Sentinel Island Lighthouse
Sentinel Island Lighthouse
On Sentinel Island at the northern end of Favorite Channel, twenty-five miles northwest of Juneau Alaska.
Cries of “Gold! Gold in the Klondike!” sparked one of the greatest gold rushes in history. In 1896, when George Carmack and his two brothers-in-law discovered the precious metal where Bonanza Creek flowed into the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the area was almost uninhabited. Soon, however, an army of fortune seekers surged northward from Seattle and other Pacific port cities to try their luck in the gold fields.
The route taken by most of the stampeders led them to Skagway, situated at the northern terminus of Lynn Canal and the Inside Passage. From Skagway, the gold-seekers still faced an arduous 600-mile trek before they could start panning in the frigid Klondike waters.
Prior to the influx of people produced by the gold rush, Alaska’s waterways were marked by an occasional buoy, but the United States had yet to build a lighthouse along the vast coastline it had acquired in 1867. Strong currents, fog, rain, and a rocky shoreline made navigating the Inside Passage most challenging, and in 1898 alone, over three hundred maritime accidents were reported along the twisting waterway. Something had to be done to improve navigation, and the Lighthouse Board requested a hefty sum of $500,000 in 1900 for constructing several lighthouses in Alaska. Congress, however, only budgeted a paltry $100,000, which was dedicated towards lights at Five Finger Islands and Sentinel Island. The following year, an additional $200,000 was granted, and the task of lighting Alaska’s coast was gaining momentum.
George James, a Juneau resident, was awarded the contract for the construction of the Sentinel Island Lighthouse and work on the project commenced in 1901.
To reach the island from Juneau, one had to sail along Gastineau Channel to Auke Bay, and then follow Favorite Channel to its northern end where it joined Lynn Canal, a total distance of twenty-three miles.
The original Sentinel Island lighthouse was the only one of its kind built in Alaska. The lighthouse consisted of a square wooden tower attached to the center of the westerly front of a keeper’s duplex, which was a large, two-story building with hipped cross gables. Atop the tower stood a 13-foot-tall, steel and glass lantern room that housed a fixed, fourth-order Fresnel lens. The focal plane of the lens was forty-two feet above the island, and eighty-two feet about the surrounding water at high tide.
Navigating Lynn Canal was still treacherous even with a light on Sentinel Island. Early in the morning of August 5th 1910, the Princess May was southbound from Skagway carrying 80 passengers and a crew of 68 when she ran aground on the northern end of Sentinel Island. The passengers were safely offloaded on the island where the keepers did all they could to make them comfortable. Efforts to float the vessel off the island at high tide failed, so sliding ways had to be built and rock blasted away before the Princess May was finally pulled free on September 3rd. After a week of repairs in Juneau, she continued her journey south.
During the 1930s, many of the original wooden lighthouses built in Alaska were replaced with stout concrete lighthouses built in an Art Deco style. Such a structure was constructed on Sentinel Island in 1935. When the new lighthouse neared completion, a wooden tressel was built between it and the old lighthouse, enabling the lantern room to be slid into place atop the new tower. The replacement lighthouse consisted of an eleven-foot-square tower that rose to a height of just over fifty feet from the eastern face of a two-story fog signal building, measuring 28 by 34 feet. Pilasters, placed at the corners of the tower and fog building, project a few feet about the roofline and give the otherwise plain lighthouse a distinct flair. Another ornamentation found on the tower was a crest exhibiting an eagle, a sailing ship, and a lighthouse.
No longer needed, the top of the tower was removed from the original keepers' duplex, but the dwelling continued to provide shelter for the keepers until the station was automated in 1966. At that time, the fog signal was discontinued and generators provided the power for the light. To reduce maintenance costs, the Coast Guard burned the distinctive dwelling to the ground in 1971 and added solar power to the lighthouse in 1987. The foundation of the original duplex/lighthouse is still clearly visible in the grassy area south of the modern lighthouse, while the foundation of the original fog signal building is just to the west.
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