Beacons That Brightly Beckon

by Marie Bogan, Staff Writer

Light House

Here in Port Ludlow, we do not have a lighthouse to call our own, but we are fortunate to have two classic beauties nearby, one at each end of Admiralty Inlet. To our east, about 22 driving miles, is Point No Point Lighthouse, and to our north, about 20 driving miles, is Point Wilson Lighthouse. More about them later but first, a short history.

Aiding Navigation Through the Centuries

Think about steering a sailing ship through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a moonless night in 1870: In a time of sparse populations and no electricity, there would be no lights on shore to guide you. Imagine the anxiety as you squint hard to detect the precise slot where you must enter Admiralty Inlet. You would, no doubt, be praying to Neptune, Poseidon, and St. Peter. You would also be praying for a lighthouse, but alas, there was none.

Meanwhile, over on the East Coast, the ruling British were one step ahead. They installed the country’s first lighthouse in 1716 to provide safe passage through Boston Harbor. During that time and going forward, residents in each locality took care of the maintenance and day-to-day operation of towns’ lighthouses. Among the designated keeper’s tasks were filling the kerosene tank, keeping the light lens clean, taking weather readings, maintaining the logbook, and winding the clock that made the beacon rotate.

As the country’s oldest station, Boston Light is the only one that continues the tradition of employing a live-in keeper today. In 1939, the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for U.S. lighthouse operations and has installed automation in the country’s other 700 lighthouses. That automation ensures that the beacons switch on each evening and off each morning.

Just Quaint Artifacts of the Past?

It’s easy to assume that modern technology has put most lighthouses on the path to obsolescence, but these treasured icons in fact remain essential to seagoing navigation. That’s especially true for mariners negotiating rocky coastlines, sandy shoals, strong rip tides, and disorienting fog, as well as entrances to harbors or bays.

While it’s true that most of today’s boats are equipped with sophisticated marine radar, their pilots still find it useful to verify what they see on their screens with actual onshore visual cues, and in cases when technology malfunctions in the dead of night, it’s handy for them to have a simple, old-school, dependable beacon as a fallback.

Those beacons flash in a distinct pattern for each lighthouse, so mariners can readily get their bearings from the water. Although modern lighthouses still use original Fresnel-lens technology developed in 1822, they have all switched out the glass and brass lights for cast-plastic materials.

Point No Point Lighthouse
Point No Point Lighthouse

Point No Point: What’s in a name?

Historians have many theories regarding how Point No Point got its quirky name, but a spring 2015 account by Elinor DeWire in The Keeper’s Log seems the most plausible. She writes that explorers in the 1840s had trouble fixing the illusive point of land in their line of sight. As their boat rode the swells near Hansville, this tricky spit would seem to appear and then quickly disappear, so the name became an apt description.

The dangerous shoals at Point No Point meant that a visual marker was urgently needed on shore, and a lighthouse was built in 1879. As Puget Sound’s oldest lighthouse, Point No Point continues to house a critical beacon for vessels heading in and out of Seattle or Tacoma ports.

Point No Point’s 30-foot tower houses a white-only beacon. Its signature pattern emits ongoing groups of three flashes with six seconds of eclipse. The light reaches about 14 nautical miles. (One nautical mile equals about 1.15 miles.)

The Point No Point keeper’s quarters contain a variety of lighthouse information and equipment, including a library, lenses, tools, and historical artifacts. If you can’t get out to Hansville, you can get a feel for the lighthouse and its environs by using their web cam. Want to see if Point No Point is enshrouded in fog today? Google the real-time Point No Point webcam and you’ll feel like you’re right there.

Point Wilson Lighthouse
Point Wilson Lighthouse

Point Wilson: S.O.S., and Help is on the Way

Captain George Vancouver dedicated a jutting point of land on Quimper Peninsula to a colleague in 1792, and lighthouses there have carried the Wilson name into the following centuries. The first Point Wilson Lighthouse, constructed from wood in 1880, contained a fixed beacon.

Today’s Point Wilson Lighthouse, completed in 1914, features a concrete tower built in an octagonal shape to reduce wind pressure. It’s the tallest light tower on Puget Sound at a height of 51 feet. Point Wilson’s signature flashing pattern repeats alternating red and white every five seconds. The red beacon reaches 15 nautical miles, while the white beacon reaches 18 nautical miles.

One of the most distinctive Port Townsend landmarks, Point Wilson Lighthouse sits on its rocky outcropping with Mt. Baker forming a dramatic backdrop in the distance. But anyone visiting Point Wilson Lighthouse in recent years will notice that it has fallen into disrepair. That’s due to a steady reduction of government funding for lighthouse upkeep.

The good news is that the U.S. Lighthouse Society has begun a major restoration of the Point Wilson station. In fact, the infrastructure renovation is almost complete, and the organization is now undertaking improvements that will be more noticeable for onlookers. Completion of the project is targeted for fall 2023.

The Living-Lighthouse Experience

The U.S. Lighthouse Society is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of America’s lighthouses, with the ultimate intention of returning them to the public domain. It publishes a lighthouse journal, runs educational programs, and provides research services.

David Ehnebuske, spokesperson for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, said he thinks people are captivated by lighthouses because “they’re typically located at beautiful spots at the end of the earth, where the sea and the land come together in out-of-the-way places.” He added, “People like the nostalgia element, with visions of the lonely light keeper in a storm, climbing those circular staircases with a lantern, because they had to keep the beacons lit, and warn the ships off the rocks.”

Washington state has 26 remaining lighthouses, with another four having been completely or partially destroyed. “Even though lighthouses are critical to navigation, climate change is becoming a significant challenge for many of them, including Point No Point and Point Wilson,” Ehnebuske said. “As sea levels rise and storms get bigger, the job of maintaining these iconic structures is only going to get harder.”

One Man’s Lighthouse is Another Man’s Castle

The U.S. Lighthouse Society offers vacation rentals at both Point No Point and Point Wilson. The lodging is especially popular for family reunions and other celebrations. Ehnebuske said that photographers are also frequent lighthouse renters. “They can capture sunrises and sunsets, with no commute necessary,” he said. “Just get out of bed, and it’s all right there.”

Revenues for the rentals are used to maintain the light stations. For accommodations at Point No Point, see uslhs.org/about/point-no-point-vacation-rental, and for accommodations at Point Wilson, see pointwilsonlighthouse.org/vacation-rental.

Asked about the future of lighthouses, Ehnebuske replied, “Our lighthouses in the U.S. are something like the castles in Europe. People will always want to keep them safe and operational because they’re enchanted by them.”