Editor’s Note: In this series, local historian Sydney Stevens examines the many connections among Pacific County residents — connections with one another and with the past; connections that bind us in special and unexpected ways.
In early October, four sisters gathered at the North Head Lightkeeper’s house to pay homage to their maternal grandparents, Clayborn and Meta Williams. From 1924 to 1933, Grandpa Williams had served as first assistant lightkeeper at the North Head Lighthouse located at the mouth of the Columbia River and overlooking the area ominously known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” Their mother, her sister, and brother spent their early childhood there.
The visiting granddaughters — Mary Jammerman from Quincy, Ann Clark from Fall City, Pauline McConnell from Boise, Idaho, and Jeanne Johnson from Eugene, Oregon and Bay Center — stayed in the assistant lightkeeper’s duplex in Cape Disappointment State Park.
“But after being there, we think we ended up in a different one than what our mother had lived in as a little girl,” smiles Ann, spokesperson for the group. “However, since the quarters are so alike, we felt like we were staying, essentially, where our grandparents and their three children had lived.”
Since 1961 when the North Head Light first became automated, there has no longer been a need for the 24-hour attention by a live-in lightkeeper. For some years, the erstwhile Keepers’ Quarters have been available for rent. The accommodations consist of two imposing white houses, similar looking from the outside, but with several significant differences. One building is actually a duplex and is where the first and second assistant lightkeepers lived with their families. The head lightkeeper was assigned to the single dwelling, said to be a little grander, not only in size but in the details of the furnishings, as well.
Often remarked upon as the greatest (and perhaps quirkiest) difference among the three housing units was the size of the chandeliers. During Grandpa Williams’ service, electricity had not yet arrived at North Head and each of the three living rooms was equipped with a candelabra-style chandelier. To reflect the military hierarchy with which the Service was run, the chandelier in the head keeper’s residence had six candles, while the first and second assistants had five and four candles respectively. (Electricity arrived in 1939, the same year as the lighthouses of the nation came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. But, by then, the Williams family had moved on to Clayborn’s next assignment as head lightkeeper at Slip Point Lighthouse in Clallam Bay.)
As they walked in their mother Charlotte’s girlhood footsteps, the four sisters reminisced about the stories she had told them of her years at North Head. Charlotte and her sister Marion attended elementary school at Ilwaco, a long distance from their home near the isolated lighthouse. They may have ridden the school bus in the mornings, at least from the intersection of the Lighthouse Road and the main road into Ilwaco. But, returning home each day was another matter. Probably in a circumstance unique to all other lightkeepers’ children over the years, their father’s mother, Anna Amanda Green Williams, lived a short distance from the school. “The little girls spent their time after school with their grandmother until their father had finished his day’s work at the lighthouse and could come to pick them up,” Ann explained.
It was during those well-remembered afternoons that young Charlotte and her sister became acquainted with their Chinook heritage and with the interesting history of their great-great-grandparents, Emaline and John Edmunds Pickernell. The Pickernells (sometimes known as Edmunds) had been married at Yamhill in Oregon in 1838 and had come to Pacific County in 1855. Emaline (also called “Emmaline Redhead”) was known in her Chinook Tribe as Tonwah. When they arrived on the north bank of the Columbia, they settled on their donation land claim on the Wallicut River.
There, the Pickernells had a prosperous farm well stocked with cattle, and John soon became active in early Pacific County affairs. During his first year of residency, he was listed as third sergeant on the roster of the Pacific County Regiment of Militia of Washington Territory and was also elected Pacific County wreckmaster. He was responsible for making a list of the many ships destroyed each year on the treacherous Columbia River bar and along the beaches and to see to the burial of lost hands.
In the 1860s Pickernell traveled throughout the area as justice of the peace. During the next decade or two, he served as county commissioner, inspector of salmon, and was judge of elections for Chinook precinct. He is also credited with hiring the first teacher in the area to instruct his own children as well as other children living nearby, and is thus credited with establishing the first school in Pacific County.
The Pickernells had four children and, as they grew up and married, each one was given land on which to build a home. As the years went by and the grandchildren grew up, there was quite a little family settlement near the Pickernells’ original home. Says Ann, “We still have cousins and extended family members living in the Peninsula area.”
Another of the children’s forebears, their Grandmother Anna Amanda’s father, Charles Green, has gone down through history in his own right. Green was the first sheriff of Pacific County, appointed during territorial days. He was also the assessor, and while engaged in routine tax collecting in 1870, Charles Green vanished. He was said to have had as much as $2,000 in his saddlebags and foul play was suspected. Though his horse returned to his last known location near Ilwaco, neither his body nor the money was ever discovered and no reason was found for his mysterious disappearance.
Their mother’s memories
There were several big shipwrecks during Grandpa Williams’ North Head service, but there were only two incidents that really stuck in his young daughter Charlotte’s mind — stories that she shared with her own daughters many years later. The first was of a ship captain’s concern for his mistress. She was aboard a beleaguered ship and, to save her, the captain had her lashed to the bowsprit. Charlotte remembered that she was dressed “in all her finery” and the onlookers watched in fascination as she was successfully transferred to shore with a breeches buoy. As to the fate of the captain or the crew… that wasn’t a part of the story.
One story that has endured, though, was of a cargo of oranges and grapefruit that floated in on the tide. “Hurry!” the children were instructed, and they gathered up as much of the incoming fruit as they could. They had visions of fresh fruit through the winter or even of, perhaps, being able to sell some. Years later, all four of Charlotte’s daughters — Jeanne, Mary, Ann, and Pauline — could feel their mother’s disappointment as she described the taste of the fruit saturated with salt water and she realized that their efforts had been in vain.
