NEAH BAY — It’s been many years since the Cape Flattery lighthouse at Tatoosh Island, the northwesternmost point in the Lower 48, needed to be tended by a lighthouse keeper, and the lonely outpost will revert to more traditional uses in the near future.
Crews from Coast Guard District 13, which oversees lighthouse operations, have begun the process of cleaning up the lighthouse and grounds so that management of the island and buildings can be turned over to the Makah tribe, which owns the island and considers it culturally important.
The Coast Guard visits the island via helicopter, and crews have made several trips this past summer to begin the job of cleaning it up.
They recently removed a generator and fuel tank, no longer needed as the Federal Aid to Navigation beacon is now solar-powered.
Patty Manuel, Makah Nation general manager in Neah Bay, said they have met with the Coast Guard twice, but there is no timeline or date set for the historic hand-over.
She said there are no plans to change the use of the island.
“The island will continue to be used for research,” she said.
Tatoosh Island, virtually untouched by development, is of interest to the archeological researchers at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, as well as to a variety of universities and environmental research groups.
The “tabletop” island lies about a half mile off of Cape Flattery, and is surrounded by a small group of rocky outcroppings.
Janine Bowechop, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center, said tribal leaders are discussing how they would like to use the lighthouse and buildings, so the Coast Guard can leave it in shape to meet those plans.
Summer fishing camp
The island has long been a significant place for the tribe.
“The Makah people have always felt that area to be very important,” Bowechop said.
The area was used for centuries for seasonal camps for processing halibut and whale caught in the roiling waters of the Pacific that surround the island, and as a site for traditional potlatches.
Bowechop said the tribe held potlatches at the remote outpost from 1855 to 1934, when the U.S. government restricted such gatherings by native people.
“The site was away from the agents [in Neah Bay and LaPush] who restricted the potlatches,” she said
The tribe currently restricts access to the island due to the archeological significance and environmental sensitivity.
Bowechop said “the area is basically closed,” and is open only to researchers with permits from the Center.
The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society reports that the island is home to nesting murres, gulls, puffins, and storm-petrels.
Thousands of birds, from hawks to herons, stop at the island on their migrations north or south.
Sea lions shelter on its rocky shore, feasting on passing salmon who enter and exit the strait on their spawning migrations.
The classic white lighthouse with orange roof is considered to be one of the oldest in the nation. It was built in 1857 on the highest point of the 20-acre island which marks the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The structure contains a lighthouse keeper’s residence attached to a 65-foot high brick tower topped by an iron lantern room.
The peak originally housed a 10-and-a-half foot-high first order Fresnel lens, built in Paris in 1854. It was standard issue for lighthouses at the time.
By 1977 all the lighthouse’s functions were automated, eliminating the need for a resident lighthouse keeper, and in 1996 a solar-powered optic replaced the Fresnel lens from 1932. This reduced maintenance trips by the Coast Guard to four times a year.
Last year the Coast guard installed a 30-foot metal tower and an LED beacon which can be seen from approximately 14 miles, according to Lt. Patrick Marshall, District 13 operations officer.
At that time crews also installed three 30-inch solar panels to power the light, further eliminating the need to visit the island.
He said crews would only need to do a maintenance check once a year.
“LED technology makes better use of taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
The post may have been lonely, but it watched over one of the busiest waterways in the United States.
Every single ship that calls at port along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, from Neah Bay to Tacoma, passes by this point. For many, it is the first land they have seen since Asia.
Marshall said the Coast Guard still will maintain jurisdiction over the beacon in order to “make sure it’s operating properly and provide a safe aid to navigation.”
He noted that with advances in onboard navigation equipment such as Global Positioning Systems, captains no longer have as much need to rely on a beam of light to safeguard their passage.
When the Makahs take over the lighthouse it will mark the first for North Olympic Peninsula lighthouses.
The New Dungeness lighthouse on the Dungeness Spit is maintained and operated by the New Dungeness Light Station Association, while the Point Wilson lighthouse at Fort Worden is maintained and operated by the Coast Guard.
The Marrowstone Point lighthouse at Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island has an automated beacon, and the lighthouse keeper’s house is now home to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Marrowstone Marine Field Station.
________Features editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or [email protected]