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Robinson Point Light Station

HistoryLink.org Essay 5627 : Printer-Friendly Format

Robinson Point Light Station (also known as Point Robinson) is situated on the easternmost point of Maury Island, a 36.7 square mile extension of Vashon Island, in southwest King County. It marks the low sandy shoal that extends more than 200 yards into southern Puget Sound’s East Passage midway between Seattle and Tacoma, named in 1841 by the Wilkes Expedition in honor of crewmember John Robinson. The hazardous shoal was first marked with a fog whistle in 1885. Two years later, a post lantern, 25 feet high, was added. Finally, in 1915, a lighthouse was constructed on Robinson Point. The Robinson Point Light Station, which remains essentially the same as when it was built, is on the Washington State Heritage Register of historic places.

The Fog Net

Local mariners refer to the Robinson Point area, which is often shrouded in fog, as the “fog net.” In 1882, the Lighthouse Board, actively engaged in charting and marking Puget Sound, decided the Robinson Point shoal was a hazard to maritime traffic and needed a fog signal to prevent ships from running aground. In 1884, the Lighthouse Service purchased 24 acres of land from two families to build a fog signal station. In June 1884, the side-wheeler S. S. Shubrick, a 140-foot lighthouse tender, delivered building materials, fog signal machinery, and a boiler to Robinson Point.

The construction of the fog signal station was completed in June 1885. The station consisted of a house for the station keeper, a building for the fog machinery and boiler, and cisterns to collect fresh rainwater. The fog signal, a 12-inch steam whistle, was attached to the roof of the fog signal building. Franklin Tucker, a 28-year Lighthouse Service veteran, arrived from Cape Flattery to be Point Robertson’s first station keeper. The station was dedicated on July 1, 1885.

The Post Lantern

The Lighthouse Board soon concluded that a solitary fog signal, marking the dangerous shoal, was inadequate. Expecting vessel traffic to increase around Puget Sound, and between Seattle and Tacoma, the board recommended Robinson Point also be marked with a light. In 1887, a “post lantern,” 25 feet high, with a red lens, was erected near the fog signal building until a more permanent structure could be built.

Post lanterns had a drum-type lens that produced a bright fixed light and were mounted high on scaffolds. The wick lamp had a large tank encircling the top of the lens with enough fuel for 8 days. The lighthouse tender Shubrick delivered kerosene to the Robinson Point beach every six months along with tons of coal for the boiler.

Mariners complained the red light on Robinson Point was partially obscured by the station keeper's house when approaching from the south. In 1894, the Lighthouse Service built an open wooden tower and raised the lantern to 31 feet.

Tending the Signal

Tending the fog signal at Robinson Point could be arduous. In 1897, the station keeper noted the fog whistle blew for at total of 528 hours and that he had shoveled 35 tons of coal into the boiler to maintain steam pressure. The Lighthouse Board, recognizing the difficulty, requested funds from Congress for an assistant station keeper. After repeating the request annually, Congress finally approved the funding, and in 1903 a second keeper was assigned to Robinson Point. However, a house for the assistant keeper wasn’t added to the station until 1907.

As maritime traffic increased in southern Puget Sound, the importance of the Robinson Point station grew. In 1910, the newly created Bureau of Lighthouses finally received appropriations to build much-needed lighthouses in Puget Sound. Eventually, the Lighthouse Service built a 38-foot tall octagonal concrete and masonry tower with an attached fog signal building on the most exposed part of the point. The structure is almost identical to the Alki Point Lighthouse (1913), complete with diagonal braces on the windows in the lantern room. Two large houses for the lighthouse keepers and their families had previously been built near the beach approximately 100 yards south of the lighthouse. The station also had an equipment house and a simple coal shed/oil house made of corrugated metal.

The Fresnel Lens

Fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris by L. Sautter, Lemmonier, the Robinson Point Lighthouse became operational in 1915. Fresnel lenses capture and direct light by prismatic rings to a central bull’s-eye where it emerges as a single concentrated beam of light. Fifth-order Fresnel lenses used mainly for shoals, reefs, and harbor entrance lights is one foot, 8 inches high, has an inside diameter of one foot, three inches and weighs more than 300 pounds. The light in the tower is 40 feet above grade, and when magnified and focused through the lens, and has a nominal range of 14 miles.

