Marrowstone Point Light Station

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 5/23/2004
  • Essay 5702

The Marrowstone Point Lighthouse, built in 1918 by the Lighthouse Service, is the smallest lighthouse on Puget Sound, marking the low sandy shoal on the northeast end of Marrowstone Island and the entrance to Port Townsend Bay. The lighthouse replaced a post lantern placed on the point in 1888 to help guide ships though Admiralty Inlet. The Marrowstone Point Lighthouse, adjacent to Fort Flagler State Park in Jefferson County, continues to be an important navigational aid in north Puget Sound.

White Bluffs of Marrowstone

Marrowstone Point is situated on the Olympic Peninsula in northeastern Jefferson County, approximately three miles southeast of Port Townsend. Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Navy named the Point on May 8, 1792, noting in his log that the cliff behind the point was composed mostly of a whitish hardened clay called “marrowstone.” Eventually, the name was used for the entire island.

In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), commander of the U. S. Exploring Expedition, changed the name of Marrowstone Point to Point Ringgold to honor Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, and named the island Craven’s Peninsula to honor Lieutenant Thomas T. Craven. Although neither name came into common use, a group of dangerous rocks, two miles south of Marrowstone Point on the east shore of Marrowstone Island was named Craven Rock.

The First Light

Marrowstone Point, a low, broad sand-spit extending more than a half-mile into the water, marks the entrance to Port Townsend Bay from the Admiralty Inlet. Here, the main shipping channel is narrow, making navigation in north Puget Sound difficult and hazardous. Nearby shoals, dangerous rocks, heavy rip-tides and persistent fogs influenced the Lighthouse Board to reserve 10 acres on the point as lighthouse site in 1854, but it wasn’t marked with a light until 1888. Finally, after numerous accidents and complaints from the shipping industry, the Lighthouse Service erected a post lantern displaying a red light at a height of 15 feet on the most exposed part of Marrowstone Point. The light was tended by a contract light keeper who rowed to the point every few days to polish the lens, trim the wick, and replenish the fuel supply.

Usually post lanterns were used only until a more permanent structure could be built. However, the Lighthouse Service didn’t get around to replacing the Marrowstone Point light for 30 years. Mounted high on scaffolds, post lanterns had a drum-type lens that produced a bright fixed light. The lantern had a large tank encircling the top of the lens that held enough fuel for eight days.

In September 1892, Peter Nordby, a Norwegian immigrant, founded the first settlement on Marrowstone Island. He purchased 187 acres of land from Thomas Hammond, a Port Townsend Realtor, and platted the acreage into 10-acre parcels. Nordby called the new townsite “Nordland.” Ironically, Peter Nordby never lived on Marrowstone Island, but moved to Seattle where he founded the Nordby Supply Company, a ship chandlery business.

Tragedy At Marrowstone Point

At about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 8, 1892, Marrowstone Point was the scene of a tragic accident when the 200-foot steamship S.S. Premier, inbound to Seattle from Port Townsend with 70 passengers, collided with the freighter S.S. Willamette, outbound to San Francisco from Seattle with 2,700 tons of coal. Both vessels, proceeding “full ahead,” met in a thick fog that enveloped Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound. The Willamette’s bow struck the Premier at a 45-degree angle on the port side, just opposite the pilot house, killing five persons and injuring 18.

The hulls of the vessels became interlocked, making it impossible to separate. The Willamette finally pushed the sinking Premier across Admiralty Inlet, beaching her near Bush Point on Whidbey Island. Meanwhile, the passengers were able to climb from the Premier’s decks onto the bow of the Willamette. The tugboat Goliath arrived on scene a short time later, and took the surviving and dead passengers onboard, transporting them to Seattle. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company, owners of the Premier, patched up and towed the ship to Victoria B.C. to escape the damage suits that were immediately filed against her. After being repaired, the vessel was renamed the Charmer, but never again ventured into American waters.

Marrowstone Point Fog Bell

In 1896, the Lighthouse Service added a fog bell to Marrowstone Point and built a large two-story house for the station keeper. Fog bells, housed in wood frame towers, used a large clockwork mechanism with descending weights, known as a Gamewell Fog Bell Striking Apparatus, to activate the striker. During fog, the mechanism had to be rewound every 45 minutes and when the machinery broke down, as it often did, the station keeper had to strike the bell manually with a large hammer. Although it was an improvement, mariners complained the fog bell was often inaudible.

In 1896, Congress approved construction of the Puget Sound Defenses on 640 acres of land that had been reserved on Marrowstone Island for military purposes in 1866 by executive order. In 1897, the federal government started work on the construction of Fort Flagler on the high bluffs above the Marrowstone Point Light Station. Activated in 1899, the imposing fortification was the first of three major Coast Artillery forts built around the turn of the century to protect Puget Sound. Along with Fort Casey at Admiralty Head on Whidbey Island, and Fort Worden at Point Wilson, just north of Port Townsend, the three forts formed a “triangle of fire” that would rain death on any enemy vessels attempting to enter Admiralty Inlet.

