Tree Point seems a fitting name for almost any protuberance along the coast of Southeast Alaska, as most of this area is part of the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest. There are, however, several gnarled, dead trees clearly evident in photographs taken of Tree Point throughout the twentieth century, which makes one wonder if perhaps these white, weathered giants were once used as a navigational reference and gave rise to the point’s name. Although this theory on the origin of the point’s name makes a good story, more likely than not the dead trees are simply byproducts of logging.
A couple of reasons convinced coastal surveyors that Tree Point was a prime spot for navigational aids. First, there is a straight route from Tree Point to the open Pacific Ocean via Dixon Entrance, and second, Tree Point, situated just seven miles north of the Canadian border, is located along the Inside Passage roughly midway between the two largest cities in the area: Ketchikan, Alaska and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. 1,208 acres on the point were accordingly set aside as a lighthouse reservation by an executive order dated January 4, 1901.
The Lighthouse Board approved the construction of Tree Point Lighthouse on April 24, 1903, and just over a year later, the light was activated on April 30, 1904. The lighthouse was the first and only lighthouse to be built on mainland Alaska. Two weeks after its debut, a small fire damaged the lighthouse, taking it out of service for a brief period before repairs were made.
The design of the lighthouse was similar to its neighbor to the north, Mary Island Lighthouse, which was completed a year earlier. The ground floor of the octagonal structure housed the fog signal equipment, which was connected to two horns protruding seaward from the western side of the lighthouse. Above the pyramidal roof of the first story, an octagonal tower extended skyward to a height of roughly sixty feet. The lantern room housed a third-order Fresnel lens, which produced a fixed-white light. On October 1, 1906, a red sector was added to the light to alert mariners of dangerous Lord Rocks. To store fuel for the lamp, two oil houses were constructed at distances of 50 and 100 feet southeast of the lighthouse.
Life at the isolated station was evidently difficult at times, for on December 21, 1931 Ketchikan’s paper reported, “the lighthouse tender Columbine came in from Tree Point light yesterday bringing in the keeper who had run out of supplies and was gorging himself on mountain scenery and boiled discouragement.”
Although the lighthouse at Mary Island preceded the one at Tree Point, Tree Point Lighthouse would be replaced by a reinforced concrete tower three years before the same change was applied to Mary Island. Work on Tree Point’s second tower began in 1933. The new art deco lighthouse was situated just south of the original lighthouse, and a wooden trestle was built between the two towers allowing the lantern room to be slid horizontally to its new home. The new lighthouse, finished in 1935 at a cost of $47,481, consisted of a one-story, eighteen by thirty-six foot building attached to a thirteen-foot square tower that rose to a height of fifty-eight feet.
At the same time, three, six-room frame dwellings and a schoolhouse were built around the end of the tree-covered hill behind the tower, where they would be protected from ocean winds. A narrow gage tramway and boardwalk ran 200 yards from the tower to the dwellings and then continued on for a quarter of a mile to the boathouse and hoisting boom, located on a small cove south of the lighthouse. Drinking water was provided by a two-mile-long pipeline that linked a large cistern near the dwellings to a lake in the hills.
To preserve her family’s history, Jenifer Pierce sat down in 2009 with her spry, eighty-two-year-old mother, Betty, and made a digital recording of stories from the early years of her marriage. Betty’s husband, Harold Geck, served as an engineer in the Navy, but left the service after a few years, married Betty, and started a family. Times were difficult in the post-war 1940s, and after working a few odd jobs, Harold decided to join the Coast Guard in order to have a steady income to support his pregnant wife and their one-year-old son Jack.
Harold’s first assignment was on a buoy tender in Ketchikan, where Betty joined him in September of 1949, two months after giving birth to their daughter Jenifer. When an opening became available at Tree Point Lighthouse in March of the next year, Harold accepted the position that came with a wonderful two-story house for his growing family. Four coastguardsmen were assigned to Tree Point at that time, but there were only three residences. Harold and Betty lived in the middle house, with the Officer-In-Charge (OIC), Pierce, and his wife, Marge, on one side, and a young couple with an infant on the other side. The fourth coastguardsman, a single fellow, had tried living with the young couple, but their immodesty made him uncomfortable. Being very protective of his wife, Pierce wouldn’t allow a single man to live with them, so the fellow ended up moving in with the Gecks, whose house was already the most crowded.
