On July 6, 1901, a $22,500 contract was awarded to the lowest bidder for a lighthouse on the southernmost of the Five Finger Islands, and during the following months, a two-story structure steadily rose from its three-acre island home. A square tower, elevated several feet above the surrounding hipped roof, protruded from the southern end of the rectangular lighthouse, and atop this tower sat a lantern room from which a fourth-order Fresnel lens produced a fixed white light at a focal plane of sixty-eight feet. Alaska’s first two American-built lighthouses, Five Finger Islands and Sentinel Island, were both activated on March 1, 1902, however, Five Finger Lighthouse is often credited as being Alaska’s first lighthouse since its structures were completed before those on Sentinel Island. The buildings on Five Finger Islands were finished in late January 1902, and the light and fog-signal were installed the following month.
Five Finger Islands Lighthouse was originally staffed by three keepers, a head keeper and two assistants. Turnover was high, with most keepers spending just a season or two on the island before finding new employment or transferring to another station. One exception was Benny Hall, who started as second assistant in 1906, worked his way up to head keeper in 1909, and spent roughly fifteen years at the station. Twice during his tenure as head keeper, Hall was awarded the lighthouse efficiency pennant for having the best-kept station in the district.
On January 6, 1903, the steamer Amur was northbound in Frederick Sound, when it was signaled by the keepers of Five Finger Islands Lighthouse. Two keepers came out to the Amur in a small boat and reported they were on the verge of starvation, having lived for the past week on just flour and what fish they could catch. One of the assistant keepers had left the station a month prior to secure food at Petersburg but had not been seen since. The Amur supplied the keepers with twenty pounds of meat and a sack of potatoes, and some passengers chipped in some tobacco. When the Amur reached Skagway, its crew publicized the keeper’s predicament.
In 1933, the country was suffering through the depths of the Great Depression, and Dorothy Young Croman, having exhausted her savings, was forced to drop out of college. At the time, Dorothy’s younger brother Ed was working at the Patten family fox farm on Akusha Island, just over two miles north of Five Finger Lighthouse, and the Patten’s generously invited Dorothy to come live with them and provide companionship for Mrs. Patten. Island life was new to Dorothy, but she quickly adjusted to drinking goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk, and when the cold winter weather arrived, she gained an appreciation for the fur-lined seat in the outhouse.
The Patten family was in close contact with the keepers at the lighthouse and visited the station once a week to collect their mail. Dorothy and Ed would often make the trip in a rowboat powered by a small engine, but only when the sea was relatively calm.
During the first week of December in 1933, bad weather settled over Frederick Sound. When the low-lying fog and clouds finally lifted, Dorothy grabbed a pair of binoculars to check on their neighbors at the lighthouse. There was just one problem – she couldn’t find the lighthouse! “I looked all around to make sure I was looking at the right spot,” recalls Dorothy. “Maybe something was wrong with my eyes. That building had to be there.” In a panic, Dorothy had her brother and the Pattens search for the lighthouse too, but it really had disappeared.
“We got the boat and its kicker down from the high platform to the rocky beach, and left for Five Finger light,” remembers Dorothy. “I’ll never forget climbing up that cold metal ladder and stepping on the big rock. Shivers go up my spine even now.” All that was left of Five Finger Lighthouse was a pile of ashes, tangled pipes, and a portion of the foundation.
The spell of cold weather had frozen the water pipes in the lighthouse, prompting two of the station’s keepers, Alfred Schlais and John Ellingsen, to attempt thawing the pipes with a blowtorch. The torch’s flame was quickly warming a section of the pipe, but unfortunately the temperature of the nearby wall was also increasing, and eventually it caught on fire. With their water source frozen, the keepers could do little but watch as the fire spread until the entire lighthouse was engulfed in flames.
The lighthouse tender Cedar, which had been delivering supplies to the lighthouse, was anchored offshore, and its crew was dispatched to help fight the blaze. Even with the extra personnel, the attempt to save the lighthouse and radiobeacon building proved futile, but the boathouse and carpenter shop were spared. One of the keepers reportedly raced back into the burning lighthouse to retrieve the station’s logbook. Fighting his way through thick black smoke, he quickly grabbed a hefty book that felt like the logbook and made a speedy exit. Only when he was safely outside again, did he happen to notice that he had risked his life to save a Sears Roebuck catalog.
The loss of the lighthouse interrupted mail service for Dorothy and the Pattens on Akusha Island. Dorothy kept a detailed record of her visit that winter in Frederick Sound, and years later, she wrote a children’s book, Trouble on the Blue Fox Islands: An outlands adventure, based on her experiences.
The Lighthouse Service published the following description of the Art Deco lighthouse:
The building consists of a reinforced-concrete structure one story high with a three-quarter basement; a 13-foot square tower extends up from the center of the building and supports a fourth-order lantern with focal plane at a height of 31 feet. The building is 40 feet square. The basement includes space for engine generators, storage battery, motor compressors, air receivers, coal room, boiler room, and a storage room. The basement doors open out onto a new concrete wharf which is so constructed that the walls form a 7,600 gallon circulating-water cistern, a 5,200-gallon Diesel oil-tank cistern, and three other tank cisterns for lubricating and fuel oils, totaling 5,200 gallons. The main floor of the building contains three large bedrooms with roomy closets for three keepers, and one spare bedroom, radio room, combination living room and kitchen, and storage closets. The main floor opens out onto a porch which is level with the upper side of the island. The air from the receivers in the basement is piped to the fourth-floor landing of the tower where the diaphones and timing mechanism are installed. The signaling equipment at the station consists of a compressed-air diaphone fog signal, a radiobeacon, and an electric light. The light is of 7,100 candlepower, group flashing white every 10 seconds, shown from a fourth-order lens. The sound fog signal and radiobeacon are synchronized for distance-finding purposes.
After the Coast Guard assumed control of all U.S. lighthouses in 1939, a four-man crew was stationed at Five Finger Lighthouse. Officer-in-Charge Dan Peckham, Machinery Technician Brian Dunlap, and Fireman Apprentices Steven Stoce and Kirt Whyte were the crew in April 1982. “The hard part is being away from the family,” said Peckham, who left a wife, a daughter, and a baby on the way to accept a one-year tour at the lighthouse.
The crew’s lifeline to the outside world consisted of a weekly delivery of food, mail, and movies via helicopter from the Coast Guard station in Sitka. In the winter of 1982, the crew developed a bad case of cabin fever when the helicopter was unable to make the regular trip for a couple of weeks. During this period, the water surrounding the lighthouse was rolling with thirty-foot swells topped with five-foot seas, and the wind was howling an incredible eighty-five miles per hour. A layer of ice encased the lighthouse trapping the crew inside for several days. When the helicopter finally made it out to the island, commander Peckham recalls, “We were just tickled to death to see faces out here!”
The last four-man Coast Guard crew left Five Finger Lighthouse on August 14, 1984, but it was their predecessors, the last crew to spend a full year on the lighthouse, that left behind their signatures on a basement wall of the lighthouse. The final Five Island crew was the last to be stationed at a lighthouse in Alaska, making Five Finger the first and last Alaskan lighthouse to be manned.
When budget cuts severely limited its ability to maintain unmanned lighthouses, the USCG Seventeenth District obtained authorization to lease its lighthouses to non-profit organizations. The Juneau Lighthouse Association was formed in 1997, and that same year it obtained a thirty-year lease on Five Finger Lighthouse. Besides the lighthouse, the original 1902 boathouse and carpenter’s shed, which survived the fire that claimed the original lighthouse, still stand on the island. The station property was deeded to the Juneau Lighthouse Association by the General Services Administration in January 2004.
With a motto of “Use and Activity Preserves,” the association is busy restoring the lighthouse and plans to use it as a marine research site and public educational facility where guests can stay and experience the workings of a lighthouse while enjoying the amazing marine life and beauty of Frederick Sound.
In 2011, members of the Alaska Whale Foundation spent five weeks at the lighthouse monitoring humpback whales and investigating how vessel noise affects the whale’s behavior and ability to communicate. On good days, the team was tracking up to 100 whales in Fredrick Sound. The pilot season at Five Fingers was a big success, and the foundation plans to join with the Juneau Lighthouse Association to maintain a whale research station at the lighthouse.