Lighthouse celebrates 124 years

Two full boats from Outer Island Excursions carried more than 55 people to Patos Island on Sunday, Aug. 27 to celebrate the lighthouse’s 124th birthday.

“This is such a proud moment for me,” said Keepers of the Patos Light co-founder Linda Hudson. “This is the biggest party we’ve ever had.”

Located on the northernmost island in the San Juan archipelago, Patos Island Lighthouse has been in operation since 1893 and the remaining 38-foot tower was constructed in 1908. Over the years, four known lightkeepers and several U.S. Coast Guardsmen tended to it.

Many children lived on Patos Island over the years, including KOPL board member Dawn Alexander, who moved to the island when she was three weeks old and was there until she was 5.

“It was a magnificent childhood – I pretty much had full reign of the island, except for the north side of the island,” said Alexander. “I try to get back here as much as possible.”

Her father, Dale Nelson, was a Coast Guardsman stationed at Patos in the mid-1950s. She recalled a teeter-totter and sandbox built for her to play in as a child and the original keeper’s quarters being torn down in 1958 to be replaced with a duplex for Coast Guardsmen and their families.

The CG acquired operation of the Patos Light in 1939 and a handful of guardsmen and their families were stationed at the light until 1974, when the light was automated and manual keepers were no longer needed. The lighthouse sat abandoned for several years until the Bureau of Land Management assumed control over the island in 2005.

“State parks was here long before the BLM figured out that they needed to be really protecting the island the way they did,” said San Juan Islands National Park Manager Marcia deChadenedes. “It’s only as beautiful as it is because of their really great care … They are really integral to this public land it wouldn’t be what it is without those guys (state parks).”

In 2005, the duplex, which was allegedly beyond repair, was burned down as a training exercise for Orcas Island Fire and Rescue. Today, all that remains is the original lighthouse and tower, which were both restored in 2008. Following more restoration projects in 2009, the lighthouse was opened for tourists to visit for the first time in more than 25 years.

“It’s just more than a building. [It’s] more than just some old building ready to fall down… Unless there are people who care and listen it’s not going to continue,” said Hudson. “The stories continue … You still have stories that are surfacing that need to be told that need to be documented … If we’re not here in 30 years, these stories will still be here. That’s what will keep these young kids coming back.”

A previous Coast Guard keeper was in attendance during the lighthouse celebration, “Patos” Bill LaVergne, who was stationed there in the early 1950s. LaVergne initiated a fundraising effort in 2013 with a donation of $500 to restore the island’s flagpole that was inexplicably removed by the Coast Guard after it abandoned the site.

“Today, to celebrate this Patos Island Light Station’s 124th birthday – there’s a check enclosed here for $124. Happy birthday,” said LaVergne. “This is home to me and I’m more than happy to share it with you whenever you come aboard.”