New Dungeness Light Station

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/04/2004
  • Essay 7066
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The New Dungeness Light Station, built in 1857 is the second oldest lighthouse in Washington state. It marks the end of Dungeness Spit, the longest natural sand spit in the world, extending approximately six miles northeast from the mainland into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From the sea, this low-lying sandy shoal is barely visible, making it an extreme hazard to shipping. Even with a beacon and fog signal, numerous vessels have run aground there. Located in Clallam County, the New Dungeness Lighthouse continues to be an important aid to navigation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Early Sightings and First Names

New Dungeness Spit is situated on the Olympic Peninsula in northeastern Clallam County, approximately 12 miles east of Port Angeles and five miles north of Sequim. On July 8, 1790, the Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper landed here and named the bluff behind the spit, Punta de Santa Cruz and the bay, Puerto de Quimper. Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Navy named this area New Dungeness on April 30, 1792, because he thought this low sandy point of land resembled Dungeness, a low promontory that lies at the southernmost point of Kent in the Straits of Dover.

The S’Klallam Indians called New Dungeness Spit, Tsi-tsa-kwick and the bay, Tses-kut. Local residents named one arm of the long sandbar Graveyard Spit because 17 Tsimshian (Chimsean) Indians from British Columbia were supposedly buried there following a massacre by S’Klallam Indians in 1868. Mariners nicknamed the barely visible sandbar Shipwreck Spit for good reason as numerous vessels had run aground on the outside beach. A local name for the New Dungeness area was Whiskey Flat.

To Build a Lighthouse

In 1848, the Congressional Act that created the Oregon Territory specified Cape Disappointment and New Dungeness as potential sites for a lighthouses. In 1850, Congress appropriated funds for the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment to build 16 lighthouses on the West Coast, but the Treasury Department re-allocated most of those funds into other projects. Finally, in August 1854, Congress allotted $39,000 to build lighthouses at both Cape Flattery and New Dungeness. In 1855, the U.S. Coast Survey recommended the lighthouse be located on New Dungeness Spit. Further delays were caused in the mid-1850s by Indian hostilities.

Under the supervision of Lighthouse Service engineer Isaac Smith and the Army Corps of Engineers, construction of the light station near the tip of New Dungeness Spit finally began in 1856. With inclement weather and the difficulty of getting supplies to the remote site, it took Smith a year and a half to complete the project. The lighthouse, designed by renowned U.S. Lighthouse Service architect Ammi B. Young, was a one-and-a-half-story Cape Cod style keeper's dwelling with a conical tower rising from the center. The lighthouse foundation was built of two-foot thick Chuckanut Sandstone blocks shipped from Bellingham. Bricks and stucco were used to finish the structure. When completed, the light tower rose 91 feet above the spit, and 100 feet above sea level. The lower half of the tower was painted white and the upper half black, making it an effective day marker. The tower, surmounted by a red lantern, was equipped with a fixed third-order Fresnel Lens made in 1855 by Henri LePaute of Paris. The new beacon was said to be visible for 18 miles. The lighthouse dwelling remained unpainted.

A fog bell was located northeast of the lighthouse on the outer extremity of the point. The 1,200-pound bronze bell was cast in 1855 at the J. Bernhard foundry in Philadelphia. The striking mechanism, housed in the fog signal building, was a 1,440-pound device called a Gamewell Fog Bell Striking Apparatus, manufactured by the John N. Gamewell Company, Newton, Massachusetts. The Gamewell apparatus used a complex system of descending weights to ring the bell with a sledgehammer, and had to be rewound every 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the apparatus was unreliable and often broke down, requiring the light keepers to strike the bell manually with hammers for endless hours. During foggy weather at New Dungeness, the bell was supposed ring five times at intervals of 10 seconds.

One disadvantage of the site in early years was the lack of fresh water, which had to be barged two and a half miles from the town of New Dungeness. This was somewhat remedied by installing a water shed and cistern to collect rainwater. Other facilities built at the station included a privy and a boathouse, as almost all of the travel to the mainland was accomplished by small boat.

First Keepers

The New Dungeness Lighthouse was commissioned on December 14, 1857, two weeks ahead of its near twin at Cape Flattery on Tatoosh Island. Franklin Tucker and John Tibbals of Port Townsend were temporarily assigned to tend the New Dungeness light until Captain Thomas Boyling, the assigned lighthouse keeper, and Henry H. Blake (1837-1871), his assistant, arrived back from California. Captain Boyling was master of the schooner Williamantic hauling lumber from Port Ludlow to San Francisco; Blake may have been a crew member.

They arrived at New Dungeness on February 11, 1858, to relieve Tucker and Tibbals. Captain Boyling apparently decided he preferred being a sea captain to being responsible for a remote lighthouse, for as of March 1, 1858, Henry H. Blake was listed as the principal keeper at the New Dungeness Light Station. The 1860 U.S. Census for Clallam County shows Henry H. Blake, age 23, as the “light keeper” and his brother Walter J. Blake, age 18, as the “assistant keeper” at the New Dungeness Lighthouse; Boyling is not listed.

On August 20, 1862, Henry Blake married Mary Anne McDonnell, the daughter of Richard McDonnell, a farmer who lived at the base of the spit and she became the assistant lighthouse keeper. Mary Anne’s father died soon after and her mother, Mary, and three brothers, John, Richard, and Joseph, took up residency at the light station. While serving at the New Dungeness Light Station, the Blakes had three children; Catherine, Richard Henry, and Clara. Later, daughters Mary Ellen and Hanna were born.

Henry Blake was officially relieved of his duties by Jacob J. Rodgers (or Rogers) on September 18, 1868, but apparently didn’t leave the station right away. Consequently, the Blakes were still living at the New Dungeness Light Station when “Dungeness Massacre,” the last major bloodletting among the Indians in this area, took place.

Death on the Spit

Just before dawn on September 21, 1868, a band of 26 S’Klallam Indians conducted a raid on a party of 18 Tsimshian Indians camped on New Dungeness Spit waiting for daylight and good weather before making the 22-mile journey north, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island. During the attack, 17 Tsimshians were killed and one, a pregnant woman, was wounded and left for dead. The injured woman managed to make it to the lighthouse, where the Blakes gave her refuge. Later, Henry Blake took the woman to the home of Benjamin Rainey, whose wife was from the Tsimshian tribe.

The Tsimshian murder victims were buried on a branch of the spit that became known as Graveyard Spit. After about six weeks, the woman recovered her health and was sent home to Fort Simpson, near Prince Rupert, B.C., aboard the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Otter.

Henry Blake and family apparently left New Dungeness Spit sometime after the massacre, relieved by Jacob J. Rodgers, his wife Ester, and George K. Smith and his daughters Mary and Ella. The 1870 U.S. Census for Clallam County shows that Ester E. Rodgers and Mary L. Smith were assistant lighthouse keepers at New Dungeness and Henry Blake took up logging for a living. He died in 1871 in Port Townsend.

On May 18, 2000, the U. S. Coast Guard commissioned the 175-foot cutter Henry Blake (WLM 563), the 13th of the Keeper Class of Coastal Buoy Tenders named in honor of notable lighthouse keepers. The Henry Blake’s home port is Everett, Washington.

The Spit Becomes an Island

On December 2, 1871, the Pacific Northwest was struck by gale winds causing a large breach to occur in the New Dungeness Spit west of the light station and washing away 100 feet of beach on the eastern tip. The lighthouse was now temporarily situated on an island. Eventually, silt from the New Dungeness River and sand washed up from the Strait of Juan de Fuca filled in the gap and the light station became accessible by land once again. Weather has always been an important factor for the New Dungeness Light Station, eroding beaches and damaging structures. In the near past, the spit has been breached by storms in 1971, 1975, 1993, 1996, and 1997.

In 1873, Congress appropriated $8,000 for an improved fog signal. In 1874, a fog signal building, housing a coal-fired boiler and steam-operated 12-inch fog whistle, was built 450 feet northeast of the lighthouse. A large water shed and two additional cisterns, with a capacity of 35,000 gallons, were built to collect fresh rain water for the steam whistle’s boiler. The whistle blew 600 to 700 hours per year and the keepers had to feed the boiler about 40 gallons of water and 200 pounds of coal for every hour of operation.

Living and Working

Recognizing the difficulty of moving tons of coal from the beach one quarter mile to the coal house and tending the fog whistle, the Lighthouse Board assigned a second assistant keeper to the New Dungeness Light Station and built a tramway connecting the beach and boathouse to the fog signal building and lighthouse, making it easier to move supplies in bulk.

But ships continued to run aground on New Dungeness Spit. From the time that records began being kept in the 1850s, over 20 ships have been wrecked there. Many of the vessels that merely ran aground with no significant damage, were refloated at high tide and never recorded.

In April 1880, the New Dungeness fog bell and striking apparatus were moved to the Point No Point Light Station and put into service and the old fog signal building was razed. In 1884, the original lard-oil lamp was replaced with a Haines kerosene lamp. In 1894, the Lighthouse Service built a separate corrugated iron oil house to store the flammable kerosene and moved the boathouse and tramway west of the original site.

