Destruction Island Light shines for the first time on January 1, 1892.

  • By William S. Hanable
  • Posted 5/24/2004
  • Essay 5697

On January 1, 1892, at 4:26 p.m., lighthouse keeper Christian Zauner lights the five wicks of the Destruction Island lighthouse's first-order Fresnel lens for the first time. The lighthouse is located on Destruction Island, the only offshore island along Washington's outer coast. The island is situated about three miles from the mainland, about 50 miles south of Cape Flattery, in Jefferson County. It is one of two American lighthouses alerting mariners to the entrance to Puget Sound (the Strait of Juan de Fuca begins about 50 miles to the north).  Travelers in 2004 can see the 30-acre island and its lighthouse from Highway 101 West, on the stretch  between Kalaloch and Ruby Beach.

Early Sightings

The United States Lighthouse Board first reserved Destruction Island's 30 acres for lighthouse purposes on June 8, 1866, but the rocky islet's role in the maritime history of the Pacific Northwest began much earlier. Spanish naval lieutenant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, returning south in the Sonora from a voyage of exploration, passed the island about the day of Nuestra Senora de Dolores, or September 18, 1775. He recorded it on expedition charts as Isla de Dolores.

In 1787, Captain Charles William Barkley, an independent English fur trader, arrived on the Northwest coast in the bark Imperial Eagle under the Austrian flag. Barkley sought to trade with Northwest Coast Indians for furs, which he could sell in China. He brought with him his 17-year-old wife, Frances, who is said to have thus become the first white woman to visit the Northwest Coast. Barkley had changed the registry of his ship, originally British, and her name, Loudoun, to circumvent the East India Company's monopoly on trade with China. Cruising south along the coast from Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, Barkley anchored inside Bodega's Isla de Dolores, and sent a party to the mainland for wood and water.

As the Imperial Eagle's boat neared the mouth of what is now the Hoh River, Indians ambushed it and murdered the crew. Mate Miller, Purser Beal, and four seamen died. Barkley named the river Destruction River. Five years later, Royal Navy explorer Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) applied Barkley's name for the river to Quadra's Isla de la Dolores, charting it as Destruction Island.

Destruction Island, about three miles from the mainland, is the only offshore island along Washington's outer coast. It serves as a landfall light for transoceanic mariners seeking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, for coastwise shipping, as a warning of the rocks and ledges that extend as much as a mile offshore to the south. In 1882, the Lighthouse Board requested and eventually received an $85,000 appropriation to establish a first-order light and fog signal on Destruction Island.

Shipwrecks on the Shoals

The wreck of the Cassandra Adams highlighted need for the light and fog signal at Destruction Island. En route from San Francisco to Tacoma, the Tacoma Mill-owned bark encountered dense fog and struck a reef near the island at 8:15 a.m. on August 10, 1888. Those aboard did not see the island until their ship was hard aground. Heavy seas soon tore her to pieces.

According to one source, "Historians working with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary ... believe that [over the years] at least a dozen ships went down around Destruction Island" (Ramzy) .

Lighting the Ocean

Lighthouse construction, too late to save the Cassandra Adams, began in August 1888, after Congress appropriated an additional $10,000 for the project.  Workers first built a boat landing and derrick on the east side of the island, and then a marine railway from the landing to the lighthouse site, which faces the Pacific Ocean. When Christian Zauner of the U.S. Lighthouse Service arrived in August 1889 to become head keeper, the lighthouse and the fog-signal building were still under construction.

His residence and one for the assistant keepers, a cistern, and a barn were, however, complete. Building the 94-foot dressed stone lighthouse tower, sheathed in iron, began in October 1890. Painted white except for the black lantern room at the top, it was ready for occupancy in November 1891.

Keeping the Light Burning Bright

Zauner and his assistants worked hard to keep the eight-foot-high Fresnel lens  in the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse casting its beacon 24 miles out to sea. The lens was manufactured in Paris by Henri LePaute and Sons in 1888.  The five wicks providing its light source each burned two gallons of oil during every night of operation. The keepers had to carry each gallon up a 115-step circular staircase. The lens's 1,176 prisms and 24 bull's-eyes, held in place by brass frames weighing five to six tons, needed careful daily cleaning to remove nightly accumulations of soot. The brass frames, exposed to salt air, needed constant polishing.

The tall windows of the lantern room, 80 feet above the ground, had to be kept clear of salt spray -- something that could be accomplished only from the windswept balcony circling the top of the tower. The clockwork mechanism, initially powered by a complex system of weights and pulleys that enabled the lens to rotate as it flashed 10 seconds on, 1.5 seconds off, required round-the-clock monitoring. Not until sometime during World War II (1941-1945) did electricity come to the island and replace the oil-fired lamps and the clockwork mechanism with electric bulbs and a motor.

Typically, the head keeper had the help of two assistants. Those who were married were able to bring their families to the island. This created a small community that had its own school and could supplement government rations, brought out in periodic visits by a lighthouse tender, with island-grown vegetables and chickens plus milk, butter, and cream from cows kept on the island.

Change of the Guard

In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service. Rotating Coast Guard personnel gradually replaced long-service keepers. Those assigned to Destruction Island spent six weeks on duty with intervals of two-and-one-half weeks on the mainland. To the peacetime routine of lighthouse operation, they added the wartime duty of watching for enemy ships and submarines that might approach the coast. Sentries at Destruction Island did not spot any Japanese submarines, though the Imperial Japanese Navy's undersea weapons are known to have operated off the Northwest coast. 

At the end of World War II, Destruction Island Light returned to its peacetime routine. In 1963, the Coast Guard proposed closing down the light but relented in the face of protests from mariners. In 1968, however, the light was automated. This eliminated the need to keep people on the island permanently and the last resident keepers departed in the early 1970s.

A small solar-powered electronic beacon replaced the Fresnel lens in 1995. The Coast Guard removed the gigantic lens apparatus from the uninhabited island that same year for security reasons. In 1998, it went on display at Westport Maritime Museum, 50 miles to the south at the entrance to Grays Harbor.

Wildlife Reserve, With Light

In the twenty-first century, Destruction Island has partly returned to its eighteenth century ambience. Because it is a part of Olympic National Marine Sanctuary and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife reserve, visitation to the island is restricted in efforts to protect rare sea birds and sea mammals.

The 1891 lighthouse and fog signal building remain, still serving as aids to navigation. So, too, do the marine railway, cart-storage shed, and two small buildings formerly used for oil storage and now adapted to serve as quarters for visiting Coast Guard inspection teams. Most other structures that once served the now-departed community of lighthouse keepers have been burned or demolished.


Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1999); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History, Revised Edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Lewis & Dryden's Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by E. W. Wright (Portland: Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895); National Park Service, "Inventory of Historic Light Stations – Washington Lighthouses," National Park Service Website accessed March 2, 2004 (; Sharlene and Ted Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses, Second Edition (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, Inc., 1998); Austin Ramzy, "Searching for History: Shipwrecks Pull Historians, Archaeologists, to the Peninsula," Peninsula Daily News, Website accessed September 26, 2000 ( historyandculture/di2000.html); United States Congress: Andrew Johnson, "Message of the President of the United States in relation to points upon the coasts of Oregon, Washington Territory, and Alaska, for light-houses," Senate Executive Document No. 43 (40th Cong., 3d Sess.), February 24, 1869, in United States Serial Set Volume 1630; Committee on Commerce, "Light-House and Fog-Signal on Destruction Island, Washington Territory," July 1, 1882, House of Representatives Report No. 1558, 47th Cong., 1st Sess., in US Serial Set Vol. 2069; Secretary of the Treasury, "Light-House at Grays Harbor, Washington Territory," March 2, 1886, House of Representatives Executive Document No. 98, 49th Cong., 1st Sess., in US Serial Set Vol. 2398; United States Fish and Wildlife Service, "Destruction Island, WA: Hazardous Materials and Environmental Assessment Report," US Fish and Wildlife Service Website accessed March 19, 2004 ( envicon/pim/reports/Olympia/Destruction%20Island.html); Henry R. Wagner, The Cartography of the Northwest Coast to the Year 1800 (Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1968); Westport Maritime Museum, "Destruction Island Lens," accessed March 19, 2004 ( destruction_island_lens.htm); Frances Barkley, "Reminiscences," mss. reported at Provincial Archives of British Columbia, quoted in F. W. Howay, "Early Navigation of the Straits of Fuca," Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 1 (March 1911).

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