New Dungeness Light Guides Northwest Mariners
by Walter Ham, U.S. Coast Guard HQ
March 29, 2020
The New Dungeness Lighthouse has guided mariners around the longest natural sand spit in the United States since 1857.
The New Dungeness Lighthouse has guided mariners the longest natural sand spit in the United States since 1857. The 63-foot-tall lighthouse shines a flashing white light that can be seen for 18 nautical miles. The light is maintained by Aids to Navigation Team Puget Sound. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo - April 6, 2015)
The storied beacon has welcomed mariners into the Puget Sound since it was first lit on Dec. 14, 1857, more than 30 years before Washington became the 42nd state.
From Washington State’s Dungeness Spit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the 63-foot-tall lighthouse shines a flashing white light that can be seen for 18 nautical miles.
“The lighthouse is the first lighthouse within the Strait de Juan Fuca that the mariner will see as they make their way to the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma,” said Jeffrey Zappen, a retired U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer with 29 years of service who serves as the civilian lighthouse coordinator at Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound.
Dungeness Spit, a five-mile-long flat sandbar barely visible in the distance, is nicknamed Shipwreck Spit, according to Zappen.
“The rich Native American culture and early settlers niched out a unique territory that included the need for the 1857 lighthouse,” said Zappen, who is from Glendora, California. “Farming and logging was the primary source of migration and settlement.”
Located in the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, the lighthouse tower is maintained by the New Dungeness Light Station Association, which offers a “keeper program” that allows visitors to spend a week at the lighthouse.
U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Puget Sound keeps the light shining. Based in Seattle, the 16-member ANT maintains 297 Aids to Navigation (ATON), including 14 lighthouses, and the team has secondary responsibility for 300 other aids.
Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound’s ATON mark channels, safe water, obstructions and shoals across complex waterways and harbor entrances.
According to Chief Warrant Officer William E. Martinez, the ATON Officer for Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound, the buoys and beacons around the Puget Sound are vital to navigation safety and maritime commerce in the region.
“The majestic San Juan Island Archipelago is made up of dozens intricate channels, waterways and island passages all coupled with hazardous conditions,” said Martinez, a Tacoma, Washington native. “Local knowledge of ATON in the San Juan Islands is absolutely essential to safe navigation. The area would be unnavigable without properly maintained ATON.”
Puget Sound-area U.S. Navy warships also navigate these waterways.
“The U.S. Navy maintains and operates several large installations in this area, all of which rely heavily on the ATON in ANT Puget Sound's area of operations,” said Martinez.
The largest ferry system in the U.S. connects the area and transports nearly 25 million passengers a year.
Before it was automated in 1976, the New Dungeness Light was home to legendary keepers like Henry Blake, its first lighthouse keeper. Blake served at the remote and secluded lighthouse guiding ships into Puget Sound. By himself for 10 years, Blake kept the lantern lit and tolled the bell in heavy fog.
In 1868, Blake took in and cared for a pregnant Native American woman after she survived an attack by a rival tribe. He refused to return her to the attacking tribe. She would later recover and return home. In 1902, a young Native American man went to the lighthouse and said he was the child that Blake saved.
Homeported in Everett, Washington, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake (WLM-563) is named to pay homage to the famous lighthouse keeper.
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake (WLM-563) sails past the New Dungeness Lighthouse where its namesake served as the lighthouse keeper for 10 years. The Everett, Washington-based coastal buoy tender maintains the buoys and beacons that keep military, commercial and recreational mariners on course in the Puget Sound and Grays Harbor. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo - May 31, 2007)
“The crew of the Henry Blake lives up to our name by aiming to give the same level of due care and dedication for all of our assigned aids as Henry Blake did for New Dungeness Light,” said Chief Warrant Officer David Emerson, the second-in-command on USCGC Henry Blake. Emerson, a Portland, Oregon native, has served in Coast Guard for nearly three decades, with nearly 20 years at sea.
The 25-member crew of the 175-foot coastal buoy tender spends months underway maintaining the buoys and beacons that keep military, commercial and recreational mariners on course.
Henry Blake crewmembers maintain 157 buoys and 70 beacons in the Puget Sound and Grays Harbor. Occasionally their travels take them past their namesake’s lighthouse.
“We sail by the New Dungeness Light regularly and the visible reminder makes it is easy to connect the long history of the Coast Guard in this area and the very challenging job early keepers like Henry Blake had when carrying out their duties to our work maintaining navigational aids,” said Lt. Joshua W. Branthoover, the commanding officer of USCGC Henry Blake. A 15-year U.S. Coast Guard veteran, Branthoover is from Richlands, North Carolina.
“We are proud to continue the tradition in an area steeped in the legacy of Henry Blake and strive to uphold the high standards of those that came before us,” said Branthoover.