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Growing Vegetables at Point Wilson Light Station

Next week we will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States entering into World War I. On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Coast Guard came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. The Lighthouse Service was not yet part of the Coast Guard, so President Woodrow Wilson ordered “transfer for temporary use, of certain lighthouse tenders to the War Department and Navy Department.” In December 1918, it was reported that “nearly all of the lighthouse tenders and a number of other units with a total of 1,132 persons, have been serving with the Navy Department, and at the same time continuing the work of maintaining the aids to navigation.” [Source 1918 Annual Report reproduced in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin.]

Although lighthouse keepers did not perform military duties, they were encouraged to cultivate gardens as part of a national effort. Often called “war gardens” (and later during World War II, “victory gardens”), these gardens reduced the pressures the war put on the food supply and were considered a way of supporting the war effort on the home front.

garden article
Article from May 1, 1917, issue of the Lighthouse Service Bulletin urging lighthouse keepers to cultivate gardens.

Keeper William J. Thomas reported on the the vegetables he raised at Point Wilson Light Station near Port Townsend, Washington, in a letter to the 17th District Inspector on October 12, 1917:

Have sent you to day per Parcel Post a sample of some of the vegetables I raised on the Station here. Peas, Potatoes, Carrots, Lettuce, Garlic & Squash do well but Tomatoes, Cabbage, Turnips are a failure. Beans fairly well; after planting four times–have 4 gallons of Beans Salted & 2 Gallons canned. The yield was good but of course small quantity as space was limited. Early Onions & Lettuce was splendid and gave Heather [the lighthouse tender] some for their mess. [Source: National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 50, “Correspondence of the Bureau of Lighthouses, 1911-39”]

A photo documenting some the vegetables grown in the sand around Point Wilson Light Station by Keeper Thomas was found among the photos of Point Wilson in 26-LG collection at the National Archives.

The photo, taken by 17th District Clerk T.J. Zimmerman, is entitled “Vegetables Grown by Wm. J. Thomas, Keeper” and shows two potatoes, a parsnip, a clove of garlic and a carrot. Photo dated October 16, 1917, from the National Archives.
Point Wilson Light Station in March 2017. The station can be viewed in Fort Worden State Park. Photo by Candace Clilfford
Point Wilson’s siren fog signals in 1923. (There were two in case one failed.) National Archives 26-LG-62-39
The fourth order lens with its three red panels was manufactured by Sattter, Lemonnier et Cie A Paris. When active it was a fixed white characteristic varied by a red flash every 20 seconds. Today the active light is produced by the VRB 25 on the outside railing and has a characteristic of alternating red or white flash every 5 seconds. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2017

William Thomas served as principal keeper at Point Wilson until 1925. He and his assistant maintained a first-class siren fog signal and a fourth-order lens. The lens with its three red panels was manufactured by Sautter, Lemonnier et Cie, Paris, France. [Source: Classical Lenses in the U.S.] During Thomas’s tenure it was a fixed white characteristic varied by a red flash every 20 seconds. Today the lens is a static display and the active light is produced by a modern VRB 25 on the outside railing with a characteristic of alternating red or white flash every 5 seconds. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2017.

Submitted by Candace Clifford, March 27, 2017

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5 thoughts on “Growing Vegetables at Point Wilson Light Station

  1. Candace, really appreciate the garden news. Historical photos show a fenced garden at Yaquina Head (OR) light station which we’ve reproduced and it partially used summertimes. The same at nearby Yaquina Bay light.


  2. Excellent article, Candace!

    For anyone interested in recreating their lighthouse garden, please test your soil first! We found lead in our soil at the Rose Island Lighthouse, probably from paint chips. From the University of Rhode Island Master Gardener’s program we learned that a heavy dose of compost and some lime would help make the vegetables safe to eat, We created raised beds in a new area away from the lighthouse and mixed the soil with lots of compost from our local polo horse stables in Portsmouth. Sprinkled lime on top and planted everything you could imagine. As I remember carrots and beets didn’t grow very well, but tomatoes, summer squash and zucchini, tomatoes, chard, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, rhubarb and raspberries did well and passed our lead tests.

  3. The garden information is very interesting. Thank you for this post, Candace. I have a copy of the Cape Lookout day mark designed by Hains lying on my desk as I type. I’m writing about NC lights again!

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