Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Many jobs across Alaska history have been backbreakingly difficult or inherently risky. Many professions in Alaska have been lonely pursuits, but none were as lonely as lighthouse keepers. Even the most isolated trapper or prospector was free to head toward the nearest town for company. Lighthouse keepers maintained their post day after day after day, staring at storm after storm. And no lighthouse was as isolated as that at Cape Sarichef, the site of the loneliest jobs in Alaska history.
The Russians installed the first lighthouse in Alaska at Sitka in the late 1830s. Sources differ on the exact year but agree that this light was humble. Instead of a slender tower dedicated to its purpose, it was a turret lantern placed in the rooftop cupola of the governor’s residence on Castle Hill, a building also known as the Baranof Castle. Four copper cans filled with whale oil and wicks provided the illumination. The light was maintained for at least a few years after the American purchase of Alaska, though any relic of it would have been destroyed in the 1894 fire that destroyed the building. After that, a simple and not terribly effective post light was installed.
In 1869, President Andrew Johnson transmitted a request to Congress for five new lighthouses in Alaska. The recommendations called for two lighthouses each at Sitka and Kodiak, and one at Dutch Harbor. The proposal was quietly shelved, likely due to the general lack of interest in developing Alaska at the time.
Over the 19th century, but before the Klondike gold rush, hundreds of ships wrecked upon uncharted rocks off Alaska. Even when rocks were documented, different charts sometimes displayed them at different locations. For example, English charts included the Zenobia Rock near Sitka, but Russian navigators could not find it, such was the difficulty in mapping the many hazards. While American authorities did not build any lighthouses in Alaska during the century, they had, by 1895, installed 57 buoys and 25 daymarks to aid safe navigation.
Among the many changes wrought upon Alaska by the Klondike gold rush was the massive increase in ship traffic. Many formerly derelict ships and other barely seaworthy hulls were pressed into service to meet the demand. The combination of perilous waterways, high traffic, novice sailors, and low ship quality led to hundreds of accidents annually along the Inside Passage alone. In 1900, an inspector for the Thirteenth Lighthouse District toured the Alaska coast. His report recommended the construction of 11 lighthouses in Southeast Alaska. All were eventually built,
beginning with two lights in the Lynn Canal. The Sentinel Island and Five Fingers lighthouses both began operation on March 1, 1902.
From zero proper lighthouses in 1900, there were 12 in Alaska by 1906. These new lighthouses were primarily located in the Southeast, including lights at Point Sherman, Point Retreat, Fairway Island, Lincoln Rock, Eldred Rock, Tree Point, Guard Island and Mary Island. The presence of lighthouses lessened but did not eliminate risks. The Vanderbilt Reef is directly north of Sentinel Island. Yet, the reef was the site of several notable wrecks, including the Princess May in 1910 and the loss of more than 350 passengers and crew aboard the Princess Sophia in 1918.
Far to the west, two more lighthouses were built during this period. In 1903, the Scotch Cap Light was built on the southwestern edge of Unimak Island, overlooking the Unimak Pass, still a major shipping route through the Aleutians. In 1946, a tsunami destroyed the lighthouse, killing all five men stationed there. Hoban Sanford, a Coast Guard electrician, was among the first on the scene. He wrote, “On top of a hill behind the Light Station we found a human foot, amputated at the ankle, some small bits of intestine which were apparently from a human being and what seemed to be a human knee cap.”
Then there was Cape Sarichef on the western coast of Unimak Island, about 80 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor. Construction of the lighthouse began in early 1903 and was completed by that October. The lantern had not arrived by then, so the workers left for the winter season. The lantern was finally installed in May 1904 and first lit on July 4. The cylindrical lantern stood 35 feet above the ground atop an octagonal wooden tower on the roof of a one-story building housing the fog signal.
The light was the only American lighthouse facing the Bering Sea, the westernmost lighthouse, and one of the most isolated jobs in the country. Like most lighthouses then, it was built with several buildings capable of housing the keepers and their families. However, upon its first inspection, it was decided that the site was too remote. Families occasionally visited but were not allowed to reside at the station.
