Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2017

From the Commodore

Travels Galore: Alaska

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

At Seattle, I boarded the Alaska Steamship Company passenger steamer for the wonderland of Alaska. What could I see of the nearly 5,000 miles of coastline including 25,000 miles of waterways around islands, through inlets, and up rivers? The entire southern coast was very precipitous, much indented by deep fiords. I took the Inside Passage to Ketchikan through the vast numbers of Island.

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The 1903 Mary Island Lighthouse in Alaska, shown ...

It was the rainy season which all the natives seemed to enjoy. Men, women, and children went about their daily life through the almost constant drizzle wearing southwesters, slickers, and rubber boots. I drew on the ample supplies of the Depot for this gear and imitated the natives. The rugged terrain of the town was made smooth by boardwalks high over the waterfront where the fishing vessels were tied up. I took a walk back of the town up to the impounded lake power and water supply in the mountains. “Don’t get lost and look out for bear,” was the advice I received from the Superintendent. I was in the wilds in no time, and remembering the injunction, soon hustled back.

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The new 80-foot boom at Cape Spencer, Alaska that ...

I was soon off on the Tender Cedar, the largest tender in the Lighthouse Service, through the Wrangell Narrows, bound for Juneau. Fog, thick fog, drizzle and fog. Light stations perched on rocky headlands, most difficult of approach. How could the Service get men to take these jobs as keepers in such inaccessible places? For one thing, they served two years and had the third year, liberty, with full pay and they were a sturdy breed who loved Alaska. They could go hunting and fishing right at the light station. Deer abounded. So did wolves.

At Mary Island, the keepers showed me pelts of two enormous gray timber wolves hanging on the wall, the largest I had ever seen. They were shot just a little way outside the reservation. They told me of hunting deer close by. A keeper killed one not far from the station. He was not aware that it was being stalked by a wolf pack that pounced on the dead animal. The keeper was glad of the diversion from himself as he hustled back home. I heard of the keeper who went off to hunt, became lost, and, failing to return, a searching party found him starved to death only a short distance from the station.

At Cape Spencer Light Station, I experienced a new type of lift by an 80-foot boom high up on the rock. A small boat was lowered by the boom and hung just clear of the sea. The tender’s whale boat with me in it was carefully worked alongside. I stepped from the tender’s boat into the keeper’s boat and was whisked up boat and all to the deck near the station.

Then out to the Gulf of Alaska, past Malaspina Glacier with high mountains and Mt. St. Elias in the background to Cape St. Elias and Hinchinbrook Light Stations and Kodiak Island. Off Cape St. Elias, the Tender Cedar had to relieve a ten-ton gas-lighted whistle buoy. A dark object was seen on the body of the buoy in the distance. “Do you see what I see on the buoy?” said I to the Captain. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “The seals love to take naps on the buoy. We often find them there. But you will soon see him slither off when we get a little close. They don’t seem to mind the sound of the buoy whistle at all. But they don’t like us.”

Days went by and the Tender called at Sitka, the old Capital of Russian Alaska. I visited the Russian Church with its icons, passed the totem poles of the Alaskan Indians. That evening, the Tender’s crew had a basketball game with a native team in the school gym. The natives won. The Tender’s team claimed they were out of practice.

Beautiful St. Edgecomb, snowcapped, stood out supreme close by, like the famous Fuji of Japan. On this trip, I had passed and gloried at the sight of mountain ranges, glaciers breaking off into the sea, and the many 10,000-foot peaks in the far distance. This is the strangest, wildest place imaginable.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses on General Duty: January 4, 1927 to September 1, 1933” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 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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