Every summer, hundreds of thousands of people see Eldred Rock Lighthouse.
Cruise and ferry passengers, as well as locals passing through, can’t help but look at the octagonal, white and red structure atop a craggy cliff in the middle of Lynn Canal. If they were able to stop and look closer at the 114-year-old lighthouse, they’d see the bright white paint is peeling — and that’s the least of the concerns, Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association (ERLPA) board member Justin Fantasia said.
“I’m not worried about paint,” Fantasia said. “I’m worried about hunks of concrete that are falling off from the building.”
Fantasia, a construction expert, was part of a team that went out to the remote lighthouse — which is the oldest original lighthouse in the state — Monday to take stock of what needs to be repaired. It’s a daunting task, as the lighthouse has been unmanned since 1973 and has fallen into disrepair without anyone to maintain it.
ERLPA, with the help of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, is starting the process of taking over the lighthouse to better preserve it. The U.S. Coast Guard currently owns it, but ERLPA Executive Director Sue York said she’s hoping to work out a lease soon where ERLPA can eventually take over the lighthouse. York, who used to work for the Coast Guard, said she was brought on in large part because of her experience with the Coast Guard in hopes that she could jump through the hoops of the lease process.
Part of getting that lease, the Marine Exchange of Alaska’s representative on the ERLPA board Jonathan Wood said, is a site assessment where the current state of the lighthouse has to be documented. York took iPhone videos of as much of the building as she could, narrating as she went along. Fantasia gave advice about what kind of repairs could be done.
Wood, who has been coming to the lighthouse regularly since 2014, took notes and pointed out changes he’s seen over the years. York and Wood both said the lighthouse is significant for the role it’s played in Southeast’s maritime history.
“Anybody who cares about history and all that, you don’t want to see something like this become a complete eyesore or even worse, collapse and become unrecoverable,” Wood said.
ERLPA has raised awareness about the lighthouse in recent years with the Run 4 the Rock race that raises money for the lighthouse. York said there isn’t a fundraising goal yet, but they’re hoping to start ramping up efforts after they get the lease taken care of. They’re still a ways away from knowing how much the repairs will cost. The lease will make it easier for them to qualify for grants, too, as the building will be managed by a nonprofit instead of the U.S. government.
The crew arrived on the 2.4-acre island about 18 miles south of Haines to find an unsurprising sight. The door of one of the buildings on the island had been blown off sometime in the past few months. With winds measuring up to 114 miles per hour, the buildings regularly get battered.
It wasn’t quite as bad as a greeting that they got on their first trip out there, Wood said, when they found that otters had occupied the lighthouse and had turned the attic into their bathroom.
Otters aren’t the only visitors to the island. York said she sees social media posts from time to time of passers by or even from brave kayakers who venture out to the remote island and take pictures in the lighthouse (the bathtub is apparently the most popular spot).
One day, York said, she hopes visitors will be able to easily access the island and visit the renovated lighthouse. The first priority is preserving the building, she said, but she wants to share the lighthouse’s history with visitors with signs and information on the island.
Those at the Marine Exchange of Alaska, wanted to get involved with the efforts as well, and have helped in a few ways. Nick Hatch, field operations supervisor for the Marine Exchange, drove the boat out to the island for the ERLPA group Monday. Hatch said Marine Exchange Executive Director Ed Page took a liking to the lighthouse’s significance.
The Marine Exchange communicates with boats throughout Alaska’s waters to keep them informed and safe. Their technology, Hatch pointed out, performs the task that lighthouses used to perform with their lights and foghorns. Page’s vision, Hatch said, includes possibly installing a weather station on the island and equipment that can send information to vessels.
“That’s one of his big things, is getting the lighthouse operational again in a way,” Hatch said. “They’re not just a light, they’re a place for weather data to be transmitted to boats, and other information too.”
That possibility is still a long time down the road, as is ERLPA’s vision. A few of the bedrooms in the lighthouse have been painted in recent years, giving a small preview of what the lighthouse might look like down the line. As York, Fantasia and Wood stood in the southeast bedroom of the lighthouse Monday, York looked at the lavender walls and beamed.
“I love these bedrooms,” York said. “It’s like there’s hope in the world.”
A brief history of the lighthouse
The story of Eldred Rock Lighthouse begins eight years before its light was lit. On Feb. 5, 1898, the passenger ship Clara Nevada carried around 100 passengers and Klondike gold dust down Lynn Canal. During a storm, the ship mysteriously caught fire and disappeared.
The wreck was found a week later, near Eldred Rock, according to Shannon Lowry’s book “Northern Lights: Tales of Alaska’s Lighthouses and their Keepers.” Only one body was recovered at the time. The wreck sparked a national uproar that led to U.S. Congress committing money to put lighthouses in Southeast Alaska.
Eldred Rock Lighthouse was built in 1905 and was lit in June 1906, according to ERLPA literature. For almost 70 years after that, light keepers were constantly there, living there in shifts.
The first keepers of the lighthouse saw the ghastly sight of the Clara Nevada being resurfaced during a storm and dumping dead bodies on the shore of the island. Other keepers saw the first Alaska Marine Highway System ferry sail by in 1963.
The lighthouse was automated in 1973. The light is currently powered by a solar power panel. The National Weather Service, Federal Aviation Association and Marine Exchange of Alaska all have weather or location equipment installed on the island.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.