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Admiralty Head Lighthouse

HistoryLink.org Essay 5710 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Admiralty Head Lighthouse, built in 1903 by the Army Corps of Engineers, is located in Fort Casey State Park near Coupeville on Whidbey Island. The beacon, high on a bluff, 127 feet above sea level, was an important navigational aid, especially for sailing ships entering Admiralty Inlet from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It replaced the Red Bluff Lighthouse, a wooden Cape Cod style structure built in 1861. Although decommissioned in 1922, the Admiralty Head Lighthouse received national recognition in 1990 when the U. S. Postal Service selected it for a collection of five commemorative lighthouse stamps honoring the U.S. Coast Guard’s bicentennial.

Red Cliffs and Shallow Waters

Admiralty Head is a 90-foot high promontory that projects into Admiralty Inlet on the west coast of Whidbey Island in Island County four miles south of Coupeville. It acquired the name from Admiralty Inlet, the waterway between the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island, connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Puget Sound. Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) named Admiralty Inlet on June 2, 1792, in honor of the British Navy’s Board of Admiralty. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), commander of the U. S. Exploring Expedition, named it Red Bluff from the reddish color of the cliffs. A local name for the headland was Kellogg Point for Dr. John Coe Kellogg (1820-1902), and his wife Caroline T. (1821-1891), who had claimed a homestead on this site in 1853 under the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850.

Marine surveys of Washington’s inland waterways, commissioned by the Lighthouse Board in the 1850s, recommended that the entrance to Admiralty Inlet be marked with two lights: on Whidbey Island to the east, and on Point Wilson (on Quimper Peninsula near Port Townsend) to the west. In 1856, Congress appropriated only enough money to build one lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board decided Red Bluff on Whidbey Island was best suited for a navigational aid to help sailing vessels clear the shallow waters around Point Wilson for the tack south into the narrow entrance of Admiralty Inlet.

In 1858, The U. S. Lighthouse Board purchased 10 acres of land on Red Bluff from Dr. Kellogg for $400. Completed in January 1861, the Cape Cod style lighthouse was a square wooden tower built on the roof of the two-story keeper’s quarters. The white tower, 40-feet high and 108 feet above sea level, was outfitted with a fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens, known as a beehive or barrel. This lens captures and directs light by prismatic rings to a central prism where it emerges through the convex lens as a concentrated beam of light. The light on Red Bluff, first exhibited January 21, 1861, showed a fixed white light visible for more than 16 over miles, from any point along a sweeping 270 degrees of horizon. It was the sixth lighthouse built in Washington Territory.

First Keeper of the Light

In 1861, William Robertson (1809-1888), a retired sea captain, was the first keeper appointed to the Red Bluff Lighthouse. He, his wife, Mary Jane (1817-1875), and their five children had been homesteading on Whidbey Island since the early 1850s. In the mid-1850s, a marauding band of Haida Indians from British Columbia attacked the Robertsons and burned their log cabin. Captain Robertson built another log cabin and mounted a small ship’s cannon in the yard to defend against further attacks.

In addition to his lighthouse duties, Robertson also served the Island County community as Post Master and Coroner. He left the Lighthouse Service in 1864, and returned to his homestead near Coupeville, where he lived until his death in 1888.

The Pearson Family

The second keeper of the Red Bluff Lighthouse was Daniel N. Pearson (1818-1897), appointed on November 28, 1864. Pearson had arrived in Washington Territory from Lowell, Massachusetts, in May 1864 with his two eldest daughters, Josephine, “Josie,” age 19, and Georgianna, “Georgia,” age 15, two of the original “Mercer Girls,” marriageable young women brought to Seattle from the East Coast by Asa Shinn Mercer (1839-1917). Josie and Georgia took up teaching positions in Coupeville, while Daniel Pearson became a watchman at the Puget Mill in Port Gamble. Josie (1844-1864) died suddenly on August 21, 1864, shortly after her arrival in Coupeville, so Daniel moved to Whidbey Island to join Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Pearson was appointed as the lighthouse keeper on Red Bluff with Georgia as his assistant. Pearson’s wife Susan B. (1818-1890), and their two other children, Daniel Orlando and Flora Augusta, traveling with Asa Mercer’s second expedition, joined him in May 1866.

On October 2, 1867, Georgia Pearson (1848-1881) married Whidbey Island pioneer and homesteader Charles Townsend Terry (1835-1922) in the lighthouse parlor, and Flora Pearson, age 17, assumed the assistant lighthouse keeper’s duties.

