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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.

02 November 2015


Smith Island Lighthouse
Photo by Bernie McNeil
Published by Smith-Western, Tacoma, WA.
Card from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
"Automation has robbed Washington's island lighthouses of the aura of adventure that was once associated with living at these isolated stations. The Smith Island light has been extremely familiar to boaters and seamen passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is the third oldest lighthouse site in the entire Puget Sound area. Only Tatoosh and Dungeness preceded it.
      Because Smith Is is composed of sand and clay instead of hard rock, its story is different from the others; today's light is not the original one erected in 1858. An aid to navigation was essential at this location, where Rosario Strait meets Juan de Fuca, but the currents had a tendency to erode the bluff on which the tower must stand. Looking into the future, the builders carefully constructed it 200 ft from the edge and believed that the structure would be safe. 
      The old tower was built of white-washed brick and the lower portion was wide enough to accommodate the keeper's living quarters. At first, a lone man was assigned to the post and he brought his family along. Thus Mr. and Mrs. John Vail and their grandchild were the initial inhabitants of the island.
      In that day wandering Indians from [Haida Gwaii] were a menace to remote outposts near the water and it was considered advisable to provide a fort in which the lightkeeper might take refuge. Accordingly, a blockhouse and a barn were built close by the tower. If the lighthouse had been provided with metal doors and window shutters instead of wooden ones this protection would have have been needed. 
      The tower went up through the center of the house and the top of the revolving lantern was painted red. The light was first shown on 18 October 1858.
      For six months the Vails, who had been joined by Mr. Applegate, an assistant keeper, enjoyed a placid existence. The housewife amused herself gathering marine curiosities and observing the bird colonies. So many sea pigeons nested on the island that whites and Indians came there to hunt the birds with hooked sticks, dragging them out of the holes in which they burrowed.
      Then one day in May 1859, five large canoe-loads of Haida Indians pulled ashore,