Marrowstone Point’s first station keeper was Osmond Hale Morgan (1826-1907), a sea captain, who came from Whidbey Island with his wife, Frances Elizabeth (Avery) Morgan (1833-1899), and five children. Although the light station was relatively isolated, Marrowstone Point's beaches were popular with local residents and with soldiers from Fort Flagler. The point was renowned for its prime salmon fishing and clusters of fishermen in small boats were often seen in the vicinity. In later years, a large cabin, known as the Marrowstone Fishing Resort, was built near the lighthouse just outside the Fort Flagler boundary. The resort rented rowboats and motorboats to anyone who wanted to engage in sport fishing.

Harrowing Mishaps

At 2:00 a.m. on July 19, 1903, the historic Puget Sound side-wheel steamship S.S. North Pacific, outbound to Vancouver, B. C. from Seattle with 40 passengers and crew, lost her bearings in heavy fog and struck Craven Rock, two miles south of Marrowstone Point. Distress signals brought the Everett-based tugboat C. B. Smith to the scene, rescuing all the passengers and crew. The C. B. Smith attempted to beach the North Pacific, but was unsuccessful. The 166-foot steamer drifted back into deep water and slowly sank in 90 feet of water.

The North Pacific’s survivors were put ashore on the Fort Flagler engineering wharf at Marrowstone Point where Captain Morgan, the lighthouse keeper, gave them food and shelter. By coincidence, the passenger steamship S. S. Mainlander, inbound from Vancouver to Seattle, ran ashore on Marrowstone Point one hour after the North Pacific sank. The passengers from the North Pacific were transferred to the Mainlander and taken to Seattle when the vessel was refloated two hours later.

Water, Water Everywhere ...

Acute water shortages were always a problem on Marrowstone Point. The station keepers had to depend on collecting rainwater from the sheds and buildings for potable water. During seasons when rainfall was light, barrels of water had to be brought to the station in barges. In 1905, the Marrowstone Point Light Station was connected to Port Townsend’s freshwater supply through Fort Flagler.

The U. S. Army contracted with the Spring Valley Water Company to deliver 50,000 gallons per day through a pipeline laid across Port Townsend Bay. The pipeline was difficult to build and often broke, leaving the fort without water for weeks at a time. To solve the problem, the army built five-thousand and ten-thousand gallon wooden water storage tanks for reservoirs.

Changes of the Guard

On June 22, 1907, Captain Morgan died while still on duty as the Marrowstone Point Light Station Keeper at age 80. His wife, Frances had passed away in 1899. During his declining years, Morgan’s daughter Mrs. Annette “Nettie” (Morgan) Race lived at the station, assisting him with his duties. Both Captain and Frances Morgan are buried at the Laurel Grove Cemetery in Port Townsend, Washington. Axel Rustad (1852-1949) a lighthouse keeper at Ediz Hook, was appointed to replace Captain Morgan at Marrowstone Point this same year. Rustad's wife Karen and their three sons accompanied him.

In 1911, the Olympic Power Company strung transmission lines on power poles from their hydroelectric plant on the Elwha River to Marrowstone Island, providing electricity to Fort Flagler and to the Marrowstone Point Light Station.

Lost in the Fog

Over the years, mariners continued to complain that the sound of the Marrowstone Point fog bell was often inaudible and requested it be replaced with something better. In May 1907, the steamship S. S. Dode lost her bearings in a dense fog and ran aground on the shoal. Finally, in 1913, the Lighthouse Service installed as an experiment a fog gun developed in Scotland, but it too proved inadequate. One year later, the steamer S. S. William Catham was beached on Marrowstone Point in foggy weather. Other experimental fog signals were installed until World War I (1917-1918) when increased wartime vessel traffic on Puget Sound required a more traditional and reliable fog signal.

In 1918, the Lighthouse Service constructed a square, 20-foot high, concrete fog signal building on the most exposed part of the point, and equipped it with a Daboll three-trumpet fog signal, invented and manufactured by Celadon L. Daboll of New London, Connecticut. Electrically powered air compressors activated the fog signal. The brass trumpets extended through the walls, enabling the keeper to project a distinct signal in three directions, north, east and south. The fog signal building also housed an auxiliary internal combustion engine to generate electricity in case of power outages.

At Last a Lighthouse is Built

To replace the post lantern, in 1918 the Lighthouse Service installed a new optic on a mast on top of the building’s flat roof, an unprotected, non-rotating, small drum lens, that used an electric bulb to produce a 500 candlepower light. This unremarkable structure thus became Marrowstone Point’s first lighthouse. In 1922, the Lighthouse Service built a sea wall to protect the Marrowstone Point beach from erosion.

