ON June 20, 1878 Congress appropriated $8.000 for a light and fog signal but only the fog signal was built as the money was not enough for both. On March 3, 1879 and additional $12,000 was allocated for the station. On September 1, 1879 a twelve-inch steam whistle which was installed inside a signal building was put into operation giving an eight-second blast every minute.
In 1879 a lighthouse was built at a cost of $923 and a lens that had been used at Point Bonita, California was installed.
The lighthouse was a twelve-foot-square tower which rose forty-six-feet from the roof of a two-story keeper’s dwelling. The fixed white light could be seen for up to thirteen miles. The mariners were much appreciative of the new light and fog signal and expressed their feelings on December 15,1879.
In 1894 the light was changed from a fixed white to a fixed white with a red flash every twenty seconds. That same year a galvanized-iron oil house was constructed on the lighthouse grounds.
The first keeper was David M Littlefield who was a local resident and a war veteran. He kept the lighthouse for a salary of $800 a year four years until he moved back to Port Townsend and served as a City Councilman and Collector of Customs.
Believe it or not there was often a water shortage at the point. That is because Port Townsend sits in a rain shadow behind the Olympic Mountains and gets very little rainfall in the summer months. Water was needed to operate the steam whistle. It was collected in cement water sheds and stored in a brick cistern.
ON September 29,1896 the steamer Umatilla left from Victoria British Columbia for Puget Sound. There was a dense fog and the signal at Point Wilson was not operating because of the lack of water. The 310-foot-long ship navigated by sounding its whistle often and listening for echoes in order to judge the distance to land. About a mile west of Point Wilson they struck rocks. Captain J. C. Hunter was able to get the steamer afloat again and decided to go on to Port Townsend. But the impact had put a hole in the hull and water started flooding in. Captain Hunter, realizing the danger he was in, purposefully ran the ship aground a few hundred yards from the Point Wilson Lighthouse. In order to hold the ship in place he lowered the bow anchors. The passengers were all safely unloaded but the boat had about $100,000 in damages. Captain Hunter and his pilot were cited for “overconfidence”.
In 1917 during World War I all lighthouse keepers were urged to raise their own vegetables in anticipation of food shortages. Lighthouse keeper William Thomas agreed and after harvest he sent the following letter to the lighthouse inspector.
“Sir: Have sent you to-day per parcel post a sample of some of the vegetables I raised on the station here. Peas, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, garlic, and squash do well, but tomatoes, cabbage, and turnips are a failure; beans fairly well after planting four times; have 4 gallons of beans salted and 2 gallons canned. The yield was good, but of course of small quantity, as space was limited. Early onions and lettuce were splendid; gave Heather (the lighthouse tender) some for their mess.”
Keeper Thomas received commendations for his efforts at gardening. A photograph showing a potato, parsnip, carrot, and garlic bulb which he harvested from the sandy soil is displayed in the National Archives.
It was April 1, 1921, during keeper Thomas’ stint as keeper, that he heard a terrible grinding noise and knew it was trouble. He phoned Port Townsend for help.
The noise he had heard was that of the loaded passenger liner Governor of the Admiralty Line slamming into the freighter West Hartland. The 417 foot passenger liner was bound for Seattle from Victoria. It was hit by the freighter as it was rounding Port Townsend.
During World War II the light at Point Wilson was extinguished in order to protect Fort Worden and the entrance to Puget Sound.
Later accident reports concluded that the pilot on the governor failed to yield the right-of-way because he thought the running lights on the freighter were the fixed lights of Marrowstone Point. The collision tore a ten-foot gash in the Governor’s hull. The captain of the West Hartland order full speed ahead to keep the hold plugged but to no avail. The Governor began to sink in 240 feet of water while all but eight of its passengers were able to scramble aboard the freighter.
The following account of the accident was provided by
Lighthouse keeper Thomas: