Monday, September 21, 2015

The Light in the Northwest Corner--Cape Flattery

MARCH 24, 2003--
          Raindrops pelted the windshield of the helicopter as I made my way to Cape Flattery Lighthouse, a lonely sentry on Tatoosh Island marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is the most northwestern bit of land in the lower forty-eight states. My pilot, based in Olympia, didn’t know much about lighthouses but assured me I would enjoy my visit to this one.  He had been there once to deliver a researcher doing bird studies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  On this day, he had a lighthouse nut on his hands.

The chopper jostled lightly in the thermals above Olympic National Forest, then bounced energetically as we flew off the coast.  The staggering beauty of rock stacks, arches, and sea caves left me breathless.  AA counterpane of brown and beige dots appeared ahead. I squinted to see what it was--a herd of elk grazing on a treed hillside, their pillow-like butts pointed toward the insistent wind that swayed the grasses and buffeted the helicopter. There must have 300 of them! Roosevelt Elk.
Moments later, Tatoosh Island came into view, eighteen surreal acres draped in the sunbreaks and leaden clouds of a blustery spring day in the Pacific Northwest.

As we drew nearer, I noticed that many of the station’s buildings were in disarray or missing entirely.  At one time, this was a busy island with about forty residents – lightkeepers, navy personnel, weather service forecasters, and lots of children, so many kids that a schoolhouse had to be built.  Today, it looked desolate, uninhabited except by seabirds. In fact, a bald eagle was perched on top of the old flagpole, as if surveying his realm.

The helicopter descended and touched down lightly on the large X in the middle of the helopad.  I jumped out, ducked my head, and cleared the blades, allowing the pilot to take off again for Neah Bay where he would pick up three members of the Makah tribe who own the island and would give me a tour.  A brief and intense rain shower forced me to take shelter under the eaves of the foghouse while I waited.  It was gone minutes later, and sunshine bathed the island.  Everything glistened with magical wet sheen.

About to land on the helopad at Cape Flattery Lighthouse!

The helo-pilot returns with members of the Makah tribe.

Makah ancestors named the island for a legendary chief, Tatooche, a great seal hunter.  The tribe processed fish, seals, and whales on its northeast beach and grew potatoes on the flat top.  When the government decided to build a lighthouse on Tatoosh Island in 1855, the Makah signed a peace treaty and provided assistance to the work crew.  The tower cost $39,000 and was lit December 28, 1856.  The Indians continued to help out by bringing supplies and mail in their canoes, but the first three lightkeepers felt uneasy in this isolated place with only Indians for neighbors, and soon they resigned. 
Chief Tatooche, drawing from the University of Washington Special Collections.

It was a matter of cultural ignorance, according to Jeanine Bowchop, head of the Makah tribal council.  “The early keepers simply didn’t understand the Makah way of life,” she told me after she arrived and we walked the grounds together.  Later, lightkeepers would not only accept the Makah but happily join in their potlatches and dances.  Much of the tribe’s history since 1856 commingled with that of the lighthouse and its keepers. In fact, Old Doctor was a well-known Makah who paddled his canoe out to Tatoosh island to deliver mail and supplies to the keepers.

Principal Keeper John Cowan, seated, and his assistant keepers posed in dress uniforms for a photo in front of the Cape Flattery Lighthouse circa 1920. Photo from the Coast Guard Museum Northwest

The brick and stone tower wore a worn and weary countenance on this day, belying its distinction as one of the Washington Territory's oldest sentinels, a guardian on the gateway to Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, and Tacoma.  I inspected it closely and found it sound, but much in need of repairs and a facelift.  The foghouse still stands, but it's disheveled.  The derrick is a shambles, and the old concrete radio compass and decoding station has collapsed into a pile of rubble.  On the island’s southeast side is a little cemetery. Two graves are surrounded by daffodils and a picket fence.

The Coast Guard maintains the beacon in good working order, and the graves are groomed, but the grounds and buildings have had little attention since automation in 1977. This is often the case at offshore lighthouses.  Away from public view, they fall into decay easily and become the targets of vandals.

The ten second delay on my camera allowed me to take this image of myself crouched on the ruins of the old weather station. It was an amazing weather day on the island, with everything from rain and sleet to sunshine--a typical spring day on the island.

The helicopter pilot snapped this image of me with three of the Makah. Jeanine Bowchop is on the right. It was windy everywhere on the island!

The Makah have expressed interest in acquiring the lighthouse when it is excessed by the Coast Guard.  “It’s an important part of our heritage,” Jeanine Bowchop told me before we departed Tatoosh.  “We want to preserve it as much as any other part of our tribal history.”  She added that this site is not easily accessed, and the lighthouse may never serve as a museum or inn.  But it should be saved.  “We don’t want the birds here to become extinct and that goes for the lighthouse too.”
Footnote--This article was written for a newsletter at least a decade ago. Since then, the Coast Guard has done repairs to the light tower. It also removed the beacon in the lighthouse and transferred it to a post on the seaward edge of the island. The lighthouse was relinguished to the Makah tribe a few years ago.
I was able to locate some historic images and some descendants of people who worked on the island years ago. Below are some photos they gave me.
Workers at Cape Flattery Lighthouse in 1872, sent out to construct a new fog signal building. Courtesy of Coast Guard Museum Northwest.
A view of Tatoosh Island in 1914 shows the many buildings on the island by this time. It's easy to see what an obstacle the island was and is to shipping entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, seen in the background. The mountains of Vancouver Island appear on the horizon in the background. To the right is the Washington mainland. Photo from the Coast Guard Museum Northwest.
This unnamed couple lived at the lighthouse sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. (I judge it to be 1960s based on the optic seen in the lantern.) This image was found in the collection of the Coast Guard Museum Northwest but had no information on the back.
Doris Smith of Brookings, Oregon gave me this photo from the early 1930s of she (left) and her sister Marion at Tatoosh Island as little girls. Their father was an assistant lightkeeper at the time.
Lois Melville of Anacortes, Washington provided this image of the light station in the late 1930s. Her father was assigned duty at the Weather Station. Notice the water tower to provide water for the boilers than ran the fog signal. Also, to the right of the water tower is the school house and two privies--one for girls and one for boys. A cow was grazing in the field. Lois Melville said there was a chicken coop too, and a pig sty.
Getting on and off the island was treacherous. Donna Shinney of Portland, Oregon gave me this shot of her father in the hoist crate being hauled up from the beach to the light station. He was on duty at the lighthouse in the early 1950s.
The Coast Guard continues to operate the post beacon. The on-demand fog signal can be activated by mariners using a special radio frequency. U.S. Fish & Wildlife allow bird research on the island, but for the most part it is a lonely, seldom-visited place these days.
 To see the lighthouse, drive the winding road to Neah Bay and follow signs to the Cape Flattery lookout. There's a pay-parking area and a trail that leads to an overlook. It's a sobering view of one of the most exposed lighthouses in the nation. But it's dramatic, so much so that couple like to get married there and photographers hunger for a strong storm so they can get snapshots of the waves beating the island.
In need of TLC.

1 comment:

  1. Just returned from a trip to the peninsula from IL. Cape Flattery was a fabulous hike and has prompted further reading. Thanks for sharing your experience and the fantastic historical photos.


I welcome your comments, photos, stories, etc.!