Nine miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska, in Clarence Strait at the entrance to Tongass Narrows, Guard Island Light Station is one of the most accessible lighthouse sites in Alaska. All the station’s buildings except the lighthouse and fog signal were destroyed by the Coast Guard in 1973 after it was discovered that squatters had taken up residence in the old keeper’s house. If local resident Robert B. Holston, Jr. has his way, the lighthouse site will be preserved and revitalized as a center for youth activities, education, recreation and more. The first hurdle for Holston and his nonprofit group, Guard Island Heritage, Inc., is to gain ownership of the station.
Construction of the first Guard Island Lighthouse began in 1903, during the period from 1902 to 1905 when most of Alaska’s lighthouses were built. First lighted on September 15, 1904, Guard Island Light was originally a 34-foot wooden tower. A wood frame keeper’s house was built at the same time and a fog bell, operated by a striking mechanism, was mounted on the tower. The first tower apparently didn’t hold up well, and had to be replaced by the present reinforced concrete structure in 1922. A diaphone fog signal soon replaced the fog bell.
For many years two keepers and their families lived at the station. A grim episode in Guard Island’s history occurred during Prohibition, when the keepers rowed out to investigate a drifting vessel. They were shocked to find the bodies of two murdered men hidden in a locker on the boat. Concerned for the safety of their families, the keepers started carrying guns after this incident.
When the Coast Guard took over Guard Island became a “stag” station, with two men at the station on tours of duty lasting one year. Life was a little easier at Guard Island than at some of Alaska’s more remote stations, as the keepers were able to row to Ketchikan in calm weather. At the station the Coast Guardsmen had a pool table, a Monopoly game, and a movie projector for entertainment.
The light was automated and the keepers were removed in 1969. In 1997 the Coast Guard granted the right to lease the lighthouse to the Boy Scouts, who soon decided it was too much of a burden for them. Around that time, 11 Alaskan lighthouses were leased to various organizations. These situations, including the leasing of Five Fingers Light to the Juneau Lighthouse Association, have worked out well.
Guard Island Heritage, Inc., has now been formed to implement a plan for the 10.5 acre lighthouse station, largely through the efforts of Robert B. Holston, Jr., who also runs the Alaskan Home Fishing Lodge in Ketchikan. The plans include a boardwalk circumnavigating the island, a classroom/shelter, an amphitheater, revitalization of the lighthouse to become a maritime art gallery, and the construction of a new dock to make access easier. A self-guided interpretive trail would point out highlights of the station’s history, as well as information on native wildlife and vegetation. The site would be open to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other youth groups, school classes, cruise ship passengers and other tourists. Guard Island Heritage anticipates 40,000 visitors per year once the site is opened.
Enthusiastic letters of support have been submitted by the Boy Scouts of America, Ketchikan Borough Economic Development, the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, the Ketchikan School District, Princess Tours, the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council, the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau and others. In a letter of support, Historic Ketchikan, Inc. Executive Director Dave Kiffer said, “Mr. Holston’s plan to develop an interpretive trail on the site dovetails with our efforts to create a similar project along Ketchikan’s downtown waterfront area. ...We strongly believe that sites such as Guard Island should be historically preserved but also developed in such a way to add jobs to the local economy and boost heritage tourism.”
The proposal by Guard Island Heritage, Inc., has been presented to the U.S. Coast Guard Real Property Division in Alameda, California. Sherry Shirkey, Chief of the Real Property Branch, Civil Engineering Division, has said that they intend to engage the General Services Administration (GSA) in disposing Guard Island Light Station under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. This act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to identify and select an eligible entity to which a light station could be conveyed for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.
The Coast Guard plans to submit a report of excess to the GSA once an internal review of the property is completed, and they will identify Guard Island Heritage, Inc, as an “interested party.” In the meantime the Coast Guard cannot grant the organization a permit to do any restoration of the property.
Rob Holston and Guard Island Heritage, Inc., are hoping to speed up the transfer process, and they are asking that any interested persons write to the Real Property Branch of the Coast Guard and urge them to move forward on the report of excess to the GSA.
According to Rob Holston, the estimated amount needed for the entire revitalization project will be about $450,000. Once the initial project is completed the group believes that tourism dollars will sustain the operation. Guard Island Heritage, Inc., welcomes all suggestions for funding sources.
For more information:
Guard Island Heritage, Inc.
Ward Cove, AK 99928
Chief of Real Property Branch
United States Coast Guard
Alameda, CA 94501-5100
This story appeared in the
May 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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