On June 2, 1868, Daniel O. Pearson (1846-1929) married Clara J. Stanwood (1849-1910), a childhood friend, at the Red Bluff Lighthouse, and moved to Centerville -- renamed Stanwood in 1878, in honor of his wife -- where he established a trading post. Meanwhile, Flora, as well as being the assistant lighthouse keeper, taught piano to children in the area. In the 1870s, the lighthouse keeper was paid and annual salary of $1,000 and an assistant, $625.

On May 8, 1876, Flora A. Pearson (1850-1935) married William B. Engle (1831-1907), a Coupeville farmer, in Victoria, B. C. After a lengthy honeymoon in San Francisco, the Engles returned to Admiralty Head, and Flora resumed her duties as assistant lighthouse keeper. She gave birth to a son, Charles Terry Engle, at the lighthouse on September 30, 1877, and dutifully entered the birth into the log book.

Daniel Pearson resigned from the Lighthouse Service on October 1, 1878. He, and his wife Susan moved to a farm near Coupeville. After Susan died in 1890, Pearson lived with his daughter Flora until his death on March 23, 1897. “He was keeper of the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, and for 13 years, he was never absent from his post for one night. His great regularity and promptness in the business affairs of life, as well as his strict integrity in all matters, made him a most remarkable man” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The Pearson family is buried in Sunnyside Cemetery at Coupeville, with the exception of Daniel O. Pearson, buried in Stanwood’s Lutheran Cemetery.

Generations of Keepers

Pearson was replaced by French-born Laurence Nessel, a 50-year-old bachelor, who was temporarily assigned as lighthouse keeper on October 21, 1878. Flora Engle remained as his assistant for another month, resigning on November 23, 1878, then moving to Coupeville. One year later, on December 15, 1879, the new Point Wilson Light Station was commissioned. That night, Nessel saw the beacon four miles across the inlet and noted in his log, “Light at Point Wilson in operation for first time.” On April 13, 1880, Nessel recorded in the log book that the lighthouse tender Shubrick arrived and “Mr. Wheeler, Lampist visited this station today and changed the oil lamp for a kerosene lamp.” Nessel finally received his permanent appointment as the Red Bluff Lighthouse keeper on June 3, 1880.

Joseph Edward Evans (1844-1913), the fourth lighthouse keeper on Admiralty Head, replaced Laurence Nessel on November 2, 1887. Evans, a Civil War veteran, arrived with his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Henry, from two years at the Ediz Hook Light Station near Port Angeles where he had been the acting station keeper. Following the tragic disappearance of his 13-year-old son Henry in a boating mishap in October 1899, Evans and his wife left Admiralty Head, and moved to Clatsop County, Oregon. His replacement was Charles Henry Davis (1832-1914), a former riverboat captain, appointed lighthouse keeper on January 23, 1900.

The U. S. Lighthouse Service reassigned Evans as the keeper of the Tongue Point Buoy and Supply Depot on the Columbia River, four miles east of Astoria, Oregon. He returned to Washington state in 1912 as the keeper of the Smith Island Light Station. On December 22, 1913, Evans died of a heart attack while he and his wife were visiting friends in Port Townsend. He was buried with full military honors in Port Townsend’s Laurel Grove Cemetery. After the services, Elizabeth Evans was escorted back to Smith Island by the Treasury Department’s revenue cutter Areata.

Triangle of Fire

Admiralty Head was one of three sites selected by the U. S. Army in 1896 for the construction of the Puget Sound Defenses. In 1897, the government purchased an additional 123 acres of land from Dr. John C. Kellogg for $7,200 to build Fort Casey, a coastal artillery installation. The Red Bluff Lighthouse was sitting approximately where the Army wanted to install a 10-inch “disappearing gun” battery, so they moved it several hundred feet north of its original location. Captain C. H. Davis and his wife Mary were the last keepers of the old wooden lighthouse. Mary Davis died on January 21, 1901.

Activated in 1901, the imposing fortification was the second of three major Coast Artillery forts built around the turn of the century to protect Puget Sound. Along with Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island south of Port Townsend, and Fort Worden at Point Wilson, directly across from Admiralty Head, the three forts formed a “triangle of fire” that would rain death on any enemy vessels attempting to enter Admiralty Inlet.

A New Lighthouse

In 1903, the Army Corps of Engineers built a new lighthouse on Admiralty Head close to the old, relocated lighthouse. It was a beautiful California Spanish-style lighthouse designed by the U. S. Lighthouse Board architect Carl W. Leick (1854-1939), whose motto was "Build 'em stout and make 'em last." The new lighthouse was constructed of stucco-covered brick walls, 18 inches thick to withstand the concussion from Fort Casey’s big guns. The lighthouse was painted the traditional white with green trim and a red roof. The tower sported a black lantern, providing a visual daytime landmark to mariners. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed from the old tower and installed in the lantern atop the new 30-foot tall conical tower. The Admiralty Head Lighthouse became operational on June 25, 1903.

