Whether the loss of the Clara Nevada was an accident or an act of sabotage may never be known, but Congress viewed the incident as sufficient evidence that a lighthouse on Eldred Rock was needed. The Lighthouse Board approved plans for the lighthouse in May 1905 and hoped that hired labor could have the structure completed before November and the coming of harsh winter weather. Mother Nature, however, did not cooperate, and the lighthouse was not activated until June 1, 1906, making it the last of the twelve lighthouses constructed in Alaska between 1902 and 1906.
Like many of the early northern lights, Eldred Rock Lighthouse consisted of an octagonal tower protruding from the center of an octagonal building with a sloping roof. The building at Eldred Rock, however, was markedly larger than the others and had two stories instead of one. The bottom story was built of concrete, while the second story and tower were wood. Perhaps it was this solid foundation that has allowed Eldred Rock Lighthouse to survive for over a hundred years, while all of its Alaskan contemporaries were replaced with stouter structures after just a few decades of service.
The lighthouse provided ample living space for the keepers as well as a noisy neighbor, a first-class, compressed-air siren. The fog signal, a furnace, storage tanks for fuel and water, work rooms, and a bathroom were located on the bottom floor, while the three keepers had eight rooms of living space on the upper story. A wooden boathouse, built 300 feet north of the lighthouse, was also part of the 2.4-acre lighthouse reservation, and a carpenter shop was later added between these two structures. A tramway ran between the boathouse and lighthouse and extended to low water in both a northeasterly and southwesterly direction from the boathouse.
A fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern room, near the top of the fifty-six-foot lighthouse, at a focal plane of ninety-one feet above the surrounding water. This unique lens, crafted in Paris by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, consists of two bull’s-eye panels – one about four feet in diameter and the opposing one a smaller, fourteen-inch panel. A sheet of ruby glass was placed between the light source and the larger prism, causing the revolving lens to produce alternating red and white flashes of roughly equal intensity. Every five hours, the keepers had to wind up a 135-pound weight that descended in the tower, causing the lens to rotate once every twenty seconds.
On May 14, 1906, a letter was sent from the office of the district inspector to Nils Peter Adamson, assistant keeper of Desdamona Sands Lighthouse on the Columbia River, directing him “to proceed to Eldred Rock, Alaska, Light Station and take charge of that station as Keeper.” Adamson was ordered to make no unnecessary delay as the light and fog signal were scheduled to begin operation in just over two weeks. Head Keeper Adamson reached the station in time, and with his two assistants, Gust Hall and John Anderson, took up residence on the tiny island.
On the evening of March 12, 1908, a violent gale struck Eldred Rock. When assistant keeper John Currie ventured out of the lighthouse the next morning, to his astonishment he saw a ship stranded on the northern end of the island. The powerful storm had brought the Clara Nevada up from her watery grave, just days after the tenth anniversary of her sinking. Keeper Currie didn’t have much time to examine the resurrected vessel for the storm picked up again that evening, returning the ship to the bottom of the canal.
Adamson, who was tormented by the presumed drowning of his assistants, 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 & in my opinion they should have reached home easily by 8 p.m., though they had an ebb tide to contend with.”
For a month, Adamson searched the waters of Lynn Canal for his assistants when time and weather permitted. At night, he would often rise in his sleep, stand at his bedroom window, and call out their names – a nightmare that continued the remainder of his life. To escape the tragedy, Adamson resigned as keeper at Eldred Rock on January 5th, 1911 and moved to Astoria, Oregon. He returned to lighthouse service the following summer accepting an appointment at Coos Bay.
During World War II, the five members of the Coast Guard stationed at the lighthouse divided the day into three eight-hour shifts to keep a continuous watch. Three men would serve watch duty each day, while one functioned as cook and the other performed maintenance work. To prevent too much boredom, the assignments were rotated monthly.
When Jack Goehring arrived on the island he was asked if he knew how to cook. “I replied in the negative,” said Goehring, “but was assured that if I knew how to read, I could learn to cook. This wasn’t exactly true, because I had to write to my mother to learn how to fold in an egg. But the rule was, if you complained about the cooking, then you got to cook.”
Dave Hardman served as station engineer at Eldred Rock for a year starting in September 1961 and was responsible for the diesel-powered generators, the air compressors for the fog horns, and the radiobeacon. A crew of four was typically at the station along with two dogs, Kenmore and Willie, to keep them company. Supplies and mail were delivered every couple of weeks except during winter months when winds that could exceed ninety knots cut back on the frequency of the visits.
Hardman's replacement as station engineer in 1962 was Gordon Huggins. Up until that time, nobody had been successful in getting a tree to grow on the island. Huggins took a boat to the mainland, dug up a couple of trees, and planted them on Eldred Rock, where one of them has thrived to this day. Huggins returned to the island for the filming of the PBS special Legendary Lighthouses and paid his surviving tree a visit.
The station’s power was provided by three Caterpillar generators, only one of which was used each day on a rotating basis. Every hour, a hand crank was used to pump fuel from the outside diesel tanks to the generator’s small day tanks. The station’s water supply was provided primarily by snow and rain. Boards on the roof would keep the snow in place so it could melt, drain into the roof gutters, and feed into the cistern located on the lower level of the lighthouse. The water was chlorinated and according to Schmidt tasted awful, especially when an extra dose of chlorine was added after a dead bird was discovered in the cistern. In winter, each man was allowed just one shower per week to conserve water, but luckily the crew didn’t sweat much in the extreme cold. A separate small cistern, filled with seawater pumped up from Lynn Canal, was located in the attic and used for flushing the toilet.
Personnel were removed from Eldred Rock Lighthouse in 1973, at which time the fog signal and radiobeacon were discontinued. Soon after automation, the Chilkat Valley News in nearby Haines wrote, “Haines has been made more isolated than ever before from its nearest neighbor to the south. A cold, lifeless lighthouse stands guard amidst the whims of wind and weather in Lynn Canal. The most important facet of this facility is gone: the human observer.”
After being replaced by an automatic beacon, the original Fresnel lens from Eldred Rock Lighthouse was acquired from the Coast Guard by the Alaska State Museum in 1976. The lens was then loaned to the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center where it was placed on display in 1981. A handsome wooden case, resembling the lantern room atop Eldred Rock Lighthouse, was crafted for the lens in 1992.
The museum formed the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Committee to work towards obtaining the lighthouse through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In mid-summer 2004, Eldred Rock appeared on the list of available lighthouses until the Forest Service, who controls a portion of Eldred Rock, refused to let its property be conveyed into private hands. Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association was formed in 2014 to acquire, rehabilitate, and promote the lighthouse. In 2019, the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation awarded a grant to the preservation association that will permit a historic structure report that will guide the rehabilitation of the property. In April 2020, the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit awarded a five-year lease of Eldred Rock Lighthouse to the preservation association. The lease will allow the association to access the property and begin restoration work.
To help raise funds for the eventual restoration of the lighthouse, Haines resident Pam Randles teamed with Dan Henry, drama coach at the University of Alaska Anchorage, to produce a play entitled “The Strange Fate of the Clara Nevada.” The play, which features strong visual and sound effects and two powerful storms, has been performed at the Sheldon Museum and in other local communities. Now, the wreck of the ship that led to the establishment of Eldred Rock Lighthouse is taking a leading role in saving and restoring the lighthouse a century later. If only some of the gold that was aboard the Clara Nevada could miraculously be found and fund the complete restoration, the story would have a perfect ending.