I have had stories of lighthouses and lighthouse memorabilia surrounding me for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Coast Guard when my father was very young, and his stories have interested and entertained our family for many years. So this is the story of the Gibbs family and three lighthouses on the Pacific Coast.
World War II had just ended, and my grandfather, Otto Gibbs, decided to re-enlist in the Coast Guard and asked for a shore assignment so that he could be with his young family. On June 30, 1947, he was stationed at the Mary Island Lighthouse Station in the Revillagigedo Channel, Alaska, following the retirement of the former keeper. My grandmother, Dorothy, came up with him, bringing their two small children: Dennis, aged 3, and Suzette, aged 1. They arrived to an island that was covered with a dense forest, with the lighthouse, keeper’s and crew dwellings, boat and oil houses, all perched on the shoreline. The lighthouse as it stood when Otto took charge was officially lit in 1937. There were three other single men on the island as well to help with the upkeep of the station. The light was turned on from 4pm to 9am every day. In addition, there was a foghorn attached to the tower of the light station. This foghorn was so loud that my grandmother had to actually get a sedative so that she could sleep at night. When Otto’s parents came to visit for a few months, his mother, Emma, wrote to her daughter a description of the tower: “88 steps from 1st floor - 99 from basement. I went up every day - 88 steps, good exercise - good fresh air on top.” There was also an extension bridge built over the edge of the small cliff where the light station stood, which served as a secondary hand signal in case the light from the tower went out.
One of my father’s first memories is of the wolves that roamed in the woods behind the light station. Otto had told the children that they were not to go outside alone, on account of the wolves. One day, my father wandered outside alone, knowing that he was disobeying his father. He had almost reached the boathouse when he heard a low growl from behind him. Freezing in his tracks, my father slowly turned around, heart pounding, to see the wolf that had come to eat him. The “wolf” grabbed my dad and lifted him up, asking if Denny had learned his lesson. Nodding his little head vigorously, Denny said yes in the circle of his father’s safe arms.
My grandfather and his family were only stationed on Mary Island for six months. The former lighthouse keeper had requested to return to the station, bringing with him his new wife. So the Gibbs family moved to Guard Island light station on December 29, 1947.
Guard Island is located nine miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska in the Clarence Strait. The light station was built in 1904, and the tower that stood when Otto took charge was officially lit in 1924. The island contained the square light tower built on an oil house, two large housing units, and a boathouse. The boathouse was so far away from the waterline that a ramp was built, and the boat placed on a trolley with a winch. It could then be let down to the water, and pulled back up to the boathouse. The station also had a foghorn, which would often sound because of the fog in the strait. Suzette would cover her head with her blanket at night and say “shut mouth, foghorn.” During the winter, the snow would fall on the small island so that when Emma visited she “couldn’t see 1/2 block away - can’t see the sky either - seems we are in a little world to ourselves.” My grandmother, who found the isolation of living on an island unbearable at times, often voiced that feeling. Two small children kept her busy, but she longed for the city life she had left behind.
A popular radio show during this time was “Truth or Consequences.” Dorothy was listening to the show one evening, and was amazed to hear the consequence of one of the guests, William Livingston. He was to deliver a bucket of ice to the Guard Island light station! She couldn’t believe her ears, realizing that suddenly thousands of people had heard about the place that she believed existed in total isolation. In due time, Livingston arrived in Ketchikan, along with Lt. Commander Cannon of the Coast Guard, to deliver his bucket of ice. He was taken out to the island on CG83521 and Otto was there to greet him. Having delivered the ice and posed for various photographs, the celebrity left the island. That weekend, Otto, Dorothy, and family traveled to Ketchikan to appear on the “Truth or Consequences” show. Little Denny managed to get himself lost in the “big city,” as the local newspaper reported. He was found by the police by the Nifty Barber Shop, and was only able to tell the officers that his parents’ names were “Mama” and “Daddy.” Otto & Dorothy were finally located by telephone, and picked up their little lost boy, his face covered with chocolate from a candy bar given him by Chief Lang.