The two-story keepers' residence, attached to the tower, was said to be the most modern and comfortable in Washington state, with three upstairs bedrooms, a dining room, living room, laundry room, kitchen, and an indoor bathroom. Access to the tower was gained through the dwelling’s foyer. Captain C. H. Davis and his second wife Delia (Overton) were the first occupants of this new elaborate facility, and he would remain the lighthouse keeper there until his death on January 8, 1914 at the age of 81, just four months after the death of Delia Davis on September 27, 1913. Captain Davis was replaced by Irish-born Edward Scannell (1842-1921), who, along with his wife Mary, had just spent 26 years at the Point No Point Light Station.

During World War I (1917-1918), the U.S. Army used Fort Casey as a training center for soldiers. Most of the fort’s cannons were removed and sent to Europe to be mounted on railroad cars as artillery pieces. After the war, the fort was used as a training camp for the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Washington National Guard. On May 1, 1919, for unknown reasons, the Lighthouse Board changed the light on Admiralty Head from white to red. Edward Scannell, age 77, retired from the Lighthouse Service on May 9, 1919. The Scannells moved to Seattle to be with family; unfortunately Edward died a short time later, on January 26, 1921.

Upon Scannell's retirement, Norwegian-born Hans P. Score, age 62, was appointed lighthouse keeper. Score, along with his wife Carrie (Leeper), tended the Admiralty Head Lighthouse until June 30, 1922.

Changing Times

By the 1920s, steamships had generally replaced sailing ships in and around Puget Sound. Vessels under sail needed to navigate toward the beacon on Admiralty Head to avoid the shoals around Point Wilson and to make the sharp, difficult turn into Admiralty Inlet. But, the light, which had been an important navigational aid, was no longer necessary, and did not mark any navigational hazard. So, on July 1, 1922, after only 19 years of service, the new lighthouse was decommissioned. The last known custodian of the vacant Admiralty Head Lighthouse was Harry “Doc” Kistenmacher, an Army sergeant assigned to Fort Casey. After the lighthouse was closed, Kistenmacher, remained at the fort with his wife Della, and their family, continuing his Army career.

In July 1927, the Lighthouse Service removed the iron and glass lantern from the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, installing it on the newly shortened tower at the New Dungeness Lighthouse near Sequim. The original fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens was also removed and went missing. In 1928, the Army dismantled the original wooden lighthouse, which they had been using as a temporary medical center and barracks for non-commissioned officers. The salvaged lumber was used to build a house on south Whidbey Island, overlooking Useless Bay. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard was merged with the Lighthouse Service, and assigned responsibility for all the aids-to-navigation in the United States, including the decommissioned Admiralty Head Lighthouse.

War and Post-war

The Admiralty Head Lighthouse stood vacant until World War II (1941-1945) when the Army reactivated Fort Casey as an induction center and troop training facility. The fort, part of the Puget Sound Harbor Defense Command, was rearmed with anti-aircraft guns. In March 1941, the lighthouse was transferred to the War Department, painted olive drab, and used as barracks for the Army’s K-9 Corps that patrolled the fort and beaches at night.

Following the war, the Admiralty Head Lighthouse stood vacant and fell into disrepair, a victim of vandalism and neglect. In the 1950s, the Department of Defense declared Fort Casey government surplus, transferring the property to the General Services Administration for disposal. In 1955, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired 100 acres of Fort Casey’s battery area for use as a state park and historical monument. The Commission acquired the present Fort Casey State Park, which includes the Keystone Spit area, in three parcels between 1955 and 1988, at a total cost of $300,000. Seattle Pacific University purchased 87 acres, which included most of the fort’s administrative buildings and housing, to create the Camp Casey Conference Center.

The New Old Lighthouse

In 1957 the Island County Historical Society, in conjunction with Washington State Parks, began a major restoration of the lighthouse, including the reconstruction of the iron and glass lantern room. After cracks in the thick brick wall were repaired and new was stucco applied, the entire structure was painted white except for the roof and the lantern, which was painted black. They acquired a fourth-order Fresnel lens to display, removed from the Alki Point Lighthouse when that light was modernized in 1962. Eventually the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, under the care of park rangers, was opened to the public as Fort Casey’s interpretive center and historical museum.