With three station keepers assigned to New Dungeness Spit, housing was tight. In 1895, the Lighthouse Service requested funding for a new house for the head station keeper. By 1900, the Lighthouse Board reported that four keepers were now billeted at the New Dungeness Light Station and a new dwelling was urgently needed. Finally in April 1904, Congress appropriated funds for the project. In January 1905, a large Georgian Style, one-and-a-half story, three-bedroom house was finished at a cost of about $5,000. In 1906, the original lighthouse keeper's dwelling was remodeled and converted into a duplex with a new wing added.

Also, a new wharf with a boathouse was constructed. In 1907, a new fog-signal building was constructed to house two 25-horsepower kerosene engines and air compressors for two six-inch fog sirens to replace the old steam whistle.

A Stuck Steamship

On evening of October 6, 1914, the 160-foot inland steamer S.S. Sioux, belonging to the Puget Sound Navigation Company (known as the Black Ball Line), was traveling from Port Angeles to Seattle in dense fog when she ran aground on New Dungeness Spit near the fog signal building. When the fog lifted, keeper Edward A. Brooks was surprised to find a vessel high and dry on the sandbar. Brooks helped the passengers and crew disembark the steamship and brought them to the lighthouse until arrangements could be made for transportation to the mainland. The Sioux remained on the beach for nearly a week. Then on October 12, 1914, the tugboats Tyee and Bahada, dispatched from Seattle by the Pacific Coast Tugboat Company, pulled the ship off the spit at high tide. The Sioux, none the worse for wear, was soon back in service.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson declared the New Dungeness Spit area to be a wild bird reservation with public access permitted. Today, the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, under the management and protection of the Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife Service, provides a habitat for hundreds of species of birds as well as land and marine mammals. Portions of the refuge, to include Graveyard Spit, are closed to provide sanctuary for wildlife during critical feeding, resting, and nesting times.

In the 1920s, cracks in the 91-foot light tower’s masonry work began developing due to natural deterioration and the concussions from Canadian artillery guns conducting target practice at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. As a result, the tower became unsafe and a major renovation was necessary. In 1927, under the supervision of Lighthouse Service engineer Clarence Sherman, the tower was reduced in height to 63 feet. This drastic change necessitated a new iron lantern and lens.

To conserve money, the lantern from the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, decommissioned in 1922, was removed and installed on the newly shortened New Dungeness lighthouse. The lantern from Admiralty Head came without its fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens. The New Dungeness lighthouse's original fixed third-order lens, too large for Admiralty Head’s lantern, was replaced with a rotating fourth-order Fresnel lens with six flash panels made in 1897 by Barbier & Bernard of Paris. Neither the disposition of the original third-order lens nor the origin of the fourth-order lens is known.

The remodeled lighthouse was painted the traditional white with a red roof and sea-green trim. Some of the original bricks removed from the old tower can stil be found scattered around the grounds.

More Improvements

In 1930, an artesian well 665 feet deep was drilled on the spit between the lighthouse and head keeper’s house, providing the light station with a constant supply of fresh water. In 1934, the Lighthouse Service constructed a cement transformer building and laid an armored marine cable across New Dungeness bay, bringing electricity to the light station. The incandescent oil vapor lamp illuminating the lantern was replaced with a 120-watt electric bulb.

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. They were gradually replaced with Coast Guard personnel who were generally assigned to lighthouse duty for only one year until rotated to sea duty.

In 1940, the two six-inch fog sirens were replaced by compressed-air-activated diaphone fog trumpets. During World War II (1941-1945) radio direction finder (RDF) equipment was installed on the spit to replace radio beacons installed by the Navy in 1922 and 1936. In addition to patrolling the beaches, the Coast Guard built and staffed a 35-foot watch tower northeast of the light station to watch for suspicious activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In November 1975, the U.S. Coast Guard automated the lighthouse and fog signal on New Dungeness Spit. The fourth-order Fresnel lens, installed in 1927, was replaced with a modern DCB-24 aerobeacon. That light was subsequently upgraded in 1989 with an FA-251AG marine beacon and in 1998 with a VRB-25 Marine Rotating Beacon. The new light, which uses a 100-watt tungsten halogen bulb, is 10 times brighter than the old fourth-order Fresnel lens and visible for 22 nautical miles. It operates 24 hours a day, flashing white every five seconds. Burnt-out bulbs are replaced automatically and in the event of a power failure, an emergency light, powered by 12-volt solar-cell batteries, has been placed outside the tower on the lantern gallery. The original fourth-order Fresnel lens from New Dungeness is currently on display at the Coast Guard Museum Northwest on Pier 36 in Seattle.

