Keepers of the Patos Light
A treasure of San Juan’s outer coast
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Eight years ago this month, the President of the United States presented the Salish Sea region with an extraordinary gift.
With Sen. Maria Cantwell joining him in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation establishing a San Juan Islands National Monument. Its capstone and entry point is the historic lighthouse on Patos Island—ever threatened by time and tides, now preserved as part of the monument.
“An archipelago of more than 450 islands, rocks, and pinnacles,” the president colorfully noted in his proclamation, “these islands form an unmatched landscape of contrasts, where forests seem to spring from gray rock and distant, snow-capped peaks provide the backdrop for sandy beaches. Numerous wildlife species can be found here, thriving in the diverse habitats supported by the islands. The presence of archeological sites, historic lighthouses, and a few tight-knit communities testifies that humans have navigated this rugged landscape for thousands of years. These lands are a refuge of scientific and historic treasures and a classroom for generations of Americans.
“The islands,” the president continued, “are part of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. Native people first used the area near the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. However, permanent settlements were relatively uncommon until the last several hundred years. The Coast Salish people often lived in villages of wooden-plank houses and used numerous smaller sites for fishing and harvesting shellfish. In addition to collecting edible plants, and hunting various birds and mammals, native people used fire to maintain meadows of the nutritionally rich great camas. Archaeological remains of the villages, camps, and processing sites are located throughout these lands, including shell middens, reef net locations, and burial sites. Wood-working tools, such as antler wedges, along with bone barbs used for fishing hooks and projectile points, are also found on the islands.
“The lands on Patos Island, Stuart Island, Lopez Island and neighboring islands constitute some of the most scientifically interesting lands in the San Juan Islands. These lands contain a dramatic and unusual diversity of habitats with forests, woodlands, bluffs, inter-tidal areas, and sandy beaches. The stands of forests and open woodlands, some of which are several hundred years old, include a majestic assemblage of trees such as Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock, Oregon maple, Garry oak and Pacific madrona.”
“This designation marks the culmination of years of citizen driven efforts to protect their cherished public lands,” Cantwell agreed in her remarks.
The lonely lighthouse on northernmost Patos is perhaps the most picturesque marker that you have indeed arrived at this stunning monument—and its preservation is testament to the many volunteers who have loved and labored over the years to preserve it.
The lighthouse is nearly the only structure left from a complex of buildings and wharves on the island outpost that were torn down either from neglect or a torturous definition of “progress.” Particularly heartbreaking, the original lighthouse keepers’ residence—a gorgeous two-story classic coastal Craftsman dating from the turn of the century—was summarily torn down and bulldozed into ruin in 1958. This home for generations of maritime families was replaced by “modern” barracks with all the architectural charm of a double-wide trailer. The lighthouse itself, by this point largely automated, was nearly destroyed by fire. An oil spill in 2011 again nearly doomed the island’s pristine coastline.
The story of this wondrous beacon and efforts to preserve it are documented in a fascinating new book by Edrie Vinson and Terry Vinson, Patos Island Lighthouse from the History Press. Filled with photos from the Orcas Island Historical Museum, the volume sketches the island’s pre-history and early history, the struggles for imperial control of the islands by British and American governments, and the later smugglers and rumrunners who used the windswept stone and its scattered madronas as a staging ground between Canada’s Gulf islands and the contraband-thirsty Territories. The book details the lighthouse’s strategic use through two world wars and beyond, to eventual decay as modern navigation protocols undercut the vital purpose of the coastal beacon and fog signal. Then renewal, as a plucky band of volunteers labored to preserve this charming landmark.
The authors are intimately involved with this latter effort.
“We, the Keepers of the Patos Light, are 150 members strong,” the authors beam. “We have raised money to restore a flagpole for this once military outpost and created historical exhibits to show our visitors how the lighthouse worked and who worked in it. In addition, the exhibits show the boats that connected the island and its inhabitants to the rest of the world.”
Today, the keepers operate a docent program between Memorial Day and mid-September that periodically opens the lighthouse to visitors. Washington Parks also continues to maintain campgrounds on the outer island.
“We dedicate this book to all keepers, then and now. And may its light continue to shine on us all.”
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