A two decade effort to save Alaska’s oldest lighthouse on Eldred Rock is about to clear one of its greatest hurdles. This week, the Haines-founded Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association signed and returned a lease from the U.S. Coast Guard that, pending a review of the lease from the Coast Guard’s environmental branch, gives the association custody of Eldred Rock for five years.

In that time, their goal is to renovate the lighthouse and make it safe, put informational placards around the property, and start to share it with the public.

From its scraggy, isolated perch nearly 20 miles from Haines, Eldred Rock Lighthouse has been a sentinel for ships travelling through Lynn Canal’s waters for 114 years. Eldred’s last lightkeeper left in 1973 when the light became automated. Without upkeep, the lighthouse was made vulnerable to time’s decay, the canal’s harsh weather, and at least twice, otter invasions. With paint peeling and concrete slabs falling from its exterior, the lighthouse needs repairs—a problem that Haines residents have been seeking to address at least since 1996.

Pam Randles is one of Haines’ longest-serving volunteers, and considered the regional expert on the history of the lighthouse. The retired teacher thoroughly researched the history of the Clara Nevada shipwreck on Eldred Rock in 1898. She co-wrote and produced a play about the wreck to raise funds to restore the lighthouse.

The Clara Nevada was one in a series of shipwrecks in Alaska during the gold rush, but it was a particularly spectacular one, according to Randles, because there were witnesses: workers from the Comet Mine watched the ship crash and explode on the shores of Eldred Rock. The Clara Nevada made national news in the New York Times, news which spread to Congress, and Congress passed an act to construct lighthouses in Southeast.

“It’s probably the reason that lighthouses in Alaska were built,” said Randles.

Haines resident Jim Shook has been volunteering with Randles since 2002. Both were part of a team of volunteers who checked up on the lighthouse in 2014, and found that a family of otters had settled in the attic.

“The hinges had gotten rotten and the door had fallen off and the otters had gotten in. From their point of view, it was probably wonderful,” said Randles.

It was not so wonderful from the volunteers’ perspective, who had to remove what they estimated was 300 pounds of otter scat.

“They cracked all of the windows and left a powerful stench,” said Shook.

Eldred Rock is part of the National Historical Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which means that the Coast Guard is obligated to make the lighthouse available to the public. But because of environmental safety hazards—the otters, the falling concrete, asbestos in the tiles, and lead in the paint—the Coast Guard has not been able to make the land legally available either to the public or to volunteers to conduct preservation work.

In 2014, Haines volunteers founded the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association (ERLPA), which receives financial and logistic support from the nonprofit Alaska Marine Exchange. The Marine Exchange helped them redouble their efforts at obtaining a lease. They reached out to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Representative Don Young, said Shook. “But nothing has happened until now. Sue, I think, gets all of the credit for that,” he said.

In the fall of 2018, the ERLPA hired Sue York as its executive director—and they say she’s doing an amazing job.

“She has the time and all that to be able to pursue this stuff, and she knows the Coast Guard and some people in the Marine Exchange who could pull some strings,” said Randles.

York, who had graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1995 and worked in the Coast Guard for nine years, figured she could use her knowledge to help speed up the lease process.

“I have a general sense of the organization. I have relationships that I could utilize to contact this person, or get some information from this person,” said York. “I know the structure and the chain of command, and I know local Coast Guard folks in Juneau. Those are the people we are working with,” she said.

Another way that York has helped greenlight the process was by raising regional awareness for the lighthouse in Southeast. To do that, York organized two “Run 4 the Rock” fundraisers in Juneau that helped generate money towards renovation, and made the regional community aware of the dire needs of Eldred Rock Lighthouse.

“The people passionate about Eldred Rock are mainly based out of Haines. There was a handful here in Juneau, but they were focusing on other lighthouses,” said York.

York has managed not only to generate awareness in Southeast, her message has spread throughout the Pacific Northwest: an article published in the Juneau Empire about ERLPA’s efforts was picked up by the Associated Press and republished in the Seattle Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

York’s work has put the ERLPA on track to take custody of the land and the lighthouse for between five and 20 years: “We can renew the five-year lease for three more terms, as long as we show that we are good stewards of the property,” she said.

“(We want to) prove to the Coast Guard that we can get the environmental factors cleaned up so that we can eventually own the island,” said York.

ERLPA hopes to make the lighthouse a public landmark where people can visit, go on picnics, celebrate their weddings, and learn about the maritime history of Southeast.

“It’s gonna be a big damn deal, after all these years,” said Shook, “It’ll be a great feather in the cap of Haines.”

Randles won’t believe it till she sees it, because she’s been burned by the lease process three times before.

“I’m not going to celebrate until I know it’s cast in stone,” said Randles, “but I do feel more hopeful than I’ve felt in a long time.”