To the lighthouse
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
For more than a century one of Washington’s earliest man-made landmarks has perched 120 feet above the sea on the bluff at Admiralty Head on Whidbey Island. In its early years, the lighthouse beacon guided the sailing ships that helped settle Puget Sound. Today the white stucco structure with its 30-foot tower charms visitors exploring the island.
The first lighthouse was built on Admiralty Head (also called Red Bluff) in 1861. At the time, the building was made of wood and the lamp was fueled by whale oil. It had to go, though, to make room for Fort Casey, a U.S.military post. In 1903, a replacement lighthouse was built a few hundred feet to the north. The building, which stands today, was made of brick and covered with stucco in the California Spanish-style design of architect Carl Leick. It was quite fancy, with an indoor bathroom and spacious living quarters that during its years of operation suited several different lighthouse keepers and their families.
At night when ships sailed through the strait, they would use this lighthouse and the one at Point Wilson on the other side of Admiralty Inlet to know when and where to turn south and into Puget Sound. “It wasn’t here to warn sailors of harm. It was here to guide them,” says Julie Pigott, program coordinator for WSU’s lighthouse docent program, which staffs the lighthouse for visitors. But when there was fog, the house did have a horn.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1922 because steamships with more sophisticated equipment could more easily navigate along the west shore of the inlet, and because the lights from Fort Casey provided a bright enough landmark for the nighttime traffic.
With the exception of World War II, when it was painted green and made into living quarters for soldiers stationed at the fort, the structure was forgotten. In the 1950s, the Washington State Parks department and the Island County Historical Society made repairs and opened it to the public. But 40 years later the state parks department lost money for managing the lighthouse and had to cease both restorations and public visits. That’s when WSU’s Island County Extension office stepped in, offering to staff the historical site with local volunteers in exchange for office space on the second floor for its Beach Watchers and other programs.
The main floor, which comprises the entry, living room, dining room, and kitchen of the lighthouse keepers’ residence, is now a museum and gift shop. Visitors can learn the history of the landmark and see up close the large fourth order Fresnel lenses that could beam enough light to be seen 16 miles away.
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