Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Memories of Slip Point Lighthouse

Some years back, a group of us in the Washington lighthouse community organized a lighthouse keepers' reunion. It was held in Silverdale at a hotel and was well-attended. I put together a booklet of keepers' memories and had it printed and bound. At the reunion dinner, I met Joan Miller whose husband had served at the Slip Point Lighthouse at Clallam Bay in the early 1960s. By that time, the old wooden lighthouse was gone--taken by a landslide in the wet winter of 1940. 

When Slip Point Lighthouse was first built, it was only a fog signal with a lens lantern propped on a shelf (seen on the right side of the building with a ladder accessing it). Photo from 1904 in the collection of the Coast Guard Historian.
As shipping lanes became busy in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a wooden light tower was added to the west side of the fog signal building and a fourth order lens replaced the lens-lantern.

In its place was a pole beacon, which later gave way to a skeleton beacon with a dayboard on it. 

The lighthouse still appears in this image, but it had been deactivated due to the threat of erosion. The bridge walkway can be seen behind the box structure holding the beacon. Photo taken by the Coast Guard in 1951.

Here is Joan's account of life at Slip Point--



            On December 31, 1961, my husband and I along with our two young sons, moved into the Slip Point Light Station at Clallam Bay, Washington.  We had just come from a very active search and rescue Coast Guard station at Hammond, Oregon and my husband was anxious to have a less dangerous responsibility and activity level for awhile.  I was expecting our third child in late February. 

Snow at Slip Point on Feb.29, 1963. Photo courtesy of Joan Miller.

            We had other friends that were at light stations and had heard that life at a light station could be serene and pleasant, but that there were certain demands that were required of both the Coast Guard personnel and their wives.  I was told that the house was to be ready for inspection at all times which was supposedly even more important since my husband was the officer-in-charge.

            Slip Point did not have the traditional light house sitting on a hill or bluff as the first one had fallen into the sea many years before our duty began.  Instead, we had a walkway out onto the reef with a light on the end that also included a fog signal.  However, our house, a large duplex was in the typical lighthouse style.  Three stories, many windows, and beautiful cherry wood furniture supposedly made years before in the prison system.

            On a clear and beautiful Monday afternoon on January 29, 1962, my husband was asleep upstairs after serving on the night watch and our two boys were outside playing.  The station's Seaman knocked at the door all excited and said we were being invaded.  He had heard shells going overhead and was able to convince me that we were in fact being shelled. I got the boys in the house right away.  The next task was to rouse my husband and tell him. 

            The news was hard to believe and he was hard to persuade, but he agreed to get up and see what was going on.  As it turned out, yes we were being shelled, by accident of course, but by the Canadian Navy who had sent a drone plane out over the Straits so that their ships could practice firing two or three pound "dud" shells at the plane.  Unfortunately, the plane went over our reef and the shells followed.  One hit the Clallam Bay school yard five minutes before school was let out.  A brass detonator landed a few feet from a fellow in town who was digging in his garden.  A shell did hit one house and knocked off a few shingles.  Another landed embedded in a log that someone was able to locate.  All of these items were gathered up and ended up on my kitchen counter while we waited for our US Naval munitions to arrive and check everything out. 

            Lots of excitement and an international event was prevented, but none of us quite got over the close call of nearly being hit with one of those practice bombs.        
Our length of service lasted only 18 months as my husband found that he really missed search and rescue.  Due to a number of incidents, I also agreed that this was not the quiet life we had envisioned and I was glad to move on.  So, in June of 1963, we moved to Cape Disappointment station in Ilwaco, Washington and one of the busiest search and rescue stations in the US.

Joan E. Miller
wife of CWO-4 Willis Paul Miller

Paul passed away in 1977 after serving in the Coast Guard for 23 years.

I flew over Slip Point about ten years ago and took some photos. All that remains are the concrete walkway supports. You can see them in the images below. They trail off to the east and into the water. That's because the sites of the wooden lighthouse and the pole beacons that followed are now underwater. The Coast Guard gave up on a light for the point years ago and settled on an offshore buoy.

The quarters, which were at the time of the photo occupied by the local sheriff.

Remains of the concrete foundation of the raided walkway.

The concrete walkway remnants trail into the water now. The site of the original lighthouse is far out in the strait. Bruce Robie photo.
In recent years, the town of Clallam has expressed interest in rebuilding the old wooden lighthouse. Its return, along with refurbishment of the quarters to their 1930s glory, it would bring many visitors to the area and bolster its economy. The shore here is beyond description, with rock formations and scenic views. Drive another hour or two west and you can see the Cape Flattery Lighthouse via a boardwalk trail and visit the Makah Cultural Museum. The fishing is good on this coast, and there's camping at several parks. The 6-mile round-trip hike to Cape Alava will take you to the westernmost point on the Lower Forty-Eight West Coast. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. My Mom was correct, it wasn't quite as quiet as they had envisioned. I would have been in Kindergarten, if Clallam Bay had one, although I don't think I'm lacking anything without it. During several winter storms, we were rather exposed to the weather coming in off the Straits. One storm brought a large log right up on the beach in front of the quarters. We kids saw it as an opportunity to build a fort, with the help of that same Seaman mentioned above, who came knocking at the door with hammer in hand. The woods behind the quarters always gave me the creeps thinking bears or other wild animals could easily come down from above and drag one of us off into the forest. It was here that I also learned to ride a bike. My Dad pushed me down the hill, which at the time seemed giant and having seen it more recently, was nothing more than a slight rise. Fond memories!


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