The Aleutian Islands are a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands that form a dividing line between the Bering Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Scotch Cap Lighthouse was established at the southwest corner of Unimak Island, the largest of the Aleutians, in 1903. It was the first station established on Alaska’s outside coast.
In 1940, a new concrete-reinforced lighthouse and combined fog signal building replaced the original structure. On April 1, 1946, a massive earthquake struck the North Pacific, spawning a tsunami that traveled north to the Aleutian Islands. The lighthouse was destroyed, and five Coast Guard keepers were killed.
For the past two and a half years, author Peter Kaufman has been researching and writing about the 1946 Scotch Cap disaster. His work will be published as a book. He talks about the disaster and his research in this interview.
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Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org
25 thoughts on “Light Hearted ep 76 – Peter Kaufman discusses the Scotch Cap, Alaska, disaster”
Very interesting .. I learned a few new items. I was stationed on Unimak Island at the Cape Sarichef LORAN Station (on the North Side of the island) while in the Coast Guard in the 72-73 time frame. We would support the Scotch Cap Station Light and Radio Beacon (which was un-manned and automated at that time). Made several trips to the south end of the island, about 17 miles away, and have a few pictures online.
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Thanks so much for your comment, Steven. I looked at your photos, very interesting. What an incredible experience all that must have been.
I was stationed at Cape Serichef on Unimak Island from Sept 76-77. We took a ride out to Scotch Cap for a day trip. I have some pictures of the day, should find them. Fellow coasties were appropriately solemn knowing what had happened there.
Thanks so much for your comment, James. It must have been an amazing experience being stationed at Cape Sarichef. We’d love to see the photos of your trip to Scotch Cap. You can email me at email@example.com
Thanks for your comments, James. My uncle, Paul Ness was one of the men who perished on April 1, 1946. It’s nice to know that others remember what happened that day.
Hi Janine – thanks so much for your comment. I feel that Peter Kaufman’s book will serve as a memorial and tribute to the men who died that day.
I repaired the radio beacon at Cape Mala the Coast Guard station that guided ships to the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. I don’t believe it had a lighthouse. I have been to the New London Ledge Lighthouse for a day trip. I served in the Coast Guard from 1954-58.
Seeing the ruins of the Scotch Cap Lighthouse was what really sparked my interest in tsunamis. I’ve researched many disasters; among them Scotch Cap, Krakatoa (August 26th-27th, 1883), the Lituya Bay Megatsunami of July 9th, 1958 and the Great Chilean Earthquake of May 22nd, 1960. I’ve even been fortunate to have assembled, and made, a few presentations.
Tsunamis, and the seismic events that trigger them, are but one classic example of a “Catch 22”. The phenomena are fascinating, but the results are horrifying.
I was stationed at LORAN Station Attu Island in 1980. We had an earthquake and then a tsunami warning which lead to a nighttime station evacuation. I had seen the painting of the Scotch Cap disaster by Darrell Millsap a couple of years ealier at another Coast Guard station I was at. During our tsunami evacuation on Attu, I was concerned we did not go high enough because the deep snow. I had that picture in my mind of the Scotch Cap Lighthouse with its beam looking at that monstrous wave. I stayed outside the designated evacuation shelter watching that ocean by moonlight–telling myself that if I saw anything that looked like that wave in the painting coming towards the island, I was going to give a warning shout and then do my best to be a human snowmobile straight up the mountain we were at the base of. Thankfully not much of a wave ever came.
What an experience! So glad your station was spared. Thanks very much for sharing that.
My father and grandfather helped build the Scotch Cap lighthouse 1938-40. What a tragic loss.
My dad said it was pretty lonely out there. They played baseball on the tide flats at low tide for entertainment and exercise. The spectators were the caribou.
I was stationed at Cape Sarichef from 1978 till we went off air in 1979.
I remember eruption from a volcano by Scotch Cape that made a small creek to a wide and deep on.
We hade a visit from the Krofft volcanologists to visit the sight.
I miss the “Cape”.
Thanks for your comment. It must have been an incredible experience being stationed at Cape Sarichef.
I just listened to your excellent interview with Peter Kaufman about Scotch Cap Lighthouse. Do you know what the book’s title will be? What a tribute it will be for the families.
I have been learning about tsunamis and the Unimak Island and susequent Hilo tragedies in 1946 has haunted me for years. Any other reading matter you know of and can recommend would be very welcome. Thanks & greetings from Australia
Peter says the working title is “Sudden Impact: The Tragedy of Scotch Cap Light.” Don’t know of any other books on the Scotch Cap story, but you might want to try “The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers” by Keith McCloskey, good book about one of the great mysteries in lighthouse history.
Your interview brought back many memories for me as I was stationed at Cape Sarichef early 1976 to 1977. Made several trips to the Cap for maintenance during my rotation. I can truly state that when you sit on the foundation and reflect what had occurred you get both a feeling enormous awl with the power of the wave and a saddened calmness of the lost of our ship mates. My time on the island as a Coastie had a major affect on my life.
Since my childhood I have a huge interest in all nature’s “forces” and in my youth years got to know about tsunamis. ( I used to dream of giant waves even before knowing they were real).
I also have a great passion for “everything ocean&related things” (recently moved to the seaside) and that includes lighthouses! And by researching here and there I came across this astonishing and sad story of the Scotch Cap Lighthouse and, today, got to find this very interesting society and its podcast! (Podcasts are on my list of things that I love, too, so seems today is my lucky day!)
Now I gotta see if I can find the book of Mr. Kaufman here in Brazil!
In closing, just want to leave my congrats on this great episode, also my admiration for all those men out there, brave enough to work so closely to such powerful and often times so dangerous “entity”, and, finaly, my respect to those who lost their lives to it, the great ocean!
PS – First time I’ve seen this painting of the tsunami and the lighthouse; this is really frightening!
Thank you so much for your very interesting post! I don’t believe Peter Kaufman’s book has been published yet — hopefully soon. Glad you found the USLHS and our podcast!
My name is Jennifer Pickering. Leonard Pickering, who sadly passed away in this event was my Grandfathers brother. My great uncle. Peter Kauffman has contacted my aunt and discussed what history she knows about the tragic event. Thank you for this article. I am intrigued by this event for obvious reasons and crave any information on it as it is part of my history!
Thanks so much for commenting, Jennifer. I’m glad you found the interview with Pater Kaufman. It’s a very important story in lighthouse history, and in the history of Alaska.
IS THE BOOK OUT YET?
No, it’s not. When we get any information about that we will post it.
I was stationed in Kodiak Alaska from 1969-1972 and flew numerous supply flights to the loran station on Cape Sarichef. The loran station had an augmented crew and kept the light house running. The one thing I remember are the bear stories – the island had a large Alaska brown bear population. One of the stories was of the cook at the light house shooting a bear coming through the kitchen window as he was cooking bacon. They resupplied the light house from the loran station using special 4X4 trucks and vehicles. In the winter they used snow cats or weasels. There were three survival huts between the light house and loran station where people traveling between the units could hole up if severe weather developed. The center one was part of an old WWII hangar. Runways were still distinguishable.
Thanks for your interesting comment, Bob! I have passed it along to Peter Kaufman and you might be hearing from him.