Fog signal building and keepers house, circa 1900. (photo courtesy of The Lighthouse Digest)

The Lummi were one of the earliest inhabitants of Patos island. Their name for it is “Klu-whit-eton”, which means “abundant native oyster”. Spanish explorers, arriving in 1792, named this northern most island in the San Juan group Isla de Patos, the island of ducks. Due to its many coves and caves, it became a haunt of smugglers.

In 1893, after the island came under the control of the United States, the first light station was established. The original station was a post light and third class Daboll trumpet fog signal, used as a navigational aid to ships traveling from Nanaimo, British Columbia to Alaska through the Boundary Pass.

Improvements were made in 1908 when a 38 foot tower, housing a new fog signal and a fourth order Fresnel lens, was built. A 300mm solar powered lens was later installed and in 1974 the light was automated. Today the light flashes white once every 6 seconds with 2 red sectors covering dangerous shoals. The Fresnel lens is now located in a private collection in Oregon.

The original light keeper’s house was torn down in 1958 and quarters for U.S. Coast Guard attendants were built. These quarters were abandoned after the light was automated. When the Bureau of Land Management gained possession of Patos Island in 2005, they contracted with the Orcas Island Fire Department to remove the Coast Guard quarters, which had become a safety hazard due to winter weather and roof damage. The original 1898 fog signal building with the 1908 tower is the only structure still standing on the island.

The best known lighthouse keeper, Edward Durgan, moved to Patos Island with his wife and 13 children in 1905. He served there for approximately 8 years, until 1913. The Light on the Island, written as fiction but based on fact, by his daughter Helene Glidden, is a delightful and sometimes harrowing account of life on a remote island, as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

Lighthouse and buildings 1982

Today the island is open to boaters and has campsites, pit toilets and a hiking trail. The fog signal building and tower are currently closed to the public.

In 2007, a non-profit friends group, Keepers of the Patos Light, formed with the goal of renovating the lighthouse and preserving the unspoiled environment of the island. The Keepers will work with both the BLM and the Orcas Fire Department to achieve these goals.