by Nita Couchman
Orcas Island Library
Orcas Island Library received a 2017 grant of $5,800 from the Washington State Library with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize some of the photographs and documents of the Patos Island Lighthouse and the people and their families who served the Light.
The Library partnered with the Orcas Island Historical Museum to select photographs and papers from the Museum’s collection, digitize them, and post them to the Washington Rural Heritage website (https://www.washingtonruralheritage.org).
Patos Island is an uninhabited government-owned property located three miles north of Orcas Island. Early in its history, it was reserved by the government as a location for an aid to navigation.
The Patos Island Fog Signal Station was established in 1893, with the tower and light added in 1908. From 1893 to 1939, the lighthouse was manned by the Lighthouse Establishment. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard, and the chief’s house was built, a 2-1/2 story wood frame building which was home to the keeper and assistants. In 1958 the Coast Guard tore down the original keeper’s house and constructed a triplex for housing. By 1974, the light was automated and the buildings were abandoned.
In 2005, the Bureau of Land Management gained responsibility for the island, and all structures were removed except the original fog signal building with the 1908 tower. The original building was restored in 2008.
Today, Patos Island is a San Juan National Historic Site and is also a State Park. The island is open to boaters and has campsites, pit toilets and a hiking trail. Keepers of the Patos Light, a non-profit friends group, formed in 2007, with the goal of preserving and honoring both the history and the unspoiled environment of the island. Keepers assist the BLM and State Parks by cleaning campgrounds, grooming trails, and opening the lighthouse to visitors in the summer.
The fog signal building and tower are closed to the public except when docents are present on the island to conduct tours. Today the light flashes white once every six seconds with two red sectors covering dangerous shoals.
To get a feel for what it was like for a lighthouse keeper’s family, look at Helene Durgan Glidden’s book, The Light on the Island, a snapshot of her childhood years spent on Patos Island from 1905 to 1911 with her family. The book was first published in 1951, and was re-issued in 2018 with a new chapter that was originally omitted.
To learn more about the history of the Patos Light, visit the Keepers of the Patos Light website at https://keepersofthepatoslight.org. An exhibit of photos and documents from the Patos Island Lighthouse will be on display from October 15th through the end of March at the Orcas Island Historical Museum. The exhibit was developed by Keepers of the Patos Light with a grant from the Lighthouse Environmental Program, the license plate folks.
To view digitized photos, pages from the Visitor’s Register, and the Keeper’s Logbooks from 1893-1933, visit the Washington Rural Heritage website at https://www.washingtonruralheritage.org and select the Patos Island Lighthouse Collection. The link can also be accessed at www.orcaslibrary.org.