The illumination was provided by a 750 candlepower incandescent oil vapor lamp. Although more efficient and six times brighter than the old-style wick lamps, the lighthouse keepers were still required to clean and polish the Fresnel lens, check the mantles, and replenish the fuel supply every day. Eventually, when Robinson Point was provided with electricity, the lamp was replaced with a 120-watt electric bulb. However, old kerosene lamps were always kept handy in case the electricity or a bulb failed.

The new Robinson Point fog signal house was equipped with a Daboll three-trumpet fog signal invented and manufactured by Celadon L. Daboll of New London, Connecticut. The fog-signal was operated by compressed air, produced by two diesel engines, which passed across a vibrating reed. The brass trumpets extended through the walls, enabling the keeper to project a distinct signal in three directions, north, east and south

Isolation and Self-sufficiency

The isolation of the Robinson Point Light Station meant that it had to be as self-sufficient as possible. Along with the Fresnel Lens and fog signal, small boats were essential equipment for a station where the only access to supplies for building or for daily activities was from the water. Additional outbuildings at Robinson Point included a poultry shed, a fruit shed, and a boathouse. The station also had a cement boat ramp and a small rail car to enable the keepers to launch and retrieve their small boats. During the 1930s, a garage was built near the keeper’s quarters.

On July 7, 1939, Congress disbanded the Bureau of Lighthouses and the U. S. Lighthouse Service, transferring the responsibility for lighthouses and aids-to-navigation to the U. S. Coast Guard. Civilian lighthouse keepers were allowed to remain in their jobs until retirement, and were gradually replaced with Coast Guard personnel. Also in 1939, workers from the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) filled in the low-lying mudflats around Robinson Point using a sluice, and landscaped the light station’s grounds.

In 1959, The U.S. Government’s General Service Administration (GSA) declared roughly 12 acres of the Robinson Point Government Reservation, excess property and put it up for sale. The King County Assessor devalued the property because of the frequent noise of the fog signal. Apparently no one wanted to live that close to the foghorn so eventually, GSA transferred the property surrounding the Robinson Point Light Station to King County for use as a park.

On November 19, 1976, the Robinson Point Light Station was officially designated by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as an historic place and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. EO-02). It has also been determined that the station is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Park Service.

Lighthouse Technologies Old and New

In April 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard automated the lighthouse and fog signal. Today, the original hand-ground Fresnel lens operates 24 hours a day. The lens, known as a beehive design, is a fixed light varied with flashes. There are no flash panels installed on the lens and it doesn’t turn; instead the light flashes on and off. The beacon’s characteristic is a 12 second cycle. The light, flashing white, is on for three seconds, off for one second, on for another three seconds and off for five seconds. A 500-watt quartz bulb, producing 11,000 candlepower light, illuminates the lens. Burnt out bulbs are replaced automatically, and in the event of a power failure, there is an emergency light located on the outside of the tower, powered by 12-volt batteries. The fog signal installed in 1915 has been replaced by electric fog horns that are activated by photoelectric cells when visibility is reduced to three miles, sounding a one three-second blast every 30 seconds.

In July 1989, because of concern over the risk of oil spills in Puget Sound, the U.S. Coast Guard received $4 million to construct 100-foot radar and radio signal towers on Robinson Point so the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service could monitor and guide ships in south Puget Sound. And, in the early 1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard established a differential global positioning system (GPS) for local mariners on Robinson Point. The light, foghorn, and all of the specialized navigation equipment are maintained by the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Branch located at Pier 36 in Seattle

A Historic Lighthouse

The last Coast Guardsman to be stationed at the Robinson Point Light Station was Jerry Belstad in 1989. He and his family occupied one of the lighthouse keeper's houses. In addition to the station’s general maintenance, Belstad restored the original Daboll three-trumpet fog signal, air compressor, and diesel engines as part of a historical display and conducted tours. One of the vintage Daboll trumpets was attached to a bottle of compressed air so visitors could experience its powerful sound.

In the tower, Belstad showed tourists the iron curtain rods attached to the lantern room walls where curtains had been used during daylight hours to protect the Fresnel lens from the sun. Some keepers thought an unprotected lens could magnify the sun’s rays and start fires, others believed the sun’s ultraviolet rays would tint the glass purple. Also on display was the original visitor’s log maintained at the lighthouse, dating back to February 5, 1893.

In August 1995, The King County Department of Parks and Recreation transferred the operation and maintenance of 11 parks, including Point Robinson Park, over to the Vashon Parks District. For several years, the U.S. Coast Guard had been looking for a steward to take over the care and maintenance of the Robinson Point Light Station buildings. A volunteer group from Vashon and Maury Islands formed the Keepers of Point Robinson, a non-profit organization that promised to help the Vashon Parks District restore and renovate the light station if they would accept stewardship. In 1997, the U.S. Coast Guard offered the Vashon Parks District a free long-term lease of the property for the recreation and enjoyment of the public and gave permission to use the light station as a museum.

Today, the exterior of the Robinson Point Light Station remains essentially the same as when it was first built in 1915. The lighthouse is painted the traditional white with green trim and has a red roof. The lighthouse keeper’s quarters have been refurbished by the “Keepers of Point Robinson.” The station's caretakers live in main keeper’s house, while the assistant keeper’s house is available for weekly rentals to the many people who would like to have a “lighthouse experience.” The proceeds from the rental go toward the restoration and maintenance of the buildings.

The Robinson Point Lighthouse is one of eight lighthouses on or near Puget Sound open to visitors. Tours are conducted by “Keepers of Point Robinson” volunteers, but only on specific days (usually Friday or Sundays) or by appointment. To view the lighthouse, contact the “Keepers of Point Robinson” through the Vashon Parks District to reserve a time.

Sources:
Samuel Willard Crompton and Michael J. Rhein, The Ultimate Book of Lighthouses (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2001); Randy Leffingwell and Pamela Welty, Lighthouses of the Pacific Coast (Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 2000); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Sharlene P. and Ted W. Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Publishing, 1997); Dennis Noble, Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997); "Beach House Has Long History," The Seattle Times, November 15, 1969, p. 27; "Bill On Vessel Control In Sound Advances," Ibid., July 14, 1989; "Parks Turned Over to Vashon District," Ibid., August 23, 1995, p. B-2; Jon Hahn, "Vashon Brass Help Keep Lighthouse Burning," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 5, 2002, p. B-2; "Inventory of Historic Light Stations; Washington Lighthouses; Point Robinson," National Park Service Website accessed November 2003 (www.cr.nps/maritime/light/ptrobin.htm); "Historic Places in Washington," State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation Website accessed November 2003 (www.oahp.wa.gov); "Point Robinson Park," Vashon Park District Website -- Parks (www.vashonparkdistrict.org/index.html), "From the Keepers of Point Robinson," Vashon Park District Website -- News, Ibid.


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Robinson Point Lighthouse, Maury Island, August 23, 2003
Photo by Daryl C. McClary


Aerial photo of Robinson Point Light Station, Maury Island, ca. 1950
Courtesy U. S. Coast Guard


Topographical map of Robinson Point on Maury Island, July 1, 1994
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey


Robinson Point light beacon, eastern edge of Maury Island, 1891
Photo by Oliver S. Van Olinda, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. UW19131)


Robinson Point fog signal and light tower, ca. 1910
Courtesy National Archives


Robinson Point Lighthouse ca. 1950
Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard


Robinson Point light Station, August 23, 2003
Photo by Daryl C. McClary


Robinson Point Lighthouse showing diagonal window bracing, August 23, 2003
Photo by Daryl C. McClary


Robinson Point Lighthouse keeper's houses, Maury Island, August 23, 2003
Photo by Daryl C. McClary


 
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