On a remote Southeast Alaska island, a beacon for historic preservation

This summer, volunteers are working to restore Eldred Rock Lighthouse, Alaska’s oldest original lighthouse building.

NORTHERN LYNN CANAL — On a tiny island on the north end of the Inside Passage, carpenters and volunteers are glimpsing into Alaska’s past.

From a distance, Eldred Rock Lighthouse has long stirred the imagination of maritime travelers between Skagway, Haines and Juneau, its octagonal red roof and stark white walls surrounded by rugged peaks. This summer, workers are getting a close look as they work to repair and restore it. The process is a connection to the people who built the iconic lighthouse nearly 120 years ago.

“It was kind of like having a conversation with those guys,” said Dan Humphrey of Haines. “Like, ‘Wow, that’s how you did it.’”

Humphrey is one of several trained volunteers and contractors hustling to make improvements as part of an effort organized by the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association. By hefting supplies up and down the island’s bluff, working long days and sheltering inside the old quarters, the team hopes to breathe new life into the oldest lighthouse in Alaska that has never been rebuilt.

This is a pivotal work season in a five-year plan, said Sue York, the nonprofit preservation association’s executive director. The organization leased the station in 2020 from the Coast Guard to restore, preserve and eventually share Eldred Rock with the public with help from private donors and foundation support. York said the association’s goals were recently bolstered by funding through Alaska’s State Historic Preservation Office. ERLPA received about $45,000 in matching grants for education and restoration as a subgrantee of the National Park Service’s maritime preservation program.

The dash is on to make the most of a nine-week season. Volunteers and contractors are cycling in and out from May through July to remediate lead paint and asbestos, repair the lantern room and halt degradation caused by decades of water intrusion and harsh conditions. The lighthouse hasn’t been manned since 1973.

“It’s North Lynn Canal, so the weather’s extreme,” York said. “There’s a lot of rain. In the winter you get freeze-thaw cycles which can do a lot of damage to buildings that aren’t heated. And they haven’t been heated for 50 years.”

For now, the lighthouse remains closed to visitors due to safety concerns. Getting to Eldred Rock — about 15 miles south of Haines and 50 miles north of Juneau — can be difficult and expensive. But York said she hopes more possibilities will open to the public in a couple years. It’s a unique perspective worth sharing, she said.


“When you go out to the lighthouse, you are put back in time,” York said. “You get that sense of the timelessness of the maritime community.”

Shining a light on the past

That Eldred Rock is the oldest original lighthouse in Alaska presents both an opportunity and a problem. In 1973, the U.S. Coast Guard automated its operation. In the decades that followed, no one regularly maintained the two-story building that surrounds the lighthouse tower nor its three outbuildings on the 2.2-acre island.

That it still stands today is a testament to its builders, who constructed its first floor from concrete. But time, weather and leaks have taken a toll. York said one of the association’s early tasks was to clean up a mess left behind by sea otters. “They climbed all the way up into the attic and spent the winter there,” York said. “And so that was our first time having to actually don hazmat suits, to clean up otter crap.”

In 2016, a solar panel wreaked havoc when it tore loose from a roof in a storm, damaging the cupola, cracking windows and destroying a railing.

The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation has named Eldred Rock Lighthouse one of its “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties” every year since 2019. The Eldred Rock preservation group hopes its work will keep the lighthouse’s interesting history from washing out to sea.

Documents successfully nominating the Eldred Rock to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 describe it as one of four manned lighthouses established by the U.S. Board of Lighthouses in Lynn Canal from 1902 to 1906, a few years after the Klondike gold rush drew tens of thousands of prospectors to Alaska. In the early 20th century, steamships carrying freight traveled the Pacific Coast to Skagway, where goods were transported by rail to the Yukon River.

“The (Eldred Rock Lighthouse) station provided invaluable service as an aid to marine navigation to cargo ships and military transports sailing either to Skagway or to Haines,” the form says.

Disaster also inspired its creation. In February 1898, the steamship Clara Nevada left Skagway for Seattle. Accounts vary about how much it carried in gold, dynamite and passengers when it wrecked in a storm near Eldred Rock. No survivors were discovered. The story inspired hard-to-verify tales of intrigue and is widely considered to have motivated the lighthouse’s construction in order to aid navigation in the rocky and rough Lynn Canal.

More than a century later, the Eldred Rock draws the eyes of many thousands each year who pass aboard cruise ships or Alaska Marine Highway System ferries. It has also drawn adventurers who come by boat or sea kayak, although the island is currently closed to visitors due in part to the presence of lead, asbestos and soil contamination.

“The last three summers we’ve been working all summer to get it ready to share with the public,” York said.

