On June 5, 1905, the Semiahmoo Lighthouse turns on its light. The lighthouse, an attractive, Victorian-style building, perches on a platform in Semiahmoo Bay (Whatcom County), near the entrance to Blaine's Drayton Harbor. It will be demolished in 1944.
Long Time Coming
In the final years of the nineteenth century, Blaine and its sister city on the nearby spit, Semiahmoo, became home to a number of fish canneries, most notably Semiahmoo's Alaska Packers Association. This led to a surge in local shipping traffic and created a need for a signal light in Semiahmoo Bay. In about 1895 the first rudimentary light beacon -- a red lantern suspended on a cluster of three piles -- was built in the bay, near the entrance to Drayton Harbor. It was tended by Semiahmoo postmaster Orison P. Carver (1856-1909). But people knew it wasn't enough, and some cajoled Carver to petition the U.S. Lighthouse Board for a lighthouse and fog-signal station. He sent his petition in on September 6, 1897, and received a prompt acknowledgment from the board. Before the board acted further, the Spanish-American War intervened, and all harbor appropriations were postponed.
The war was over by the end of 1898, but the petition languished. In April 1900 Carver tried again and this time was more successful. In 1904 for $50 the U.S. government acquired title to 10 acres of land on and near the Semiahmoo Spit from the State of Washington, and construction of the lighthouse began later that year. Twenty-five thousand dollars was appropriated for construction. The government contracted with the Dundon Bridge and Construction Company (a San Francisco and Seattle firm) for $14,000 to build the lighthouse. The remaining $11,000 went for the lighthouse's equipment, including the light and foghorn. The light was a fourth-order, fixed Fresnel lens, and the horn was a third-class Daboll trumpet.
A Light at Last
The lighthouse was located in Semiahmoo Bay just south of the entrance to Drayton Harbor, a bit below where the Semiahmoo Resort is today (2012). It was designed by U.S. Lighthouse Board Architect Carl Leick (1854-1939), and its design was identical to Leick's Desdemona Sands Lighthouse at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Construction was virtually complete by May 1905. A pleasing description of the lighthouse appears in the May 5, 1905, issue of The Blaine Journal: "The finished building is an exceedingly pretty little light station and complete in every detail." It sat on a platform measuring 50 by 80 feet; the platform itself was built on 117 piles driven 15 feet into the sand.
The building was an octagonal structure measuring 62 by 28 feet. Per the Journal, it was painted white with light green trim (U.S. Lighthouse Society records describe the trim as "gray"), with a bronze-colored roof and an interior paneled in fir and cedar.
The building included a 27-foot addition on the east end of the platform with a large wood room and a porch on each side, perhaps used as the living area for the lighthouse keepers. The kitchen and dining room were immediately adjacent to the addition, in the east half of the building itself. A smaller addition on the west end of the building's first floor housed the engine room and contained the boiler for the heating plant, as well as the engine for the foghorn. The horn was also in this room and protruded through the wall to the outside of the building, facing Semiahmoo Bay. The second floor (though the building is typically described as one-and-a-half stories) had three small rooms and a storeroom. The light tower was 29 feet above the first floor, about 10 feet in diameter, and had a circular balcony. The station's water was provided by two 3,000-gallon tanks on the lighthouse's east side that were filled by rainwater from the roof.
Carver was appointed assistant keeper of the new lighthouse at a salary of $600 a year (the same as the lighthouse keeper), with orders to report for duty on May 14, 1905. Here a curiosity appears, because the next month, about the same time the light became operational, Carver resigned his new post. He had tended the fixed light in Semiahmoo Bay for 10 years and had worked hard to make an actual lighthouse at Semiahmoo a reality. So why did he quit almost as soon as he was named? Was he disappointed that he was named assistant keeper instead of lighthouse keeper, or were there other reasons?
In any event, the new lighthouse's light became operational on June 5, 1905, and hosted a variety of keepers over the years. One of the more prominent was Edward Durgan (1858-1919), Semiahmoo's lighthouse keeper from 1911 to 1919. Durgan served in at least six lighthouses in Washington and Oregon over a period of about 25 years, including Patos Island (San Juan County) between 1905 and 1911 (not 1913 as most sources claim). His daughter, Helene Glidden, immortalized the Patos Island experience in her 1951 book, The Light On The Island. Durgan only reluctantly accepted the Semiahmoo assignment, referring to the lighthouse as "that little birdhouse perched up on stilts at Blaine" (Lighthouse Digest).
Durgan served at Semiahmoo until the afternoon of March 20, 1919 (often incorrectly reported as 1920), when he was stricken with a heart attack while on duty. His wife, Estelle (ca. 1866-1943), who had been working as assistant keeper (one of only three women serving on the Pacific Coast in 1919), tried to signal for help by flying the station's American flag upside down. This was the only way to alert passersby of a problem since there was no telephone at the lighthouse, and this method was commonly used at other remote lighthouses in the era before telephones or radios. Unfortunately, no one at Semiahmoo or Blaine noticed the flag. It was only by chance that a boat stalled near the lighthouse a couple of hours later, and through it she was able to get word of the emergency to Blaine. But by then it was too late, and Durgan died. Estelle Durgan replaced her husband as lighthouse keeper for some time after his passing. Other keepers followed, including Semiahmoo's final keeper, George Lonholt (1877-1954).
Automation, Then Demolition
In 1939 an automatic light and bell were installed at the lighthouse, putting Lonholt out of a job. But the bell was a dud; unless weather conditions were nearly perfect, it couldn't be heard even a mile away. It took only a few years for the U.S. Coast Guard to decide to replace the entire structure, and it was a sad day in the spring of 1944 when the decision to dismantle the lighthouse was announced.
The Semiahmoo Lighthouse was unceremoniously torn down over a period of about a month, and by mid-June, 1944, it was history. Sighed the Journal, "It will be some time before local residents become accustomed to looking out over the water and not seeing the old familiar lighthouse" ("Semiahmoo Lighthouse Is Being Demolished").