Lighthouses and their properties vary around SE

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

While the use and size of land connected with U.S. lighthouses varies, observers say the Point Retreat lighthouse reserve near Juneau is larger than most.

Years ago, lighthouses established by the federal government were assigned a reservation. In some cases an entire island was set aside as a lighthouse reserve. In other cases, part of the island became the reserve, said Dave Snyder, a historian with the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit historical and educational organization based in San Francisco.

U.S. Lighthouse Society President Wayne Wheeler was a navigator on the Coast Guard cutter Sweetbrier in Alaska in the 1960s. Among other duties, the crew dropped off food, mail and movies at Southeast lighthouses, including Point Retreat, every two weeks.

At 1,500 acres, Point Retreat's land base is unusual, he said.

"There's no reason for them to have that kind of acreage. If you look at other light stations around the country, there's just not that kind of acreage," Wheeler said.

The society's Washington chapter runs a lighthouse at New Dungeness on the Olympic Peninsula that includes about 20 acres. The light station at Point Bonita, Calif., was about 180 acres, he said.

Lighthouses closer to railroads or more populated areas might have included less land, while those further away, such as those in Alaska, might have included more land so the keeper would be self-sufficient, Snyder said.

As an example, a lighthouse keeper might fell trees for firewood or to build a fence. Some keepers were involved in minor commercial activities such as fishing or crabbing, Snyder said.

"In lighthouse days, there would have been minimal management," he said.

Light stations in the early 19th century also used the land to plant crops, grow vegetables and keep cows, chickens and pigs, Wheeler added.

In Alaska, the Coast Guard leased the 216-acre Cape Decision lighthouse reserve to Cape Decision Lighthouse Society in 1997, according to society President Karen Johnson of Sitka. Along with the lighthouse and other buildings, the reserve includes a 0.7-mile spur trail that provides access to the site, she said.

Part of a 4.5-mile Port McArthur historic trail also is on the reserve. The lighthouse group has collaborated with the Forest Service on trail construction, Johnson said.

As with the land around the Point Retreat lighthouse reserve, the land adjacent to Cape Decision on southern Kuiu Island is managed for semi-remote recreation by the Forest Service. The designation provides a predominantly natural setting for semi-primitive recreation with some rustic recreation and tourism facilities allowed, according to the agency.

The Cape St. Elias lighthouse is on Kayak Island between Cordova and Yakutat. The island is 22 miles long by 2 miles wide, and the Cape St. Elias Lightkeepers' Association lease with the Coast Guard includes about 500 acres, President Toni Bocci said.

"It's sheer rock that goes up 1,500 feet that you can't do anything with. The lighthouse is on the tip," she said.

The association's main focus is restoring the lighthouse building, a task made more difficult because of the site's location, Bocci said.

"Ours is more remote than some of the other ones," she said. "You have to charter a plane, land on the beach and hike two miles, carrying everything on your back."

Closer to Juneau, the Sentinel Island Lighthouse, which can be seen from Amalga Harbor, is on six forested acres.

The Five Finger Light sits on a "three-acre rock" 64 miles south of Juneau, according to Valerie O'Hare of the Juneau Lighthouse Association. What a land transfer at Point Retreat could mean to other Alaska lighthouses will depend on what happens next, she said.

"What's going to affect us is what they do after," she said. "With that being said, we hope that whatever they do is not only done in the best interest of Point Retreat, but done within the best interest of the entire lighthouse program in Alaska."

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