During World War I, the U. S. Army used Fort Flagler as a training center for soldiers. Most of the fort’s artillery batteries were removed and sent to European battlefields. After the war, the fort was used as a training camp for the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Washington National Guard. Many of the buildings at Fort Flagler were torn down in 1936 because of dry rot, but were rebuilt during World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1951-1953), when the Army used the fort for amphibious warfare training and maneuvers. Fort Flagler was officially deactivated in 1953, ending 54 years of military jurisdiction.

In April 1954, the Department of Defense declared Fort Flagler government surplus, transferring the property to the General Services Administration for disposal. The 784-acre fort with 107 buildings was put up for sale, and purchased in five parcels, between 1957 and 1962, by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission for $36,473 for use a state park.

U.S. Coast Guard Assumes Responsibility

Congress eliminated the Bureau of Lighthouses and the U. S. Lighthouse Service on July 7, 1939, transferring the responsibility for lighthouses and aids to navigation to the U. S. Coast Guard. The civilian lighthouse keepers were allowed to remain in their jobs until retirement, and were gradually replaced with Coast Guard personnel. The Coast Guard automated the lighthouse in 1962, eventually closing the Marrowstone Point Light Station. Washington State Parks acquisition of the fifth parcel for Fort Flagler State Park in 1962 inadvertently included the 10.4-acre Marrowstone Point Light Station property, which was returned to the Coast Guard in 1972.

In 1974, The Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the Marrowstone Point Light Station from the Coast Guard for use as a fisheries research center. The first laboratory facilities were constructed in 1976. In the early 1990s, the U. S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division inherited the Marrowstone Marine Field Station and invested approximately $40 million in new construction and in remodeling the facility. Besides the classic Victorian station keeper’s residence, used for office, library, and dorm space, the field station maintains a laboratory/office building, two wet-labs with constant seawater flow, a semi-enclosed halibut tank facility, a pump house, and a seagoing research vessel. Few of the light station’s original buildings still stand, but a concrete sidewalk near the station keepers house is stamped “USLHS 1918.”

On May 3, 1976, Fort Flagler was officially designated as an historic place by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. 054). This same year, the National Park Service listed Fort Flagler on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District (listing No. 76001882), which includes the Marrowstone Light Station.

A Lighthouse and a Park

The Marrowstone Point Lighthouse was one of the first to be automated in Washington State. Sitting on a mast on top of the fog signal building at a height of 28 feet, the exposed 250 mm optic uses photoelectric cells to turn the light on at night and off in the morning. The beacon’s signal, visible for nine miles, is characterized by a fixed white light occulting every four seconds. The electric fog horn is activated by an automatic sensor that detects moisture in the air, sounding two two-second blasts every 30 seconds. All the systems at Marrowstone Point are monitored by computer at the U. S. Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles, but maintenance of the light, foghorn, and navigational equipment is the responsibility of the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Branch located at Pier 36 in Seattle.

Washington State Parks and Recreation has made buildings at Fort Flagler State Park available as conference facilities and recreation housing, and developed full-service camping and recreational facilities at the beach. In addition to 12.5 miles of roads, there are 5 miles of trails, and 3.6 miles of beach front to explore. Although easily viewed from the beach, neither the Marrowstone Point Lighthouse nor the Marrowstone Marine Field Station is open to the public.


Jim Gibbs, Twilight on the Lighthouses (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996); James Hermanson, Rural Jefferson County: Its Heritage and Maritime History (Port Townsend: James S. Hermanson, 2002); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Seattle: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca’s Strait (Portland, OR: Binfords and Mort, 1937); Sharlene P. and Ted W. Nelson, Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Publishing, [1990] 1998); Karen Russell and Jeanne Bean, Marrowstone (Port Townsend: Port Townsend Publishing Co., 1978); “Disaster in Dense Fog,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 9, 1892, p. 1; “Captain Morgan was a Pioneer,” Ibid., June 29, 1907, p. 14; “Strikes in a Fog: North Pacific Goes on Craven Rock,” The Seattle Times, July 20, 1903; “Steamer Sunk,” Seattle Star, July 20, 1903, p. 4; “Inventory of Historic Light Stations; Washington; Marrowstone Point Light,” National Park Service Website accessed February 2004 (; “National Register of Historical Places; Fort Flagler,” National Park Service Website accessed February 2004 (; “Historic Places in Washington; Fort Flagler,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation Website accessed February 2004 (; “Fort Flagler,” Washington State Parks Website accessed February 2004 (; “Marrowstone Marine Field Station,” U. S. Geological Survey Website accessed February 2004 (; “Marrowstone Point Lighthouse,” Keep the Lights Shining Website accessed February 2004 (

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