The island was and is sparsely populated; most permanent residents live on the east side in False Pass. Mount Shishaldin on the island is an active volcano and the tallest mountain in the Aleutians. Due to the amount of volcanic activity, the island earned a reputation as the Roof of Hell. Sailors sometimes called it the Isle of Lost Ships, for all the vessels wrecked there by storms and rocks.
Most of the lighthouse keepers were bachelors, often drawn from professions with some experience in isolation, including sailors and hunters. One keeper, Ted Pedersen, was the son of a whaler active in the Arctic. His mother died while he was young, and with his father often away, Ted and his sister grew up in the Jesse Lee Home Orphanage in Unalaska. As an adult, he was filling out an application and had to ask his father for his mother’s name.
Another keeper, Ed Moore, claimed to be one of the last buffalo hunters. When keeper John Rosenburg died there in 1918, there was nowhere to send the body, no family waiting. He was buried behind the station. The posting was an acknowledged hardship duty. To entice workers, keepers served for three years and were then granted a year’s absence with pay. After the Bureau of Lighthouses merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, the policy was changed so that a keeper could only serve at Unimak for a year before rotating out.
The Bering Sea storms, shorter summer seasons, and geography exacerbated the isolation. This was not the Sentinel Island lighthouse, a short boat ride away from Juneau. When mail could not be delivered directly, which was often, it was diverted to the Scotch Cap Light. The keepers once went five months without mail or physical contact with the outside world. Keepers frequently ordered books though it sometimes took a year for the delivery.
Time was plentiful, and everyone picked up a hobby, if not multiple. The most popular pastimes were hiking, hunting, photography, and reading. Some keepers supplemented their income by selling animal skins and furs. Some keepers found positives in the seclusion. Pedersen, stationed at Cape Sarichef from 1929 to 1935, was one of those who enjoyed the solitude. He wrote, “I was a free human being. I walked around the island. I climbed the hills. And when I was off watch, I trapped and hunted … I had freedom there.”
Even apart from hunting, the abundant local animals provided the keepers with some of their few distractions. A domesticated cat or two usually had the run of the premises, and the keepers sometimes amused themselves by trying to train them. Now, with the right approach and patience, cats can be trained. While the lighthouse keepers possessed plenty of time, they were not necessarily imbued with the skills to pull it off. In 1933, keeper Lee Harpole explained his best efforts to the Ketchikan Chronicle. He could get them to stand on posts, but that was about it. Said Harpole, “When you ask them a question, they wag their tails for yes, and wag their tails for no.”
The keepers were such a steady presence on the island that foxes would come right up to the doors for food. The cats would often chase the foxes away, again some well-appreciated entertainment. As the keepers pointed out, caribou would also graze within a “mile or two” of the station. That the presence of caribou a mile away was a notable occurrence illustrates the tedium of the job.
There were also less amusing interactions with the wildlife. Waldo Stahl served at Cape Sarichef during the Korean War, and his most notable memory was an encounter with one of the island’s numerous bears. Said Stahl, “I did something stupid I shouldn’t have done, I went out, it was just a little cub, he weighed about 4-5 hundred pounds. I decided I was going to slip out and go to the backdoor, go down to check the light. I was on duty, and as I turned, I guess he smelled me, and he came after me, so we had a footrace, and I beat him to the door.”
The keepers at Cape Sarichef sometimes made the 17-mile walk to the Scotch Cap station. The hike crossed some rugged terrain, but the keepers had time to spare. On one such trip, Harpole had to cross a rushing stream. He stripped down to his underwear and tied his clothes into a bundle, which he tossed ahead of himself. That way, even if he fell in the frigid water, he could don dry clothes. Or at least, that was the story he told. One of the throws missed its target, and the current swept his clothes downstream and into the sea. Harpole was forced to make the rest of the journey in just his underwear and cap. His immodest arrival at the Scotch Cap lighthouse was certainly the most surprising event of their year.