The diaphone fog trumpets were replaced in 1971 with dual electric ELG-300/04 foghorns and relocated 200 yards east of the lighthouse. These were subsequently replaced in 1998 with electric FA-232 foghorns powered by three 12-volt solar-cell batteries and moved to the roof of the transformer building. Automatic sensors that detect moisture in the air activate the foghorns. If the visibility drops to one mile, the horn will sound one three-second blast every 30 seconds.

After automation, staffing at the light station was reduced from three keepers to one keeper and his family living in the 1905 keeper's house. The brick lighthouse dwelling was vacated and has not been occupied since that time. The station keeper was relegated to maintaining the buildings and grounds, and to conducting tours. In 1980, Seaman Jeni Burr, assigned to the New Dungeness Light Station with her husband Eric, was one of only two Coast Guard women ever assigned as a lighthouse keeper.

A Historic Lighthouse

On November 11, 1993, the New Dungeness Light Station 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-01). On this same date, the light station was added to the National Register of Historic Places (listing No. 93001338) maintained by the National Park Service.

In March 1994, the Coast Guard decided to close the New Dungeness Light Station, leaving Boston Lighthouse (established 1716) the last remaining Coast Guard staffed lighthouse in the country. Seaman Seth Jackson and his wife Michelle were the last government keepers at New Dungeness. The Coast Guard planned to board up the lighthouse, keepers' quarters and outbuildings to keep out vandals during the search for a permanent caretaker. Fortunately, the New Dungeness Chapter of the U. S. Lighthouse Society had been organized and agreed to accept stewardship of the 32.5-acre reservation. The Coast Guard issued the U.S. Lighthouse Society a license beginning September 1994, to staff and maintain the facility, but retained control of the light, foghorns, and other navigational aids. In the interim, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteered to keep the light station open. On September 3, 1994, the U.S. Lighthouse Society began to staff the station year-round, 24 hours a day, with their “lighthouse keepers program.” The Chapter reincorporated in 2001 as the New Dungeness Light Station Association.

Enthusiasts who join the New Dungeness Light Station Association can pay a fee and become lighthouse keepers for one week. The proceeds go toward the restoration and maintenance of the buildings. Up to seven volunteer keepers are taken to the light station at low tide in a four-wheel drive vehicle, along with personal effects and provisions for one week. The keepers are responsible for cleaning and maintaining the buildings, keeping the grounds in good condition, maintaining the logbooks, and conducting tours.

Fire on the Spit

Fire has always been one of the greatest dangers at any light station. At about 9:00 p.m., July 11, 1999, New Dungeness volunteer lighthouse keepers noticed smoke from a driftwood fire about a mile and a half down the beach and went up to the lantern room to gauge how fast the fire was spreading. The fire, fueled by scrub vegetation, driftwood and a westerly 30-knot wind, appeared to be rapidly approaching the light station.

They immediately notified authorities and sensibly set about turning on all the lawn sprinklers between the barn and the metal helicopter pad to wet down the first place the fire would most likely reach. Within an hour of reporting it, the fire had progressed to within 100 yards of the light station. The Coast Guard responded from nearby Port Angeles with two helicopters to evacuate the eight volunteers but had to land behind the station as the landing pad was surrounded by fire. The National Park Service sent 19 firefighters to the spit by boat who were able to contain the fire until it ran off the end of the spit. Remarkably, the volunteers who set the sprinklers saved the buildings by causing the fire to burn around the station’s 1-acre grounds. Although the buildings had smoke damage, none were lost.

A Twenty-first Century Light and Fog Signal

Today (2005), all the systems at New Dungeness are monitored by computer at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Port Angeles, but maintenance of the light, foghorn, and navigational equipment is the responsibility of the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Branch located at Pier 36 in Seattle. Despite advances in navigation, including the Global Positioning Satellite System (GPSS), there is still a real need for the New Dungeness light and fog signal, especially for smaller, less sophisticated vessels.

The New Dungeness Lighthouse remains essentially the same as when it was remodeled in 1927. The Georgian-Style head keeper's house, built in 1905, has been restored to its original condition. The lighthouse and buildings are all painted the traditional white with red roofs and sea-green trim. The light station, originally built about 800 feet from the spit’s end, now sits over one-half mile west of the tip. The peninsula continues to grow 15 to 30 feet each year as silt from the New Dungeness River and sand accumulate at the east end.

Access to the New Dungeness Light Station is limited to hikers at low tide and boaters who can land on the beach. From the Dungeness Recreation Area parking lot, it’s a strenuous five and a half mile trek through the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge to reach the lighthouse, with only about 10 percent of the hikers making it there. Nevertheless, since 1994 the lighthouse has logged well over 35,000 visitors, who are always welcome.


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