claiming to have come to hunt ducks. During the preceding ten-day period Port Townsend and neighboring communities had been experiencing the jitters over the presence of these Northerners, whom they suspected came without peaceful intent. A farmer's house had been robbed at Port Discovery, property was stolen from the lighthouse at New Dungeness and a pair of renegade chiefs from [Haida Gwaii] were being held in the Jefferson County jail. 
      As soon as it became known that unwelcome visitors were poaching on Smith Island, the schooner CAROLINA went over to bring the Vails to safety. Applegate locked himself in the lighthouse and attended to his duties.
      Pt. Townsend's deputy sheriff recruited a company of volunteers who embarked in the CAROLINA to protect the light, a local merchant defraying expenses of their ammunition and boat charter.
      Seeing the vessel approaching their camp, the Indians took to their canoes. The deputy sheriff's 'army' remained concealed below deck and the Indians were not aware of the size of his force. When ordered to leave, they assumed a defiant attitude and dared the whites to fight. Whereupon the trigger-happy volunteers rushed on deck and were, with difficulty, restrained from firing. As the Indians had done nothing more serious than make threats, the sheriff permitted them to leave unmolested.
      After the Haida departed the schooner returned to Pt. Townsend, but next morning a couple of Hawaiians employed on the island came over by canoe with a note from Applegate stating that the Indians had returned and had taken several shots at him while he was tending light. He fired on them and at least one charge of buckshot found its mark, for there were bloodstains all the way to the beach next morning.
       Maj. G.O. Haller of Fort Townsend decided to take over the defense of the lighthouse and placed a detachment on the island for several days, but the Indians did not show up again and it was understood they were paddling the long route back to their home.
      Smith Island stayed out of the news after that. The staff was increased to three keepers and their families, with more quarters being erected. Then in 1950, a great change came about; the island acquired a secondary radio station of the USCG and became a troubleshooting center for a large portion of the Puget Sound country. It originated most of the rescues of endangered fishermen, yachtsmen, outboard fans and distressed residents of the San Juan archipelago.
      The next change was the abandonment of the old lighthouse because its location was unsafe. An all-steel tower was erected father inland and a new 120,000 candlepower lantern, double the magnitude of the old one, was installed. 
      Thought the brick tower was perilously near the edge of the cliff, it was still intact when I made a trip to the island in October 1958, through the cooperation of the Coast Guard. 
aboard US Coast Guard vessel
Original photo from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
Seattle Times artist Parker McAllister and I drove to Pt. Townsend and were picked up by a Coast Guard patrol boat. We went ashore in a skiff with an outboard. A motor truck was on the island and to this was attached a trailer that backed down into the water and picked up the boat. We clambered up on it, atop groceries, cartons of milk and other freight the patrol boat had brought on its weekly visit. While we hung on tight the truck driver strove to get a purchase on shore with his four-wheel drive. There was no boat landing because of the surf. 
      We first inspected the old lighthouse and heard how a five-foot-wide section of the bank near it had fallen off during the previous month. The base of the tower reflected the architectural ideas of an earlier period. Round vents in the metal wall of the tower chamber permitted air to enter for the kerosene lantern. To go outside the glassed-in tower room, the keeper had to crawl through a hatch to the circular, railed platform.
      Our hosts next escorted us to the radio station, where a 23-hour watch was stood and assistance was rendered in almost any kind of trouble. There was never a dull moment in the radio room, for accidents and minor crises constantly were occurring. An unusual one was when the station helped a sheriff locate two bank robbers in a sailboat who were trying to escape to Mexico. 
      At the time of my visit, two sets of bungalow-type living quarters housed the six bachelors assigned to the station. Other buildings consisted of a garage for the truck and a boathouse. A well for firefighting and a cistern provided some water, but most of the drinkable water had to be delivered from the mainland. 
      All of the men took turns at cooking. We sat down with them for lunch and heard more details of their life on the island. The usual tour of duty was two weeks ashore after seven weeks on the island. With three electric generators, the crew was always prepared for a power failure.
      At the time we were there Smith Island was 15 acres in extent, shaped like a pumpkin seed, tapering at the north to join a sandbar connecting with Minor Island. Today there is no activity on Smith. The radiotelephone station was discontinued on 10 July 1959 and its work was assumed by Coast Guard stations at Pt. Angeles and Seattle. 
      In the fall of 1976, the light was fully automated and maintenance crews serviced it about every other month. The light was continually monitored at Port Angeles.
     The island has since been included in the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge and requests for visiting must be coordinated through the Nisqually office of the Fish and Wildlife Service."
Above text by author/historian Lucile McDonald for The Sea Chest, published by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in September 1981.

1898: Frank Dennison, who for several years past has been the keeper of the Smith Island Lighthouse, has resigned his position and hereafter will reside on a farm on Shaw Island. The San Juan Islander newspaper, 1 Dec. 1898. SPHS archives.

1959: Salvage of the lantern and removal to Skunk Island by Jim Gibbs and Leiter Hockett, can be read on this Log entry

1998: According to Wikipedia the Lighthouse was lost to erosion this year.

      For further lighthouse study, book search here


  1. Local Notice to Mariners 432015, the light at Smith Island will be moved and the Minor Island light will be discontinued in December 2015. The new Smith Island light will no longer be on Smith Island, and will be located between the old Smith Island and Minor Island lights.

  2. After Colonel Ebey was decapitated in a raid on the evening of August 11, 1857 intended as retribution for several Indians killed in a skirmish at Port Gamble his scalped head was buried on Smith Island by the raiding party. It was later recovered and interred with his body.

    1. Thanks for reading the Log and taking time to comment. Isaac Ebey's head was eventually interred with his body, according to family and historical records but the scalp was not. The Smith Island involved in this event was the one in British Columbia; see the Ebey family history at Sunnyside Cemetary. Web admin.


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