Still, most of the keepers struggled with the monotony. The sun, if visible, was one of the few markers that time was passing. The boundaries between days blurred. Though he was only there for a year, Stahl emphasized how important it was to distract yourself from the tedium. He said, “You just had to find things to do. The weather was usually bad, windy and blowing, and rainy and snowing and things, so most of the time we had hobbies we could do inside, things to keep our mind off what was going on, just to waste time and get through the day.” As another keeper said, “The trouble with our lives is that we have too much time to think.” Pedersen resolved the issue with the realization “that a lighthouse keeper isn’t supposed to think.”
In its earliest decades, the Cape Sarichef lighthouse was typically staffed by three men. The proximity and lack of options did not automatically foster strong relationships among the keepers. Two keepers at another Alaska lighthouse stopped speaking to one another because one liked his potatoes fried while the other preferred them mashed.
The case of Sam Olsen is particularly melancholy, though with a happy ending. As an old sailor, the posting at Cape Sarichef was appealing for its proximity to the sea and easier labor. An avid reader, the shelves at the station groaned with his additions to their little library. One year, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated to the point he could no longer read.
The nearest eye specialist was in Seattle, but no ship was kept on site. He had to wait for one of the mail boats or the lighthouse tender. Five times a mail boat tried to land but was prevented by the rough seas. The conditions forced the ships to continue on their routes. Olsen began to despair. He later said, “I wonder that I didn’t end it all. It would have been easy. Easier than thinking. But a man never knows how much he cares about living until he thinks about dying.”
Finally, the lighthouse tender arrived and brought Olsen to Seattle. After treatment and a new pair of glasses, he could see again. He said, “I can’t stay here. Seattle’s too lonesome for me. I don’t like seeing people and not having them speak to me. I’m going back to my lighthouse.”
No women were allowed at the lighthouse except with official passes, and Ted Pedersen recalled only one such visitor during his tenure. Per his difficult-to-believe story, a female bill collector arrived on the island in 1934. “She was there to collect money I owed. I must have sent out for six or eight magazines that I’d never paid for, because that is when I left the country (for Alaska). I’d never received one of them, but I would have said yes to almost anything she said.”
The effects of the isolation upon lighthouse keepers were not to be taken lightly. Alcoholism was rampant among the men, particularly at more remote stations like Cape Sarichef. Mental illnesses and suicides were also common throughout the profession. In 1929, Bill Hatty at Cape Sarichef claimed the ghosts of Unangax̂ (Aleut) hunters massacred by Russians over a century prior were chasing him.
Unimak had once been perhaps the most populous Aleutian Island. In 1840, Russian Orthodox priest Ivan Veniaminov, who ministered in Russian Alaska for many years, published “Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District,” which combined Russian and traditional Unangax̂ accounts of the previous decades. He described one Unimak village as so large that a “whole whale did not furnish a share for them all.” In 1800, there were around 12 villages on the island, but by the time he wrote, there was only one village with 71 residents. On their hikes, the lighthouse keepers frequently came across abandoned Unangax̂ homes.
The 1930 Coast Guard annual report notes the Coast Guard Cutter Chelan was dispatched to Cape Sarichef to “investigate a report that one of the lighthouse keepers was insane.” In the dry language of a government paper, the report matter-of-factly states, “the boat returned with the insane keeper” who was “delivered to the United States marshal” at Seward. From there, Hatty’s mental health and work status disappear from the historical record.
Aside from the quality of life at the lighthouse station, the men there saved lives. Their labors maintained the light that safely directed countless ships. And when ships did wreck, the keepers were there to recover and shelter them until transport arrived.
After the disaster at Scotch Cap, the old, wooden Cape Sarichef lighthouse was replaced with a new reinforced concrete structure lit in 1950. In 1979, that lighthouse was downgraded to an unmanned light station, with the light itself replaced by new light on a steel tower. The days of the lonely, if dedicated, lighthouse keepers are gone, but the lives they saved endure, through descendants that otherwise would never have existed. Ted Pedersen spent five rough years at the remote lighthouse but wrote, “Cape Sarichef was home to me, a place I wish I had never left.”