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The story behind Point Wilson Lighthouse in Washington state

5 min read

Point Wilson Lighthouse, named by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 after his colleague Captain George Wilson, is an active aid to navigation located in Fort Worden State Park near Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Washington.
It is one of the most important navigational aids in the state, overlooking the entrance to Admiralty Inlet, the waterway connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, and It is an important landmark for vessels traveling to and from Puget Sound itself.

This critical turn was first marked by a church bell. Recognizing that the point was often shrouded by fog, in 1865, Captain J.W. Sheldon donated a ship’s bell to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Townsend with the condition that the bell be rung on foggy days.
Several years later, a steamer used the sound of the bell as a guide into Port Townsend harbor. John H. Yates was so touched after reading the newspaper account of the dual-role the bell played, that he wrote the hymn, “The Harbor Bell.”
First real lighthouse on the site was built in 1879 by the United States Lighthouse Service as a companion to the Admiralty Head Light built some 18 years earlier on the eastern side of Admiralty Inlet.
A square wooden tower projecting from the roof of a two-story keeper’s quarters, it held a fixed fourth-order Fresnel lens. The station also included a fog signal building with a steam-powered fog whistle.
The tower first exhibited its fixed white light, which could be seen for up to thirteen miles, on December 15, 1879, and mariners were literally unanimous in expressions of commendation of the excellence of the light and of the efficiency of the fog-signal.
David M. Littlefield, a Civil War veteran and local resident, was appointed the first keeper at Point Wilson and served for four years before moving back to Port Townsend, where he would later serve as a City Councilman, Mayor, and Collector of Customs.
In 1894, a galvanized-iron oil house was built on the station grounds, and a new lens was installed in the lantern room, changing the light’s characteristic from fixed white to fixed white varied by a red flash every twenty seconds.

In 1904, landfill was added to the site in an effort to protect the station, but time and tide having worked their destructive effects, and a new lighthouse was commissioned.
Completed in 1914, it was built of reinforced concrete with a 14 m octagonal tower designed to withstand the wind. The light still shines from the fourth-order Fresnel lens, sending forth alternate red and white flashes every five seconds.

It was early in the morning on April 1, 1921 when Keeper William J. Thomas of Point Wilson Lighthouse heard a grinding noise. He knew there was trouble in the water, and so he telephoned Port Townsend to send help.
What he heard was the slamming of the crowded passenger liner Governor of the Admiral Line into the freighter West Hartland. The big over 95-meters Governor had just offloaded passengers in Victoria and was bound for Seattle, when it rounded Port Townsend and was rammed by the freighter. Reports would later conclude that the pilot on the Governor mistook the West Hartland’s running lights for the fixed lights on Marrowstone Point and failed to yield the right-of-way. A 3 meters gash was torn in the Governor’s iron hull and, even if the captain of the West Hartland ordered full speed ahead to try to keep the hole plugged, the Governor soon began to sink in over 70 meters of water. In the time it took for the vessel to sink, most of the passengers were able to scamper aboard the West Hartland, and all but eight of the 240 people aboard the Governor were rescued.

In any case, the lighthouse was listed on the Washington State Heritage Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and the station was automated in 1976.
Point Wilson Light remains in the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard, while the grounds are managed by Washington State Parks.
Recently, in 2020, the society started offering overnight stays at a restored Coast Guard dwelling location on the lighthouse grounds.

If you like lighthouses, this one is a classic Northwestern model.
Fort Worden State Park in itself is an interesting destination, and the lighthouse, even though unfortunately has seen better days as high winds and water have pummeled it over the years, sometimes flooding it due to its low-lying location, is worth a visit.
Volunteers from the Coast Guard Auxiliary continue to administer to it and conduct tours during certain times of the year.
In case you see a weird apparition while visiting, there are ghost emthusiasts who insist that Point Wilson Lighthouse is haunted. It seems that wives of former keepers reported seeing a woman in a long gown inside the structure and wandering the grounds around it.
Before the light was automated, wives of keepers assigned to Point Wilson soon learned they were sharing their quarters with another woman. The first indication they were not alone was usually phantom footsteps and sounded like someone rummaging through cupboards. Then they would catch a fleeting glimpse of a white, shadowy female form in voluminous skirts. No one knows the ghost’s identity, but there are rumors the spirit may be that of a mother whose daughter drowned when one ship wrecked in Puget Sound.
Most keepers never saw or heard the Lady in White but apparently, on one occasion, a male visitor sleeping downstairs was awakened in the night when he felt cold hands around his neck attempting to choke him. He sat up just in time to see the fleeting figure of a woman in the kitchen. He immediately jumped up only to discover the lady had vanished into thin air.
However most modern visitors have never spotted her.

Images from web – Google Research