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In the stormy waters of the Lynn Canal sits a small island surrounded by majestic, snow covered mountains. The island is called Eldred Rock and for over 100 years it has been the home of the Eldred Rock Lighthouse.
Eldred Rock is the oldest original Alaskan lighthouse building. The octagonal building is constructed of huge timbers brought to the island by the US Government in 1905. The light was situated 91 feet above sea level and had a range of more than 15 miles. The fog signal was a first order, compressed air siren. In addition to the lighthouse and quarters, there is a boathouse, tramways and other small outbuildings used for storage and maintenance.
First lit on June 1, 1906 and one of the remotest lighthouses in North America, the Eldred Rock Lighthouse was built after some disastrous shipwrecks in the vicinity, especially during the 1898 Gold Rush, when the Lynn Canal was full of steamships bringing miners to Skagway for their climb over Chilkoot Pass.
Perhaps the most spectacular wreck of the time was during February of 1898, when the steamship Clara Nevada went down adjacent to the rock under suspicious circumstances. As many as 75 lives and 850 bounds of gold were lost. There were four survivors, and the gold has never been discovered or the mystery of the disaster solved. This helped bring about the support in Washington D.C. to have navigational aides in Alaska.
The lighthouse keepers were supplied by ships and launches from Haines that brought food, movies, mail, fuel and fresh water. Due to severe storms, keepers in the past were sometimes unable to leave the building, and in the 1930s a keeper died on the rock. For ten days they could not even call for help.
At 5:15 AM on February 26, 1910, Scottie Currie and John Selander, the Eldred Rock assistant keepers, set out from Eldred Rock Lighthouse for Point Sherman Lighthouse. When they had not returned three days later, Adamson launched another boat and, by himself, rowed out to the Justina Gray to put out notice the men were missing. Two days later the crew of the launch Thelma found the missing launch “with all gear gone excepting mast, sail & anchor [overboard] mast thwart broken.”
Keeper Adamson was haunted by the probable drowning of his trusted assistants. He later learned that Currie and Selander had left Point Sherman on February 27 about 4:00 PM. The snow began. Keeper Adamson later wrote: “I myself am unable to account for any accident that could have happened to them, as there was no wind to speak of and a smooth sea and in my opinion they should have reached home easily by 8 PM, though they had an ebb tide to contend with.”
Whenever he could leave Eldred Rock, Adamson rowed or sailed his launch in the Lynn Canal and for a month sought his missing associates. At night he rose in his sleep and stood at the window, calling their names—a nightmare that continued the remainder of his life.
On January 5, 1911, Adamson resigned as keeper at Eldred Rock. He could stand it no more.
Excerpt from a short biography of Nils Peter Adamson
by Stephen Dow Beckham (grandson)
Pamplin Professor of History, Lewis & Clark College.
Eldred Rock is home to diverse wildlife. Otters and many seabirds, including oystercatchers, make their regular home there. Whales are a common sight in the vicinity, and seals and endangered Stellar sea lions congregate there.
The original lens was a third order Fresnel lens (2100 candle power), made in Paris, France. It was first rotated by pulleys and lighted by kerosene. We at the Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center now proudly display it in our collection.
In 1880, Marcus Baker, in employ of the Coast Survey, made a boat journey from Sitka to Chilkat and named Eldred Rock Island for his wife, Sarah Eldred. The lighthouse was, of course, named for the island.
According to Dr. Arther Krause who traveled up the Lynn Canal and through Chilkat country the winter after, Eldred Rock was known by the Tlingit's as "Nechraje."
Eldred Rock Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1973 and has been operated remotely since then. In recent years, the Coast Guard has maintained the beacon while the building has largely fallen into disrepair.
The lighthouse has significant historical value to the State of Alaska and to the United States as a whole. This is the oldest remaining lighthouse in Alaska and the only survivor of a series of octagonal frame lighthouses built in the state between 1902 and 1906. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. It is a landmark recognized by thousands of visitors to the Inside Passage and Lynn Canal every summer, beloved by residents traversing the Lynn Canal from Haines or Skagway to Juneau and back.
The Sheldon Museum has had an interest in Eldred Rock Lighthouse since 1984, when we received the Fresnel lens from the lighthouse on loan from the Coast Guard. The lens has been on display in a beautiful case made by John Carlson since 1986.
With passage of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) in 2000, a number of interested people from Haines began to pursue obtaining Eldred Rock Lighthouse under the act.
The Eldred Rock Lighthouse Committee, under the auspices of the Sheldon Museum, has been working to gain the lease of Eldred Rock from the Coast Guard in hopes of renovating the lighthouse and its outbuildings for many years.
See the Latest News
What took so long?
Through NHLPA, the Coast Guard turns its lighthouses over to the General Services Administration (GSA), which then posts it on a list, requesting letters of inquiry. Eldred Rock appeared briefly on the GSA list of lighthouses to be transferred under NHLPA in 2004 (and was even erroneously listed as being under the Museum's care) but was quickly pulled off as the result of a claim made on Alaska lighthouses by the US Forest Service. Passage of The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006 (PL109-241), sponsored by Congressman Young, provided for the transfer of underlying lands at Guard Island, Eldred Rock, Mary Island, and Cape Hinchinbrook Light Stations from the Forest Service to the Coast Guard.
Unfortunately, Eldred Rock was not addressed at that time, and, although the Coast Guard had already conducted mitigation on the site, new concerns were voiced by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) about high lead content in the soil. Consequently, Eldred Rock Lighthouse was returned to the Coast Guard's jurisdiction pending further mitigation procedures...and relegated to the back burner.
The Sheldon Museum has been awarded a “historic license” to restore, maintain and operate the Eldred Rock lighthouse as a historic project.
Recent notification from the U.S. Coast Guard that the museum won preservation rights to the Lynn Canal landmark ends a 16-year effort by the museum, said Pam Randles, chair of the museum’s Eldred Rock Committee.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Randles said. “Our dream...." full Chilkat Valley News article
If you are interested in joining the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association, please contact the Sheldon Museum.
Blythe Carter, 2003
Updated by Blythe Carter, 2013