A black dog named Woof, that was reportedly the offspring of a female dog at Mary Island Lighthouse and a wolf, came with the Beck’s house, and his playmate was Blackie, a dog from the same litter that was attached to the OIC’s residence. Betty recalls that a mailboat stopped at the station once a week to pick up and deliver mail and drop off supplies. The Coast Guard families could give a food order for the Piggly Wiggly in Ketchikan to the mailboat, and the goods would be delivered on the next run. There was also a small commissary in the basement of the OIC’s residence that the families could use.
To add some variety to their diet and keep their food bill down, the coastguardsmen fished offshore and even shot a deer once, even though taking a deer was illegal at the time. The men had a makeshift smokehouse where they would hang the fish while keeping a small fire smoldering for a few days. One night it was Harold’s turn to stoke the fire, but when he discovered a large bear had been attracted to the aromatic smokehouse, he decided that a future of only fresh fish was just fine for him.
Two-year-old Jack Geck seemed to enjoy life at the remote lighthouse. After having breakfast, he frequently wandered over to visit Pierce and Marge. One day while talking with Marge, Betty expressed her concern that Jack didn’t seem to be eating enough. Marge replied that he ate just fine at their house each morning. It was only then that Betty learned young Jack was having two breakfasts and so naturally had little appetite for his lunch.
One day after having received a valentine in the mail, Jack made his usual visit to Pierce and Marge, clutching his new prized possession. When Jack failed to return after an hour or so, Betty phoned Marge and learned he had left there some time earlier. A bit concerned, Betty hurried outside and started searching for her son. It turns out Jack had decided to show his valentine to the men at the lighthouse, but while climbing up on the tramway, he had fallen. Betty discovered her son hanging upside down from the tramway by his foot. To placate her scared son, Betty accompanied him to the lighthouse, even though she knew it would mean another trip to the top of the tower, which seemed to have about a million steps. Jack just had to climb the tower every time he went to the lighthouse.
Betty learned that she was expecting their third child while at Tree Point Lighthouse. An obligatory trip to the doctor in Ketchikan was made, but she remained at the station for a few more months before taking her two small children in September of 1950 and flying to visit her parents in North Dakota. After a few weeks, she traveled to Oregon, where her in-laws lived, and it was there that she gave birth to her third child that November.
The reason Betty had traveled to Oregon to have her baby was that Harold had planned to join them there for Christmas. When Harold’s leave was canceled, Betty packed up her three children and returned to Tree Point. A family just had to be together for Christmas. The following spring, Harold received a transfer to Alameda, California. After just over a year at Tree Point, the family bid adieu to the isolated station and its rainy, gray weather in exchange for the crowds and sunshine of California.
Accompanied by her husband, Jenifer Pierce took a cruise to Alaska in 2012, hoping that she just might catch a glimpse of the station where she had spent part of her infant years. The cruise ship had a map on display that showed the lighthouses along the route, and Jenifer would walk between the map and both sides of the ship, trying to determine her proximity to Tree Point. After passing Mary Island Lighthouse, she knew they were getting close, and then there it was – a tiny white column with white caps lapping the rocky shore in front of it. She used binoculars just to make sure it was the lighthouse.
“I have visited many lighthouses over the years, and even though I don’t remember living at Tree Point, seeing that tiny white spot gave me chills,” recalls Jenifer.
“Most important, I came away with a stronger respect for my parents. They were young adults who grew up on farms on the plains of North Dakota. It was there where they learned how to survive off the land, and that sure came in handy when they were sent by the government to this incredibly remote and isolated place in Alaska. As a city-raised kid of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I don’t think I could live there, much less go to work at the lighthouse every day through all weather conditions. And I sure couldn’t raise three little children there, even if only for a few years.”
Coast Guard personnel were removed from Tree Point in 1969, and the beacon was reduced to a minor light. A revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens and a lamp used in the lighthouse are on display at the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan. Although the lighthouse was slated for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, the structure is in shockingly poor condition. All doors and windows (except those in the lantern room) are missing, exposing the tower’s interior to Tree Point’s harsh weather conditions. The one remaining dwelling is neglected, and its interior is in disarray.
Now, the only record of the watches kept in the decaying tower and the holidays celebrated in the dilapidated dwelling is found in the fading photographs and memories of those who lived at Tree Point.
Thankfully, people like Jenifer Pierce have taken the time to capture such information before it is lost forever.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2012 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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