As the four Williams granddaughters made their way along the path from the keeper’s house to the lighthouse, they also remembered their mother’s stories about the path, itself. “It wasn’t paved in those days and must certainly have been treacherous on dark and stormy nights when Grandpa might have been reporting for duty,” they speculated. Even the road to the lighthouse was not paved in the modern sense, but was covered with large planks which made for a bumpy ride, whether by carriage or by car.
On the beach below the lighthouse, other stories came to mind. Their mother had told them — perhaps as a cautionary tale — of the time she and her sister had very nearly been stranded on the beach. They had been too busy playing to pay close attention to the incoming tide. She remembered, too, when her father made a dramatic rescue which can still be read about in the lightkeepers’ annals of North Head: “On September 7, 1931, First Assistant Keeper Clayborn R. Williams rescued a man who was hanging to a cliff south of the station and was in imminent danger of falling seventy-five feet to the sea below.”
A lightkeeper’s duties
North Head is said to be the most intact light station in the Pacific Northwest, a fact which may have helped the four visiting women to visualize how their grandparents with their young family managed those many years ago. All of its original buildings remain standing, including the tower, two oil houses, two residences, a barn, chicken coop, and garages.
At North Head, where there were two assistant lightkeepers in addition to the skipper, each day was divided into eight-hour shifts. The team consisted of Head Lightkeeper Andros G. Siniluoto (1924-1937), First Assistant Clayborn Williams (1924-1933) and Second Assistant Leonard Gabriel (1923-1933). But no matter how the duties were parceled out, the one overriding responsibility was to keep the light lit from dusk ‘til dawn.
All other work was done during the daylight hours according to the daily schedule outlined in the 124-page “Instructions to Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service” — the Lightkeepers’ official handbook. Each day it was necessary to trim the wicks, replenish fuel, wind the clockworks and perform maintenance tasks such as cleaning lenses and windows. It was the cleaning and maintenance of the light and lens that was the single most important duty, and even in the matter of “cleaning lenses” there were spec
ific protocols and steps to be taken. Historically Fresnel lenses such as the one at North Head were 1) dusted daily, 2) cleaned with spirits of wine or vinegar bi-monthly, and 3) polished with rouge once a year.
Besides the light itself, lightkeepers were responsible for taking care of the entire light station. If something broke, they fixed it. If the tower needed to be painted, they painted it. If a window was shattered, they replaced it. Lighthouse keepers were mechanics, construction workers, and sailors all rolled into one. They saw to the water supply, maintained a family garden, and cared for any animals such as chickens, perhaps a cow or goat, and until cars and roads became more commonplace, the horses and wagon or carriage.
Vessels in distress
One further duty was outlined in the lighthouse book of orders and procedures: “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants, and officers and crews of vessels of The Lighthouse Service, to give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”
During Grandpa Williams’ service at North Head, there were several memorable shipwrecks, but whether or not he was directly involved is not known. One of the most dramatic was the wreck in 1925 of the American steam schooner Caoba. The 579-ton ship had been slugging it out with gale force winds off the mouth of the Columbia when a wave burst through and flooded the engine room, putting out the boiler fire. With the ship adrift and filing with water, the crew took to the lifeboats and, after several failed attempts by two other freighters, the small 100-ton Pescawah and her Canadian crew rescued all hands (seven or nine — the record differs).
Unfortunately, the Pescawah was crammed with Scotch whiskey and Prohibition would not be over for another eight years. Nevertheless, they left the safety of international waters, rescued the crew and made it into Astoria where a cheering throng awaited. The U.S. Coast Guard ship Algonquin was just behind them and the rum runner’s captain and crew were arrested, went to trial and, subsequently to prison, despite outraged protests and calls for clemency from both U.S. and Canadian citizens.
The crew’s only statement: “Don’t feel bad, mates. We did it, and we’d do it again to save a seaman’s life.”
President Herbert Hoover pardoned them in 1931.
With military precision
Though the excitement and occasional glory might go to Grandpa Williams, Grandma had her own responsibilities and part to play as the wife of the First Assistant Lighthouse Keeper. According to what her daughter Charlotte remembered, one of her most onerous tasks was to be in continual readiness for the periodic (and sometimes unexpected) visits by the lighthouse inspector. No efforts were spared in the preparations for the Inspector’s visits and, to add to the stress, he often stayed the night.
“She was the daughter of German-born immigrants,” Ann said, “and her mother had died when she was nine. She was then put out to work as a house and farm maid, so she was well-experienced in the rigors of housework.” Though any negligence on her part would have been a black mark against her husband, there apparently were none. After nine years of faithful service at North Head, Grandpa Williams finished up his career with another nine years as Head Lightkeeper in Clallam Bay.
The sisters remember their grandparents fondly. Grandma and Grandpa Williams moved to Seattle when he retired from the Lighthouse Service. “We were living in Marysville at the time,” Ann says, “so we were nearby." The women also mentioned that they think their mother’s love of the ocean and the beach and her longing for the water stemmed from those early lighthouse years. “She took frequent day trips or vacations to the beach,” they mused.
Unspoken was the wish that all of them seemed to have — to be able to spend a day at North Head with their beloved mother and grandparents — back in the days when Grandpa kept the light burning.