The decision was made to move from Alaska now that Denny was old enough to attend first grade. The Gibbs family left Guard Island February 8, 1949, and Otto served a brief time in the Coast Guard Group in Seattle, Washington. Otto was then re-stationed at the North Head light station in Ilwaco, Washington on May 8, 1949. North Head light station is north of the mouth of the Columbia River, standing on a cliff overlooking the rough northern Pacific waters. The light station itself was a distance from the quarters of the keepers. He was assigned as officer in charge, with two assistants under him, D.T. Judd and Fred G. Sheldon. In addition, there was a weather station manned by two men with families some distance from the light station. Denny and Suzette were very excited, as now they were surrounded with children their age. When the school year began, Denny rode the bus from the light station to Ilwaco along with the other school-aged children (he remembers Kathryn especially) from the weather station. They were the first ones on and the last ones off in the afternoon, and that long bus ride is what Denny remembers most about his first grade year.
There were bears in the forest near North Head, and one day Judd saw a bear by the pump house. He went back to the light station and got a rifle, returned and shot the bear. When he went to examine his kill, he was surprised to see two bears lying on the ground. Upon further investigation, he discovered that one bear had been standing in front of the other, and the bullet had gone through both of them! He skinned the bears and hung their hides on the fence of the light station to dry.
In 1950, Otto and the other men decided to make North Head Lighthouse accessible to visitors. They rebuilt an abandoned road that would allow sightseers to directly access the lighthouse. The men had also found while cleaning their storehouse a first order Fresnel lens. After some research, they discovered that this lens was originally the fixed light at Cape Disappointment, and was subsequently transferred to North Head in 1898. This lens had served North Head until it was replaced by the electric blinker light in the 1937. The men set it up at the base of the lighthouse, with a placard stating the history of the lens. In addition, the men opened the Coast Guard area within Bellview Park to the public, allowing them to see the view of the ocean. This park area was further developed with picnic tables, grills within firepits, and trash cans.
The lens found and displayed in 1950 can now be seen at the Fort Canby State Park.
During their time at North Head, Dorothy became pregnant with the Gibbs’ third child, a boy whom they named David. Otto had also recently converted to Seventh-day Adventism, having been baptized in the freezing cold waters of the ocean. With this shift in lifestyle, Otto made the decision to move his family into a regular town, with schools for their children, and a church they could attend.
On September 10, 1951, the family moved from North Head to The Dalles, Oregon, where my grandfather served in the Coast Guard Group for the next four years. He then continued serving the west coast on three Coast Guard Cutters, the Fir, Yacona, and Ivy until his retirement from the Coast Guard on June 1, 1958. Otto then went into the private sector and worked at the Pacific Press Publishing Association in Mountain View, California. He retired and went east to live near his two daughters in Columbia, Maryland.
I always loved to come visit my grandfather and listen to his stories and jokes, and look at the pictures of him in his Coast Guard uniform. He had his cap hanging over his dresser, and I would always beg to wear it around the house. As I have gotten older, I have learned to appreciate not only his rich history with the Coast Guard, but his strength of character and his dedication to his beliefs. A few of us have also inherited his penchant for organization, which drives the respective spouses crazy! When my father Denny was dating my mother, he thought to do his future father-in-law (a contractor) a favor, and organized his tool shed. Although appreciating the effort, my other grandfather couldn’t find his tools for days!
Our family is proud to share in the history of the lighthouse in America. Although my grandfather enjoyed his days at sea more than on land, his hard work and dedication to the lighthouses he served at will be the legacy passed on to his descendants by those of us who are enthralled by the mystery and romance of lighthouses.
As I wrote this article, my grandfather was still alive, and I looked forward to him reading this little tribute to his work and life. To our great sadness, Otto Gibbs passed away on February 6, 2003. He is remembered by his entire family."
This story appeared in the
March 2003 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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