Friday Harbor until 1997 and died at the age of 97. Even at that advanced age, she always kept coffee at the ready, Swedish brown beans on the stove, cookies in the cookie jar, and pies on the counter. Needless to say, her house was a central meeting place for family and friends. She left many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren on the island. Evelyn and Eleanor moved to Seattle and both met their husbands there. When Agnes grew up, she married an island boy, Norman Murray, and remained on the island they both loved.

The Settles family worked from 1919 to 1942 at five different lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States, making sure the beacons were lit and the fog horns heard to guide mariners safely on their journeys. They were truly "keepers of the light."

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