On December 12, 1973, the National Park Service listed Central Whidbey Island (also known as Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve) on the National Register as an Historic District (listing No. 73001869). The Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also listed the district on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. 004). In 1980, Fort Casey State Park, including the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, was incorporated into the listings. Today, the Central Whidbey Island Historic District, stretching roughly six miles on either side of Coupeville, and encompassing approximately 25 square miles, is one of the largest historic districts in the country, and has nearly 100 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the early 1990s, cutbacks in funding Washington State Parks led to the loss of the interpretive rangers at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse. In 1994, Washington State University (WSU) Extension -- Island County, proposed an exchange with Washington State Parks to keep the lighthouse open. In exchange for office space, the lighthouse would be run by community volunteers from WSU’s Beach Watchers and Waste Warriors programs. In July 2003, the Coast Guard loaned the museum an original fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens identical to (and possibly) the missing Admiralty Head lens. It had been found in storage at the Coast Guard Station in Port Angeles.

Today, the Admiralty Head Lighthouse Museum and Interpretive Center is administered by WSU Lighthouse Docents.  Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse offer membership and this money goes to support lighthouse restoration and enhancement projects. The WSU Lighthouse Docents offer free guided tours, including a climb in the tower and an up-close look at the fourth-order Fresnel lenses, one from Alki Point Lighthouse and a second lens which is the type of lens that once shown from the tower of Admiralty Head lighthouse. Since little state funding is available, money donated to the museum and from gift shop sales is used to help efforts to keep the lighthouse open to the public. 

Sources:
Jim Gibbs, Twilight on the Lighthouses (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Seattle: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Marge and Ted Mueller, Washington State Parks; A Complete Recreation Guide (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999); Sharlene P. and Ted W. Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Publishing, 1990, 1998); Harry R. Moore, Admiralty Head Lighthouse: The Keepers of the Light (Coupeville: Friends of the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, 2003); Peri Lane Muhich, “An Early Pacific Northwest Lighthouse Family,” Lighthouse Digest, June 2002, p. 32; Peri Lane Muhich, “History of Red Bluff: Washington’s Forgotten Lighthouse,” Ibid., p. 33; “Joseph E. Evans Dies Suddenly,” Port Townsend Daily Leader, December 23, 1913, p. 1; “J. E. Evans Laid to Rest,” Ibid., December 25, 1913, p. 4; “Veteran Light-Keeper Dead,” Ibid., February 4, 1921, p. 3; “Daniel Pearson Is Dead,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1897, p. 2; “Funerals-Scannell,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 27, 1921, p. 11; “Terrill Simecki, “The Wonders of Whidbey,” Whidbey News Times, August 23, 2000; Susan Mador, “Conference Shines On Pacific Northwest Lighthouse,” Ibid., November 9, 2002; Susan Mador, “A Century of Service,” Ibid., August 20, 2003; “Fort Casey,” Washington State Parks Website accessed March 2004 (www.parks.wa.gov) “Inventory of Historic Light Stations; Washington; Admiralty Head Light,” National Park Service Website accessed June 2004 (www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/light/admiralty.htm); “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation Website accessed February 2004 (www.oahp.wa.gov); “Welcome to Admiralty Head Lighthouse,” Admiralty Head Lighthouse Website accessed June 2003 (www.admiraltyhead.wsu.edu); “Admiralty Head Lighthouse,” Keep the Lights Shining Website accessed June 2003 (www.angelfire.com/va3/keepthelightsshining); “National Register of Historical Places; Washington; Jefferson County,” National Register of Historical Places Website accessed June 2004 (www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com).
Note: This essay was updated with current information on lighthouse management on December 31, 2007.


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Red Bluff Lighthouse (old Admiralty Head Lighthouse), Admiralty Head, 1868
Photo by Eadweard Muybridge, Courtesy Admiralty Head Lighthouse


Admiralty Head, with SPU's Camp Casey and Admiralty Head Lighthouse (r. of center), May 5, 1993
Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology


Topographical map of Admiralty Head, July 1, 1991
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey


Captain William Robertson (1809-1888), first keeper, Admiralty Head Lighthouse
Courtesy Admiralty Head Lighthouse


Daniel Pearson (1818-1897) and Susan Pearson (1818-1890)
Courtesy Admiralty Head Lighthouse


Assistant lighthouse keeper Flora (Pearson) Engle with William Engle, 1876
Courtesy Admiralty Head Lighthouse


New Admiralty Head Lighthouse (Carl Leick, 1903) with Charles and Mary Davis, ca. 1903
Postcard Courtesy UW Special Collections


Admiralty Head Lighthouse (Carl Leick, 1903), ca. 1955
Courtesy Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission


Admiralty Head Lighthouse renovations, 1957
Courtesy Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission


Admiralty Head Lighthouse (Carl Leick, 1903), 2002
Courtesy Keep the Lights Shining Website


 
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