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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

06 November 2013

❖ POLE PASS LIGHT ❖ Orcas Island 1949

Kirk McLachlan at Pole Pass Light.
Orcas Island, summer of 1949.
Original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
"Back in 1907, when Stanley Steamers were replacing the horse and buggy on the streets of Seattle and just a year after the San Francisco earthquake disaster, Kirk McLachlan took charge of the Pole Pass light on Orcas Is., in the San Juan group. In the spring of 1949, 42 years later, he retired from his job when the USCG installed battery-operated lights which a tender will serve.
      For the past 12 years he also has kept another light going in Wasp Pass, which is about a quarter of a mile away and accessible only by water. His job of tending the lights which warn passing boats of the treacherous rocks in the passes has not been easy. Seafaring men know that tides in the San Juans can run extremely fast. Often, one person rowing can't buck them. Winter storms, which toss 50-ft logs high on the rocks, make rowing and tending a light difficult.
      'A few times the Wasp Pass light blew out on me when the wind was especially strong, and no matter how bad the weather, I'd have to go out and try and light 'er again. Those were about the worst times I had, 'cause I can't swim more than a few strokes. And there were a lot of times when I thought I might be swimmin'. I've rowed out in rough water, and had to return home because the waves were bouncing me around so that I couldn't secure my boat. Every time that would happen, I'd have to wait for low tide, where I could row in on the lee of the rocks.'
      Although the kerosene lights would stay lit eight days, McLachlan refilled them every five. To avoid refilling in foul weather, he always has kept a weather eye on the barometer hanging on the front porch of his house, which is about 30 yards from Pole Pass. 'I'd fill 'em up when the barometer dropped bad, and then just watch that they didn't blow out.'
      McLachlan now is retired as far as the Coast Guard is concerned (at two thirds pay), but he continues to work from 7 in the morning until it is too dark to see at night. As caretaker for a summer estate on Crane Is, just a stone's throw across Pole Pass, he pumps water for the livestock and keeps the place shipshape. He also repairs his own house, dock, four rowboats, a small launch and four cabins. McLachlan rents out the cabins to hunters and fishermen in the winter and vacationists in the summer. He built the cabins in the 20s out of boards sawed from logs he towed to the mill at West Sound.
      Life for Kirk isn't quite as bleak as it might be for a man in his position. He has friends. Occasionally he swaps yarns or island gossip with them at the Deer Harbor store. Once in a while he gets together with them at the Saturday night dances at Norton's dance hall. Everybody likes Kirk because no matter how much he has to do, he will make time for talk. Rolling a cigarette, he'll squint an eye, push back his cap and chat about almost anything.
Pole Pass Light
Undated Jacobsen postcards from the archives of the S. P. H. S. ©

      If you stopped at his place today [1949] he'd likely tell you about the fish that Old Man Jones caught or about the blackfish. 'It was a moonlight winter night, I think in 1945. I heard a thundering sound like bombs going off. I got up and looked out in the pass. There were blackfish––500 of 'em, averaging about 40-ft long. They were jumping clear out of the water, and when they came down they would whack their tails, and make a terrible racket. There were blackfish as far as I could see on both sides of the pass. I figure the school was about 3 miles long, easy.'
      Kirk isn't the first McLachlan to play an important role on Orcas. Both his father and grandfather were prominent on the island. His grandfather was one of Orcas' first settlers. He moved to this island in the wilds of Washington Territory in 1878, and had his family brought around Cape Horn to live with him. He started the light at Pole Pass in 1888. When he died three years later, Kirk's father took over. He kept it up until his death in 1907, when Kirk began his vigil at the age of 20.
      Kirk was born in 1887. He wasn't born on the island, however for the simple reason that there were no doctors around at that time. His mother was taken to Victoria, where Kirk was born. He went to a very small school at Deer Harbor, 2 miles from Pole Pass. At that time half the pupils were Indians. He was brought up with his brother, Bill, and sister, Jean.
      While the children were young, their mother died. The story of her funeral shows the hardships people in those days took in stride. The McLachlan family owned grave plots on San Juan Island near Friday Harbor, about 7 miles from home. Friends of Mrs. McLachlan took the day off. They formed a funeral procession of about 20 rowboats and rowed to Friday Harbor.
     In 1913, McLachlan was married, but didn't settle down completely. The next few years saw him captaining boats which ran through the islands. From then until 1937, he spent much of his time on boats and in canneries. In 1937, he let his skipper's license lapse.
     McLachlan is rightfully proud of the record his family has maintained in taking care of the Pole Pass light for 61 years. However, retiring from the job will change him little. He'll still set down his wheelbarrow when he sees you, roll a cigarette, push back his cap and squint one eye, and say, 'You know, back in 1903, when Indians were still roving these islands..."
Above words by Warren Kraft, Jr.
For The Seattle Times, 1949.

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