The Trials Of Lighthouse Keeping

This article points out some of the dangers that lighthouse keepers faced before automation.

This article points out some of the dangers that lighthouse keepers faced before automation.

In 1792 Patos Island was named Isla de Patos (Island of Ducks), by Spanish Explorers Galiano and Bazan maybe because of the many ducks which inhabited the island. Interestingly, the island was a hiding place for smugglers due to its nearness to the Canadian border and its many trees and caves.

The island's first light was on Boundary Pass just opposite Canada's Saturna Island. Patos Island is at the northern entrance to the Canal de Haro. This was a very dangerous passage because of strong currents and foggy weather. In March of 1891 Congress appropriated $12,000 to erect an aid to navigation which consisted of a double dwelling, fog signal building, water tanks and a post light at the western end f the island. The actual building was completed late in 1893.
Thus there was a white light on the Canadian side of the channel and a red light on a ten foot tall white stake on Patos Island.

By 1915 several improvements were made with the result of a new fog signal and a lighthouse with a fresnel lens. Harry Mahler was paid $700 per year as head keeper and Edward Durgan received $500 per year as assistant keeper.

After serving as lighthouse keeper at several different locations on the West Coast Durgan returned in 1905 to Patos Island as the head light keeper. He arrived at at Patos with wife Estelle and their thirteen children where he became very well-known. Even though it had a mild climate, Patos Island was very isolated. The Durgan family would travel twenty-six water miles once a month to Bellingham, Washington for supplies. Their nearest neighbor was Saturna Island in Canada which was just over three miles away by water.

Seven of the children came down with smallpox and keeper Durgan, in order to signal for help flew the lighthouse flag upside down. Eventually help did come but one account says that three of the children died. While another account was that one child succumbed. A third accounting states that the child who died likely died of appendicitis, not smallpox

.Helene Durgan Glidden, one of the surviving children later wrote a memoir titled "The Light on the Island". In this writing she told of her talks with God, how she played with her pet cow and wandered the shores of the island which she called "the petticoats" of Patos Island.

George Loholt replaced Durgan as headkeeper with Mary Durgan's husband, Noah Clark , staying on as assistant keeper.

Trips over the rough waters for visiting or shopping were dangerous. In 1911 Noah Clark motored to Blaine ,Washington to pick up his wife, Mary and their young son who had been visiting the Durgans. On their return trip the boat's motor failed as it was nearing Patos Island. The boat started filling with water and Clark jumped overboard for help to save his family and he was never seen again. His family, after drifting in the water all night, eventually crawled on top of the cabin when the boat filled with water. Fortunately they were rescued after grounding onto a shoal.

In August 1912, a distress signal was coming from Patos Island. Captain Newcombe of the Canadian fishery protection tug noticed the signal and stopped at the island to investigate. The assistant lighthouse keeper, William Stark, told the captain that Keeper Loholt was exhibiting signs of insanity. That Loholt had left the station in a boat two days earlier without any explanation leaving Stark to carry out all the duties alone. Captain Newcombe notified the lighthouse inspector in Portland, who proceeded to Patos Island.

Inspector Beck arrived at Patos and discovered that the two men had been fighting and that one had threatened to kill the other and drove him from the island. Ultimately the assistant was suspended and Keeper Loholt continued on as head lighthouse keeper for another ten years or more. During which time he rendered assistance to several vessels in distress.
Those accounts were mentioned in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses.

Telephone service came to the island in 1919 and took care of much of the communication issue.

The lighthouse is now part of Patos Island State Park and has been restored and is being cared for by a group of selfless volunteers.

The lighthouse can be visited by boat from either Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor. In recent years there are docents to open the lighthouse to visitors during the summer months.

The lighthouse is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Grounds .open, lighthouse closed

The lighthouse is best visited by boat. Roche Harbor or Friday Harbor on San Juan Island are two of the closest harbors to Patos Island Lighthouse. Keepers of the Patos Light have had docents on the island in recent years to open the lighthouse to visitors during the summer months.

Orcas Island Eclipse Charters has offered Lighthouse Tours in the past that pass by Patos Island. Outer Island Excursions offers trips to Patos Island that include a hike to the lighthouse.

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