Admiralty Head Lighthouse, Whidbey Island, Washington

The history Admiralty Head Lighthouse, including information on the lighthouse keepers and the lighthouse's Fresnel lens.

History of Admiralty Head Lighthouse

Admiralty Head and the Tall Ships

The tall ships rode the wind. During the 19th Century, the stiff breezes that gathered along the western shores of Whidbey Island would carry thousands of ships into Puget Sound. None would claim a greater place in history than the British sloop, HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver. He entered these waters in 1792, naming every island, mountain, waterway and point he could see, including a certain, sandy headland on Whidbey Island he called Admiralty Head.

Forty-nine years later the United States asserted its own claims to the jointly-occupied area. The Wilkes Expedition entered Puget Sound in 1841 to show the American flag and assign some names of its own. Wilkes called Admiralty Head "Red Bluff," and for many years mariners would use both names.

Sailors learned that by setting a course across the open waters toward that bluff, they could fill their canvas for the trip south. Those winds would, in time, lead to construction of a lighthouse - a beacon for all who would follow.

Today, the winds still blow but the tall ships are gone. Families today ride the winds of Admiralty Head and Fort Casey a different way -- launching kites high into the sky above its broad parade grounds.

Whidbey Island in the 1850s

By the mid-1800s, American settlers had begun fanning out across the sparsely populated Oregon Territory and Puget Sound. The rich soils of Ebey's Prairie, just a few miles from Admiralty Head, attracted Whidbey Island's first settlers in 1848. In 1849, Dr. and Mrs. John Kellogg homesteaded several acres at Admiralty Head itself, building a small log cabin. In 1853, having farmed the land for the required four years, they were granted ownership under the Oregon Land Donation Act. Kellogg also built a log hospital on the grounds and provided medical care to settlers from throughout the surrounding area.

Puget Sound was growing as America asserted its territorial intentions. The need was clear for a lighthouse, not to mark a navigational hazard but as a navigation point marking the eastern end of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. In 1858, the U.S. government purchased 10 acres from the Kelloggs for $400 and started building the sixth lighthouse in the territory, at Admiralty Head.

1861 - Lighting the Lamp

On January 21, 1861, the Admiralty Head light pierced the night for the first time. The fourth-order lens, lighted with a whale oil lamp, was visible 16 miles out to sea over a 270-degree area. It was housed in a white, wooden, two-story house. William Robertson was the keeper.

By 1865, Admiralty Head Lighthouse was attracting not only mariners but local bachelors as well. Daniel Pearson was now keeper and his two marriageable daughters, Flora and Georgia, were the assistant keepers.

In 1879, the Point Wilson light became operational on the opposite shore near Port Townsend, and in 1880 Admiralty Head's whale oil lamp was converted to kerosene.

1897 -- Land for a Fort

In 1897, for $7,200, the government bought an additional 123 acres adjoining the lighthouse from Dr. Kellogg to build a US Army Coastal Defense installation known as Fort Casey. The wooden lighthouse was located exactly where the Army wanted to install the 10-inch disappearing gun batteries, so the lighthouse was moved north, close to the location of the present lighthouse. Charles H. Davis was the last keeper of the old wooden lighthouse, and would become the first keeper of its masonry successor.

1903 - A New Lighthouse

In 1903 the new Spanish-style lighthouse was opened. It is one of the finest works of renowned, German lighthouse architect Carl Leick, whose motto was: "Build 'em stout and make 'em last." It was built by the US. Army Corps of Engineers with stucco-covered, 18-inch thick brick walls - the last of its kind. Future lighthouses would be built of concrete. Charles H. Davis was keeper and would remain on the job until his death in the lighthouse at the age of 82.

The new lighthouse was said to be the most comfortable home in the territory with its indoor bathroom and laundry room. The original wooden lighthouse remained in use as a temporary medical center and quarters for non-commissioned officers until 1927, when it was dismantled. Timbers were salvaged and used in the home of Sergeant Ernst, on Whidbey Island. The old tower served as a cupola for the Ernst home.

1920s - Steam Replaces Sail

By the 1920s, the centuries-long age of the sailing ship had ended - steam was replacing wind, and vessels no longer needed to cross Admiralty Inlet to enter Puget Sound. In 1922, Admiralty Head Lighthouse was decommissioned. The lantern was moved to Dungenness Lighthouse near Sequim, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where it currently resides. The fate of Admiralty Head's fourth-order Fresnel lens is currently unknown.

The Lighthouse Today

Admiralty Head Lighthouse was closed for a period of years and suffered vandalism, but was acquired and reopened by Washington State Parks in the mid-1950s. It has been open to the public since then. Under their stewardship and that of others, major restoration has been accomplished. In the early 1990s, funding cutbacks in the parks service led to loss of the lighthouse's interpretive ranger.

In 1994 Washington State University Extension - Island County proposed an exchange with the Park to keep the lighthouse open. Their environmental programs would provide volunteers in exchange for much needed office space in the lighthouse. Under this arrangement, the lighthouse remains open today. Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse, a volunteer organization, continues with passion its mission of preserving and restoring the lighthouse to the height of its glory.

The lighthouse celebrated its Centennial in 2003.

Do you know something about
the history of the Lighthouse?

Do you or any members of your family have historic or special memories of Admiralty Head Lighthouse you can share with us?

We'd like to add to the history of the building and the families who lived and worked here. So, if the lighthouse is part of your childhood or family memories, please share them with the historical committee for Admiralty Head Lighthouse. We are especially interested in early photographs of the lighthouse and its families.

Please e-mail the lighthouse at or call the lighthouse at (360) 240-5584.

Copyright (c) 2003 Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse