On October 21, 1977, the Patos Island Lighthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Patos Island is the northernmost of the San Juan Islands. Its lighthouse is located at Alden Point on the island's western tip, less than two miles from the Canadian boundary. The fog-signal building was built in 1893, and a 38-foot tower was added in 1908. The island and the lighthouse are filled with stories of maritime adventures past, some of which appear in the 1951 book The Light on the Island by Helene Durgan Glidden (1900-1989). The Coast Guard abandons the property in 1978, and it will slowly deteriorate for the next 30 years before being restored. During the 2010s it will be maintained by the Keepers of the Patos Light, opening the lighthouse to a whole new group of explorers.
Patos Island Lighthouse
North and northwest of the Patos Island Lighthouse the waters of the Strait of Georgia seem to stretch into infinity. By the mid-nineteenth century ships were beginning to routinely ply these waters. But as vessels approached the Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands they found swift and dangerous currents to contend with, and in foggy weather it was hard for captains to orient their vessels relative to the islands. On Canada's Saturna Island, across Boundary Pass three or four miles west of Patos Island, East Point Lighthouse was established in 1888, which led to the need for a similar lighthouse on the American side of the pass. Construction began on the Patos Island Lighthouse in the early months of 1893, and by late June a fog-signal building, post light, water tanks, and a keeper's house had been built. The fog-signal equipment was installed in October, and the lighthouse became operational on November 30, 1893.
In its early years the lighthouse consisted of a fog-signal building with a Daboll trumpet signal (which proved deficient and was replaced with a longer trumpet in 1894) and a red lantern light displayed atop a 10-foot tall white stake. The light similarly proved too weak to always be seen by passing ships, and it was replaced in November 1908 by a revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens that produced a white flash every five seconds. The new lens was installed in a 38-foot tower, complete with balcony, which was added that same year atop the original building.
Like most Washington lighthouses during these years, Patos Island's had two lightkeepers. They lived in a large, attractive two-story house (replaced by a duplex in 1958) a short walk away from the lighthouse, with their families if they had them. The first keeper was Harry Mahler (1865-1935), who began his tenure on August 2, 1893. However his assistant keeper, Edward Durgan (1858-1919), takes the honor of being the first keeper to assume his duties on the island, reporting for duty on July 28, 1893, five days before Mahler. Durgan went on to become the best-known keeper who served on Patos Island, and one of the better-known keepers in the entire Pacific Northwest. He served at lighthouses in both Oregon and Washington before dying in 1919 while on duty at the Semiahmoo Lighthouse near Blaine. But it's his daughter, Helene, who's especially associated with Patos Island. She spent more than five years of her childhood there, from 1905 to 1911, and in 1951 published a somewhat romanticized book, The Light on the Island, about those years.
Though many of the island's lightkeepers fondly recalled their experiences and said the isolation did not bother them, there was at least one who went a little stir-crazy. In August 1912 the Canadian tug William Jolliffe was passing by Patos Island when the men on board noticed the U.S. flag next to the lighthouse was flying upside down. This was a common distress signal at the time, and was the only way anyone on the island could summon help until a telephone line was installed in 1919. The assistant keeper (probably one William Stark) reported that Lightkeeper George Lonholt (1877-1954) had shown signs of mental instability and had stolen a boat and left the island two days earlier, but an investigation found otherwise. It turned out Stark and Lonholt didn't get along, and hostilities finally boiled over when Stark threatened to kill Lonholt. Fearing for his life, Lonholt had indeed made a hasty departure from Patos Island, leaving Stark behind.
Glory Days, Fade Away
By the 1910s tour boats were coming to the island in the summer, bringing curious mainland locals to explore the island and its lighthouse. After a pause during America's time in World War I (1917-1918), tours resumed, especially in the 1930s. A look at the lighthouse's register from these years shows that by the mid-1930s the island's allure had broadened, with visitors from as far away as Holland, India, and Norway stopping by for a visit. But while the island was a popular stop for summer tourists into the middle of the twentieth century, it remained an isolated outpost the rest of the year.
In 1939 the U.S. Coast Guard took over control of the lighthouse from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and in June 1974 the lighthouse's light was automated, with a white light flashing every six seconds. The lighthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 21, 1977, but by this time the public was losing interest, and there was no longer a real need to staff it. In 1978, the Coast Guard abandoned the property. For the rest of the twentieth century, the few people who came to the island trashed the place as much as they admired it.
Keepers of the Patos Light
By the early 2000s the island was becoming overgrown with brambles, the lighthouse's paint was peeling, and the structure itself was in need of repairs. In 2005, the Bureau of Land Management tore down all the buildings with the exception of the original lighthouse building and the tower. In 2007, the nonprofit Keepers of the Patos Light (KOPL) organized with the goal of restoring the lighthouse and improving conditions on the island, and the following year the lighthouse was extensively renovated by the Bureau of Land Management. Further improvements were made in 2009, which enabled the lighthouse to open for public tours that summer for the first time in more than 25 years.
KOPL continued to actively maintain the lighthouse during the 2010s, organizing monthly work parties between April and September where volunteers spent a day on the island clearing brush and doing maintenance. The KOPL hosted other events too, including the Glidden/Durgan family reunion in 2010, where descendants of almost-famous lightkeeper Edward Durgan met each other and toured the grounds and the lighthouse. And for much of the decade the KOPL hosted a lighthouse birthday celebration each year, usually in August. The event was a delightful affair (this writer attended the 2014 gathering) where KOPL members and visitors alike could tour the island and lighthouse and perhaps get a taste of the ethereal feeling many of the original lightkeepers must have felt as they looked out from the lighthouse over water and sky.