Light on the Island

From “Saltwater People”

❖ “Light on the Island” ❖ by Helene Glidden, a Northwest classic from 1951

Chart from The Light on the Island by Helene Glidden,
Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1951.

“If ever a book was calculated to recite the wonders of living in the San Juan Islands it is The Light on the Island, quite a different volume from any other yet written about the group. It is confined to one of the least visited spots, Patos Island, the farthest American outpost on Georgia Strait.
      Helene Glidden, former Seattle resident, was the author and the child, Angie, in this story of a lightkeeper’s family, who went to the island in the early part of the 20th c. when communication with the mainland at first was only by rowboat. Four of the thirteen La Brege children died there. The others had many narrow escapes from death.
      Patos Island at that period afforded many adventures no longer possible. For instance the children trapped enough river otter so that Mama and several of the others had fur coats.  
      It was from the Indians that the small La Brege children learned to gather and eat giant, red, sea urchins. The children collected beautiful agates, shells, and birds’ eggs. They harvested kelp for Father’s garden. Once the mother was dragged into a boat by a stranded octopus, another time her sister Estelle was attacked by an eagle.
      Adventure follows adventure in quick succession, Angie drifts to sea in the island lifeboat, a fisherman takes pot shots at the youngsters, a bearded fugitive hides on the island, furnishing a mystery, and Theodore Roosevelt comes to pay a visit of several days.

Patos Island Light Station
Undated, early photo from the S.P.H.S. ©

      The natural surroundings of the place supply some of the most enjoyable episodes. One wonders if it still is possible to find basket starfish at Patos, and if there are ever windy winter nights like the one when a flock of wild canaries got off course and struck the lighthouse tower. The children gathered several of the injured birds, dumped them in the woodshed and barn, fed and nursed them for two days, until the hardiest ones took off again in favorable weather.
      Was there ever another seal like ‘Paddy’, one of a pair the children befriended? Paddy became so troublesome tagging the family around the house, hanging onto skirts and whining that he was taken out in the channel periodically and dumped overboard. Each time he came home and each time he was carried further away. Finally Mother put him on board a lighthouse tender bound for Astoria. A month later Paddy returned. When Mother announced she was going to have a nervous breakdown if something wasn’t done with that seal Father took Paddy down to the water’s edge. There was a shot and Paddy never bothered Mama again. The children after that were ordered to stay away from the seal rocks.
      The book has the humor of Life with Father and I Remember Mama, with a dash of salt thrown in. It’s a real San Juan family album.”
Seattle Times, October 1951
Glidden, Helene Durgan. The Light on the Island; New York, published by Coward-McCann, Inc., 1951.
A 50th anniversary edition, with photos added, was published by San Juan Publishing in 2001.


Light on the Island — 5 Comments

  1. What do I need to do to be able to log on to the lighthouse site?
    My grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the early 1900’s. )Albert Morgan).

    I have the original Light on the Island book and the newer one. 🙂

    • You can go to our website at You do not need to log on. Moderation is a WordPress term for screening to make sure a message isn’t scam or virus. Would love to hear more about your grandfather, Albert Morgan. Do you have any photos or writing. I have some photos taken around the early 1900s. If you give me your email I could send them to you to see if you recognize any one. Some are in bad condition but some things are still visible. Our email address is”

  2. My father, William F. Oldenburg, was son of Beatrice Durgan one of the girls raised on the island. Helen Glidden was my great aunt. I have read the original book and as q child heard some of the tales first hand from great aunts. The book was lost in the estate sale when my mother passed away.

    • Hello, Thanks for this information. I would like to pass it on to our historian, Edrie Vinson, who lives on Orcas Island right across from Patos. If you have memories and photos it would be wonderful if you could share them. Where do you live now?

  3. I recently read an article in the Sounder entitled, ‘Patos Bill’. This particular article was written by Bill LaVergne. Even though I have been aware of his involvement concerning Patos in recent years, I had not made the connection to the early years on Patos. The reason for this new piece of information for me is that it is another puzzle piece in my life history. As a child, my parents purchased land on Orcas Island and would spend many weekends and summers clearing that land. My father, Elmer Williams, had met Alvah (commonly called ‘Speed’) and Arlene Schultz earlier and knew they were on Patos. As a result, some of our summer activities didn’t just involve clearing of land; but the visiting to Patos. At the time (early 1950’s), the Schultz’s would bring the white boat over to North Beach on Orcas, pick up groceries, and my mom and dad and I would go back with them. Sometimes, our stays were for a week, but most often it would be an extended weekend. My most precious moments were feeding the kids (baby goats), milking the mamas while trying to keep the milk pails upright as the kids jumped all over the place. I wanted to venture to the other end of the island, but at the time I was around 6 years old and wasn’t allowed to go that far alone. The other venture was the long rope between the large white house and the lighthouse. In very windy and stormy weather, I used it to stay standing upright. I was also given the privilege of keeping the glass on the inside and outside of the tower clean.
    One particular fall (year unknown), my parents received an invitation to spend Thanksgiving on Patos with the Schultz’s. We drove from Renton, Washington and caught a small 4 seater plane from Anacortes to Orcas. The exciting event was that the right hand door would not latch completely and my dad (who was in the front seat) had to hold the door shut even while the plane banked right or left. As the plane approached Orcas, the pilot banked hard right and the door flew open. With a fresh turkey wrapped in gauze and paper, my dad held on tight until the plane evened out and we landed. What a ride!!! I thought we were all going for a swim!!! That was also my first time eating octopus. Arlene cooked that thing for hours and it was still tough!!
    Now, I am 71, retired and live on the north side of Orcas with a beautiful view of Patos. Every day I look at my younger adventures with fondness and respect. My husband, Edward A Jensen, has shared some of those memories with me as we have visited Patos several times during our 52 years of marriage.
    Again, thank you for the ‘Patos Bill’ article. It was the puzzle piece that I needed.

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