Volunteers poke into condition of lighthouse
The leader of a local effort to restore the Eldred Rock lighthouse said she was encouraged by a Saturday “survey” of the facility. About two dozen volunteers photographed and documented the condition of the four buildings there, research that will go toward a restoration plan being written by a Sheldon Museum subcommittee.
“With a couple good work trips, we could have people going out there as early as a couple years from now. The second floor (of the lighthouse) isn’t that far from being usable. You could make that habitable fairly easily,” said Pam Randles, president and chair of the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association.
The nine-room second floor of the octagonal structure was the structure’s living area, and included bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room.
Randles last visited the lighthouse a decade ago. She said she was encouraged that much of the damage since then seemed cosmetic rather than structural. “I thought it would have been degraded quite a bit more.”
In restoring the building, a key decision will be deciding which historic period the restoration should match, Randles said. The lighthouse was built in 1906 but was continuously improved until the last keepers left in 1973. Though mostly empty, the structure today includes fixtures for fluorescent lights, and modern cabinets and plumbing fixtures.
“There was no flush toilet or oil heat in 1906. That all came later,” Randles said. Utilities that were added to the lighthouse and other buildings are outside of walls and would be easy to remove, but restoring the building to its original features would probably be prohibitively expensive, she said.
Randles said she envisions having electricity for lights, restoring a drinking-water catchment system and setting up a composting or chemical toilet. “There are lots of pieces to put together,” she said.
Ideally, there would be a caretaker on the island and phone reception, she said. “We have to be open to the possibilities of how we can do this as low-tech as possible, to minimize the amount of stuff we have to haul out there all the time.”
Gary Gillette, a Juneau architect who worked in historic preservation and is helping to restore the Sentinel Island lighthouse about 40 miles south of Eldred Rock, also made Saturday’s trip. He said Eldred Rock is in about the same shape as five other lighthouses in Southeast now in various stages of restoration by volunteer groups.
Keeping water out of the aging structures and resurrecting electrical and sewage systems with alternative technologies are common issues, he said. Like Randles, he said accommodations under planning elsewhere are typically more like those of remote cabins in Alaska than of commercial bed-and-breakfasts. Adopted by the Gastineau Channel Historical Society in 1997, Sentinel Island has a propane heater and lights, and a rudimentary kitchen, Gillette said. Work is under way on a water catchment there, he said.
Volunteer restoration workers, as well as field workers like whale biologists, currently stay at Southeast lighthouses under restoration, he said. “They’re all being used. People are staying at them.”
But Gillette cautioned that there’s only so much that volunteers and fundraisers can accomplish. “It’s a lot of work and it’s going to cost a lot of money. There are some grant programs but not large sums of money, unfortunately. We’re taking baby steps.”
Gillette said encouraging factors at Eldred Rock include the promise of financial assistance by the Marine Exchange of Alaska and a strong show of local interest. He was impressed by the number of volunteers who paid $30 for Saturday’s survey. “If they continue with that intensity, that would help a lot. It’s a big undertaking, but if people are willing to put effort in it, it can happen… But you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”
Terry Jacobson, a Haines carpenter who helped in Saturday’s survey, said the lighthouse “looked pretty good.” Some of Skagway’s historic buildings weren’t even on foundations before their restoration, he said.
“It’s in serious condition, but it’s definitely all fixable,” Jacobson said.
Replacing clouded and broken plexiglass on the outside of original, double-sash windows will keep out weather, but vandalism also is a concern, he said. Graffiti on interior walls indicates the building is already used as a lodge by boaters. The structure’s opening door has been busted down, and someone apparently used a chainsaw to carry off a wooden bannister. “A lot of the woodwork in there is really nice. It was the kind of stuff they did in the early 1900s,” Jacobson said.
During Saturday’s excursion, several volunteers noted that the singular, most interesting feature – besides the lighthouse itself – is a railroad that led from two locations on the water to the lighthouse’s south door. Two rail cars that ran on the tracks – and once carried skiffs – remain on the site, inside a building containing a turntable for switching tracks.
Hundreds of feet of track, however, are mangled, rusted through or undermined by tidal action, and the skiffs are missing. How much of the railroad to salvage would be left to an engineering assessment, Randles said. “Rails would have to be replaced to some degree or another. It would be nice to be able to have the historical aspect of a rail system to see and use, but that would be left up to engineers. Those are the kinds of decisions that will have to be made over time.”
Volunteers on Saturday discovered cemented supports, anchor rings and discarded metal debris that defied quick explanation. Randles said deciphering the history of improvements on Eldred Rock as well as making sense of what is there may require reading 70 years of logbooks kept by lighthouse keepers now stored at the National Archives. “That’s a long-range process to put together some of those pieces.”
One example is the lighthouse doors. The original structure had three doors, including one to the first-floor coal room. Over time, two doors were sealed up but another was added by expanding a window opening. Curiously, it appears the railroad stopped next to a side of the lighthouse that had no door. It also appears that one first-floor room was sealed and used as a cistern, Randles said.
Two men who worked at the lighthouse may also be able to shed some light on operations, Randles said.
Bill McRoberts, who made the trip as a volunteer photographer, said he thought the lighthouse should be preserved for its historic value but the cost may be tremendous. There are also steep challenges for it to become a lodge or other staffed facility. Among Randles’ ideas is to use the facility as a kind of hostel for kayakers.
Unpredictable weather on the exposed island would make scheduling visitors challenging, and a full-time caretaker would likely need to be paid, McRoberts said.
“I think you can find volunteer help to clean it up, but how would you get the money to maintain it?” McRoberts said. The railroad is a “disaster” that would require huge amounts of concrete to restore, he said.
“It would be nice to find a Bill Gates to give us millions of dollars for something like this, but short of that…,” McRoberts said. “If Pam can pull it off, my hat is off to her.”
Randles has about three months to write a plan for stabilizing the structures there and restoring them. It has to include a business finance plan, she said. A restoration plan also has to be approved by the state historic preservation office.
Randles said she knows her group is limited to what’s affordable and realistic. “We’ll have a number of meetings to decide what’s feasible and what’s not. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The lighthouse group recently filed for non-profit status. Randles said hazardous materials at the site, including lead paint and tainted soil, pose a possible hitch in the group’s plans. The Coast Guard has agreed to clean up the site, but federal budget cuts could delay the work, she said.