In 1869, just 2 years after the US acquired Alaska from Russia, the US Senate requested a review of the coasts in order to determine suitable spots for lighthouses.
It may seem curious, however, that it would be 30 years before any actually came to fruition. Lighthouses would be, after all, a hefty investment for a coast that was not heavily trafficked at the time. Instead of lighthouses, several beacons and buoys were installed as minor aids to navigation.
These minor aids would suffice until 1896, when Alaska's history would be forever changed by the news of "Gold in the Klondike!"
One of the greatest gold rushes in history, the Klondike Gold Rush sent a flood of prospectors to The Last Frontier from San Francisco, Seattle, and other major Pacific ports. More and larger boats began making their way through the treacherous, winding channels between the over 1,000 islands of the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska. Th quickest way to the Klondike was by boat through Alaska then traveling on land from Skagway, Alaska. This route is highlighted in red below.
Strong currents, rocky shoreline, dramatic tidal swings, fog, rain, and wind made navigating the Inside Passage challenging, and in 1898 alone, over 300 maritime accidents were reported along the twisting route.
In a time before radar and sonar, concerned citizens and traders finally made enough noise to appeal to the government that something had to be done to improve navigation.
With funding in place, the inspector and engineer of the Thirteenth Lighthouse District sailed for Alaska to select sites for the lighthouses in June of 1900. When they returned after 2 months, they submitted a report recommending eleven lighthouses in Southeast Alaska and four in Western Alaska.
The lights were ranked in order of importance, and in December of 1900 , the Lighthouse Board ordered that plans be drawn up for the top two priorities: Five Finger Islands and Sentinel Island. Both went into service on the same day- March 1, 1902.
Today, Alaska's lighthouses provide artists with scenic and dramatic subjects that illuminate the rich maritime history of The Last Frontier. Here you'll be introduced to 6 of these historic lighthouses- their stories and the artists who have depicted them.
Sentinel Island Light
According to the website Lighthouse Friends, construction on Sentinel Island Light began on July 25, 1901. To get the crew and materials to the island was a 23 mile journey by boat from the present-day Alaskan capital of Juneau (the capital at the time was Sitka, but in 1906 it was moved to Juneau because of the population boom and increased economic impact that had occurred in Juneau thanks to- you guessed it- the gold rush!)
As with all the lighthouses discussed here except one (we'll get to that one later!), the structure that stands today is not the original lighthouse. Many of the original lighthouses were constructed with wood and either burned down or were weathered beyond repair in the harsh environment of Southeast Alaska. In the 1930s, most were replaced in the unique Art Deco style that we recognize in these lighthouses today.
All the lighthouses of Alaska are now automated and unmanned, and in 2004, the Sentinel Island Lighthouse was transferred to the Gastineau Channel Historical Society who is responsible for the preservation of the lighthouse today. You can catch a look if you're traveling by cruise ship or Alaska Marine Highway ferry between Juneau and Haines or Skagway. For the best option, apparently there is even an opportunity to stay overnight on the island for a super up close and personal experience!
Alaskan artist Brenda Schwartz created this beautiful piece depicting Sentinel Island and her signature technique, the nautical chart overlay, shows the island and surrounding area.
Five Finger Islands Light
Construction for the Five Finger Islands Lighthouse began in 1901. The Five Finger Islands are a collection of rocky islets that lie about 40 miles from Petersburg, Alaska. Some of the islets are visible only at low tide, hence the prioritization of the lighthouse at the site.
The original lighthouse at Five Finger Island was destroyed in a late 1933 fire. Cold weather had caused the pipes to freeze, and two of its light keepers attempted to use a blowtorch to thaw the pipes, unintentionally setting the structure ablaze. Without water to extinguish the fire, all they could do was watch it burn.
Two years later in 1935, a new lighthouse, this time in the characteristic Art Deco style, was completed. It was manned until 1984, making it both the first and last manned lighthouse in Alaska.
Once again, mariner and artist Brenda Schwartz has beautifully captured this historic structure overlaid on a nautical chart of the area.
Mary Island Light
Mary Island Lighthouse, completed in 1903, was Alaska's fourth lighthouse. Located about 25 miles from us here in Ketchikan, Mary Island was once the site of a US Customs House, making it the first stop that boats would make when traveling from Canada. In 1900, however, the customs house was moved to Ketchikan, leaving the island once again uninhabited for the few years before the lighthouse was constructed.
After just over 30 years in service, the original octagonal structure was replaced with the present day, you guessed it, Art Deco style concrete lighthouse! Automated and unmanned in 1969, Mary Island Lighthouse has started to show signs on neglect since it's one of the few whose maintenance has not been taken over by an organization.
Early this year, Alaskan artist Mark Bartlett completed this stunning original oil painting of Mary Island Lighthouse. Though it's now hanging in a private collection, we couldn't help but show it off here, as its one of the few (and arguably one of the more beautiful!) depictions of Mary Island that we've had at the gallery.
Guard Island Light
Guard Island Lighthouse was prioritized sixth in the original study to assess the need for Alaska lighthouses, and it was completed in September of 1904. By the 1920s, however, the wooden structure, subjected to the harsh conditions of the Alaskan rainforest, was already beginning to deteriorate. In 1922, Congress approved funding for a new lighthouse and light keeper dwelling at Guard Island.
One of Alaska's most accessible lighthouses, it can be viewed from Ketchikan by driving north from town. During the summer, residents and visitors can also take a boat tour to the lighthouse with our friends at Lighthouse Excursions. Viewing the lighthouse by boat, you may see some of the wildlife that frequent the area including humpback whales, harbor seals, and bald eagles.
Ketchikan artist Dick Miller's rendition of Guard Island Lighthouse gives us a glimpse of perhaps why the original wooden structure didn't last long. The harsh conditions of the area coupled with the island's exposed location made it especially treacherous to navigate around before the construction of the light station.
Alaskan artist Mark Bartlett completed this original oil painting of Guard Island that offers a more tranquil view of the lighthouse. The blooming of the fireweed suggests perhaps a clear, late summer day at sunset.
Artist Richard Weathermon's rendition of Guard Island speaks to the area's deep connections to commercial fishing, showing a fishing boats cruising past the scenic island on a calm day.
Artist Brenda Schwartz once again shows her affinity for lighthouses with this piece that depicts the lighthouse and the mountains of surrounding islands in the background.
Point Retreat Light
Located on Admiralty Island, where brown bears outnumber humans 2:1, Point Retreat Lighthouse became Alaska's 10th lighthouse when it was lit in September of 1904. Though thousands of people see this lighthouse by boat each summer, few ever step foot on the island.
Oil painter Mark Bartlett depicted the lighthouse in his signature romantic style with the sweeping sunset over the island and its surrounding coast.
Artist John Fehringer's representation of Point Retreat Lighthouse in his airbrushed style presents a unique point of view with the soaring backdrop of Eagle Glacier and the Coast Range Mountains.
In this depiction by Brenda Schwartz, resident orcas frolic by the scenic point. The chart in the background shows Juneau, Alaska, and surrounding areas including Admiralty Island.
Eldred Rock Light
Alas, an ORIGINAL Alaskan lighthouse.
In fact, it's the only original Alaskan lighthouse, and as such, you may notice a remarkably different style to the Eldred Rock Lighthouse. Eldred Rock Lighthouse was the last of the 12 lighthouses constructed in Alaska from the years of 1902-1906. It seems they may have had a better idea of what would and wouldn't work at this point since it was the first to be constructed with concrete and has stood the test of time for over 100 years.
Eldred Rock is a rock (go figure!) that just happens to be right in the middle of the Lynn Canal, the waterway that connects both Haines and Skagway to Juneau, hence the need for a lighthouse. If you were traveling by boat in the Lynn Canal, you would be hard-pressed to miss Eldred Rock and its iconic lighthouse.
Before construction of the lighthouse, Eldred Rock was the sight of one of the region's most infamous and storied shipwrecks- the Clara Nevada. It was February of 1898 and the Clara Nevada was only about 30 miles into its journey from Skagway, Alaska, to Seattle, when estimated 90 mile per hour winds caused it to run aground on Eldred Rock. Since she was hauling an illegal shipment of dynamite, Clara Nevada burst into flames upon impact with the rock, and sunk with over 800 pounds of gold onboard.
Curiously, no gold has ever been discovered at the wreckage although it remains a popular site for divers. And although it was initially believed that all passengers died in the wreck, conspiracies have swirled that the captain and other crew members actually escaped the wreck and made off with the gold, valued today at an estimated $14 million.
The wreck of the Clara Nevada in 1898 further proved the overdue need for the lighthouses of Alaska.
John Fehringer's airbrush style gives this depiction of the lighthouse and an ethereal feeling of a foggy morning in Lynn Canal.
In one of Brenda Schwartz's newest pieces, she overlays a painting of the lighthouse on a chart of Alaska's Inside Passage in its entirety including the towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Haines, and Skagway.
In artist John Fehringer's newest work, he leans towards a more graphic novel style as opposed to his airbrushed works. This piece, printed on black paper, is a playful departure from the otherwise photo realistic pieces presented here.
Keeping the light on through art
The Klondike Gold Rush and the lighthouses of Alaska are intrinsically linked. Though it's been more than 100 years since the gold rush and more than 30 years since they were manned, the historic structures still stand to serve their purpose of keeping mariners safe along the famously unforgiving coast of Alaska. The artists who depict them help to carry on maritime history and tradition while also inspiring the conservation of the iconic lighthouses of Alaska.
If you're interested in learning more about lighthouses of Alaska and lighthouses in general, I found Lighthouse Friends to be a wealth of information. There is also up to date information about how to go about visiting and/or seeing the lighthouses written about on their site.
If you see a piece here that you love/have questions about OR if you are looking for a certain piece that you don't see here, feel free to reach out to us at the gallery. If there is an Alaskan lighthouse that is meaningful to you, we can also work with you to commission an original artwork of it.
Thanks so much for reading!
Maria at Scanlon's