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San Juan Archipelago, 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 750, 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.

01 February 2018

❖ With McDonald at the Patos Island Light Station ❖ 1959

Patos Island Light Station,
an active aid to navigation in the San Juan Islands.
Active Cove is a favorite anchorage of fishermen and
yachtsmen and the historic place for unloading supplies
from the Coast Guard vessels. 

Photograph by the US Coast Guard.
Patos Island was discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1791. We trailed local author June Burn when she visited the island for an article for her 100 Days in the San Juans series for the Seattle P-I in 1946. Let's return with well-known historian/journalist Lucile McDonald when she stopped to visit the resident Coast Guard crew manning the station in the summer of 1959.

 "The island was named Patos, meaning "ducks," in 1791 by a rain-drenched Spanish explorer trying to pilot his schooner through the tidal currents in the southern reaches of Georgia Strait.
      Patos, northernmost of the San Juan Islands, is known to most boaters as the site of the lighthouse, the most important one in the archipelago. Though its lantern is of the fourth order (40,000 candlepower) and only 38' above the ground, it is a beam visible to southbound mariners for a long distance.
      Since the entire island on which the beacon stands is a lighthouse reserve, there are no other occupants of its 206 acres. A lone cabin is said to have stood in the woods near the east end years ago, a relic of an elderly squatter. No trace of his house remains.
      Patos Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1893 and rebuilt in 1908. A radio beacon was installed by the Coast Guard in 1937 and the station's fog signal was modernized in 1958.
      New living quarters went up in 1958 where the garden for the keepers' two-story duplex had been. The old house was torn down and now the four coastguardsmen residing at Patos have the most modern apartments of any light station in WA. Two of the men of the crew like the island so well they are on their second tour of duty there.
      Patos most of the year has a pleasant climate and summer brings it, numerous visitors. Nearly 350 called last year, attracted by the sheltered anchorage in Active Cove, just south of the light.
      Active Cove was named for the first American survey vessel operating in these waters. Alden Point, where the lighthouse stands, was listed by that name on an 1858 chart in honor of Lieut. Alden, who commanded the steamship ACTIVE. 
      Government records show that the ACTIVE in 1853 conducted reconnaissance in WA Territory, chiefly in the Gulf of Georgia. She refueled at the Bellingham Bay and Nanaimo coal mines, receiving the cargo from Indian canoes at the latter place.
      The ACTIVE also was employed in Haro and Rosario Straits in 1854.
      In 1858 Alden and his ship were in the service of the Boundary Commission. This was the vessel's last season in the Puget Sound area.
      A part of the time a land party under James S. Lawson occupied a survey station on the east point of Patos Island. The steamship, meanwhile, made hydrographic studies along Canada's Saturna Island. Charts of that year labeled the Canadian Gulf Islands as part of the Washington Coast.
L-R: H. D. McDonald, Seattle, and
D. A. Nelson, engineman second class, USCG.
Hunting fossils in the sandstone of the
west side of Patos Island.

This photo is from the archives of the 
Saltwater People Historical Society©
      Alden's reconnaissance served for more than 100 years, except for some minor additions in 1891, when a formal survey was conducted. 
      This year the US Coast and Geodetic Survey is checking again, completing the resurvey of San Juan waters which began some years ago. Only the south end of Georgia Strait remains to be covered.
      Two members of a survey crew moved to Patos Island 1 May to operate a short-range electronic-control station here in conjunction with another at Point Roberts. The survey ship HODGSON also is working in the area.
      When the 1859 surveys are finished, tidal-current charts can be used for the entire San Juan Archipelago, an aid to small-boat navigation for which there have been many requests.
      Like other lighthouses, Patos maintains a guest book, which reflects the changes in social life at the station. Visitors are rare when the book began in 1895. They were limited mainly to inhabitants of nearby islands. Among the regular callers was the lightkeeper at East Point on Saturna Island, a beacon which antedates Patos.
       With last year's improvements, the old generators in the tower were removed and new ones were installed permitting the use of electrical appliances in the homes. 
      A major problem still to be solved is that of obtaining a supply of water. The well at the station became polluted several years ago when diesel oil tanks leaked into it.
      Part of the joy of living on the island is derived from the abundance of sea life found there. In spring the ground is carpeted with wildflowers. 
      Directly in front of the lighthouse are heavy tide rips and whirlpools, in contrast to the sheltered water of Active Cove. Both customs vessels and Coast Guard craft have lain in the tiny harbor in years past, waiting for smugglers rumored to be abroad.
      This little cove is a great asset to the light station. Minnie's Beach, at the east end, got its name from a lightkeeper's wife who liked to sun herself there.
      The cove was the scene of many episodes described by Helen Glidden in her book, The Light on the Island. The author's father was Edward Durgan, a keeper who moved with his wife and 13 children to Patos in August 1905. He already had lived at the lighthouse for a period some years earlier.
       In those days the place was extremely isolated and keepers rowed to the mainland or to Orcas Island to supply their needs. They were out of luck in emergencies. Three of the Durgan children died because of the difficulty in obtaining medical aid promptly.
       This can't happen today. A few weeks ago Mrs. C. P. Geer, wife of one of the keepers, caught a hand in her washing machine. A few minutes later a Navy helicopter from Whidbey Island landed behind the light, picked her up and transported her to Oak Harbor, where she transferred to an airplane and went to a Seattle hospital. She was back home before the day was over." 

1959, June: Above text was written by Lucile S. McDonald for the Seattle Times.
She wrote or co-authored 28 books; her archives have been donated to the Special Collections Division, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

1974: The Light was automated.

1974: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission began operating Patos Island as a State Park, under a lease from the Bureau of Land Management.
The 207-acre State Marine Park with 20,000 ft of saltwater shoreline is owned by the BLM. The State Parks maintains 2 mooring buoys and a 1.5-mi loop trail open year round, according to their website which can be viewed here

1977: The Patos Island Light Station was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. 

2007: A Non-Profit Keepers of Patos Light was organized by two friends. Look at the work they have managed with a group of volunteers. 
Photographs from the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society©

1 comment:

  1. Keepers of the Patos Light has created a new museum in the lighthouse. It includes the history of the lighthouse through stories of those who lived there.


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