No decisions have been made about what form that access will take once restrictions are loosened. York said ideas include overnight rental of the keeper’s quarters, providing a venue for retreats or weddings, and allowing guiding companies to carry passengers there by boat or helicopter.

“We intend to open up tourism so that we have some revenue coming in to maintain the building,” York said.


Much work remains before that day comes, but momentum is building thanks to a grassroots effort of Southeast residents. “We have really been able to do as much as we have done because of volunteer labor,” York said.

On the rock

On a Saturday morning in early June, John Hollingsworth nosed a 32-landing craft into a small cove on the island’s east side to facilitate a weekly shift change. Hollingsworth said his time, the use of the boat and its fuel are all donated by Marine Exchange of Alaska, a Juneau-based nonprofit that distributes vessel tracking information and other data to promote safe maritime operations.

Eldred Rock’s shoreline and the strong current made the landing tricky. The island has no dock. A few workers waited on the rocky shore to load their supplies and return to Haines after a seven-day stint, while Eric Kocher offloaded bags and gear to settle in as one of the next week’s caretakers. Kocher said the condition of the lighthouse has improved noticeably since he first visited it years ago.

“It clearly had been abandoned and not taken care of for ages,” he said. “There was no front door on the lighthouse.”

Before he departed, Joshua Benassi of Haines-based Jay Bird Construction said his crew had done some carpentry to repair the lighthouse’s eaves with integrated gutters. It was complicated, he said, but that made the work interesting.

“There was a lot of different pitches and angles, and everything had to line up …,” he said. “When you do this for a long time, the complicated and weird stuff is the most fun.”


The adventure of remote work was also part of the draw. Kocher said he expected to paint, clear some brush and enjoy the long daylight hours of summer. Benassi said someone made a cribbage board to help pass their free time. They watched birds and went swimming. A mother and baby seal came around periodically to check out the humans, he said.

Haines resident Dan Humphrey, a board member of the preservation association, helped the contractors. Weather added to their challenge. “It was really hard to work on the roof in the storm, but we did. And we have a lot more to go,” Humphrey said as he hauled supplies between the beach and the old boathouse.

Humphrey said the first phase of the preservation project is to abate hazards and to make the building watertight to halt degradation. The true restoration phase will follow. This month, the interior of the lighthouse’s main two-story structure resembled a cross between a tidy work camp and a construction site. Generators provide electricity. Water and fuel are hauled in. Quarters are furnished with little more than cots. Log books are set on a table in the living space noting small accomplishments.

Outgoing workers said they were impressed by the skill of the lighthouse’s original builders, who used hand saws and axes. Their handiwork lasted more than a century. “They had highly skilled guys,” Humphrey said. “You could tell they were no slouches.”

Inside the lighthouse, Robbie Jensen uncovered a similar appreciation. He spent the week working on the panes of an interior window between the second-floor crew quarters and the spiral staircase that leads to the lantern room. Because of the lighthouse’s national registry designation, rehabilitation must meet historic standards of Alaska’s State Historic Preservation Office.

“Modern technology makes it a lot easier, using modern fasteners and things like that. But it’s a challenge,” said Jensen, who teaches construction and woodworking at University of Alaska Southeast. “The challenge (is) being able to create something that those people did a hundred years ago with minimal tools, yet with such precision.”


Jensen said he felt like he was racing the clock to complete his job before his weeklong stay concluded, a deadline made harder when he discovered more rotten wood than he anticipated. Some of his workdays began before 8 a.m. and continued late into the evening. It was worth it, he said.

“It was a fascinating job, really getting into it, once I got through all the rot and got into the creative process of piecing it back together,” Jensen said.

The view from the lantern room at the top of the 56-foot lighthouse tower also inspires. The LED light itself is small and unimpressive, a far cry from its original fourth-order Fresnel lens that is now on display at the Sheldon Museum in Haines. But on a clear day, the view through cracked windows is a panorama of Southeast Alaska at its most glorious.

That Saturday, the Marine Exchange boat was visible from miles away as it approached from the north after a trip to Haines to drop off the contractors and transport two more volunteer caretakers to Eldred Rock. Then from the landing craft, the lighthouse shrank from view after Jensen and Hollingsworth departed to return to Juneau. In a modern technological world, lighthouses might not serve much purpose as a navigational need, but the historic value is irreplaceable, supporters say.

“It’s exciting to be able to be part of history, recreating history in a sense, and helping it to keep going for others to enjoy,” Jensen said.

York said the preservation association hopes to one day own the lighthouse station outright through a process created by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The association hopes to have a ribbon cutting on June 1, 2026, opening public access on the 120-year anniversary of Eldred Rock’s commissioning.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.