Although the Admiralty Head Lighthouse is a famous Whidbey Island landmark, people may not know there was another, older lighthouse located in what is now Fort Casey State Park. The Red Bluff Lighthouse and the people who worked there had almost faded into obscurity – until now.
From 1:30-2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sep. 14, there will be a dedication ceremony of a boulder and plaque at the sight of the Red Bluff Lighthouse, the first lighthouse at Admiralty Head. This lighthouse began operation in January of 1861 – three months before the start of the Civil War – until 1902 when the Admiralty Head Lighthouse was built. The Red Bluff Lighthouse was later torn down. There is one panel of information about the lighthouse in the museum area at Fort Casey State Park.
“This right here and the oral history with it is all we’ve had up until the dedication of this plaque because the lighthouse no longer exists,” said Wayne Clark, a volunteer docent at Fort Casey State Park.
Clark explained that the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the branch of the United States government that was responsible for maintaining all of the lighthouses in the country, decided to put two lighthouses on Admiralty Head because of the importance of navigation in the area of the growing city of Seattle. America was also emerging as a world power and needed to protect its waterways.
The Red Bluff Lighthouse had a 41-foot high tower and was built in a style similar to East Coast lighthouses. It was in operation for 44 years, lit by a lantern that burned whale oil before transitioning to kerosene. Lighthouses were completely human-run in those days. The keepers refueled the lantern and cleaned the fresnel lens of soot.
Red Bluff Lighthouse stood in front of Fort Casey and where the gun barrels were pointing, so the entire building was moved with mules and ropes from its original spot to where the bathrooms currently are at the park.
“The lighthouse keepers kept it functional,” Clark said, even on the day that it was moved.
Eventually, when the lighthouse was no longer needed, it was torn down and all parts of the building were lost.
“We’re trying to give a visual, three-dimensional, realistic sight where this lighthouse was,” Clark said. “Because until now it’s only been a two-dimensional picture on the wall and the stories we get from their entries as keepers of what they were doing and how their life was there.”
There were five different lighthouse keepers at the Red Bluff Lighthouse. The first was Capt. William Robertson and his wife Mary Jane, who lived and worked there for four years. Lighthouse keepers were appointed by the president of the United States, usually based on political party.
“They loved to hire a man who was married, even better if they had kids,” Clark said.
The wife and children of lighthouse keepers often assisted in lighthouse maintenance. Clark said over 200 women were lighthouse keepers or assistant keepers in this county, most of the time because their husband or father was temporarily or permanently incapacitated.
“It’s the first branch in the federal government where women actually broke that glass ceiling and became the leader of something as important as a lighthouse,” Clark said.
Susan and Daniel Pearson, assigned by Abraham Lincoln, replaced the Robertson family and were the keepers for fourteen years. The Pearsons’ daughters – Flora, Georgiana and Josephine – were Mercer Girls, part of an expedition of unmarried women who were brought from the East Coast to the Seattle area to marry.
“It was a very popular place for eligible bachelors on the island to come,” Clark said of the Red Bluff Lighthouse when the Pearson family lived there.
Flora and Georgiana worked as assistant lighthouse keepers and Josephine was a school teacher on the island. Clark described Flora Engle as “a legend” in Coupeville because she was a poet, writer and a pillar of the Methodist Church.
Flora married William Engle and Georgiana married Charles Terry and are buried in Sunnyside Cemetery in Coupeville. The Robertsons are also buried at Sunnyside.
Descendants of the Robertson and Pearson families who still live in the area will be attending the event.
“This is a big deal to those families,” Clark said.
Elizabeth Hancock, the great-great-great granddaughter of William and Mary Jane Robertson, will be speaking at the event. She started working on a book about the Robertson family and their role in the history of Whidbey Island after she discovered local historians didn’t know anything about them.
“While the Robertsons have been invisible, in reality there is an abundance of information on them,” Hancock wrote in an email. “The book was important because I’m the last to know the family stories. It had to be written down.”
Before becoming a lighthouse keeper, Robertson was a farmer who used the earliest documented thrashing equipment in the county, according to Hancock. He also served as the postmaster and coroner for Island County and was a grand jury foreman in Port Townsend.
“The Red Bluff Lighthouse was a beacon to generations of sea captains in my family and all the other mariners sailing through Admiralty Inlet,” Hancock wrote.
Two of William and Mary Jane’s descendants continued to have an impact on Whidbey Island. Their son, John A. S. Robertson, built the first Coupeville wharf and some of the buildings in the town, as well as being the sheriff for a time.
William and Mary Jane’s granddaughter, Hancock’s great-grandmother Leah Jane, married Capt. Howard Bartlett Lovejoy. Lovejoy and his brother owned a mill and built ships and many Queen Anne Victorian homes, barns and the first courthouse in Coupeville.
Clark said the ceremony started off just as something to celebrate the state park, but the descendants of the keepers are thrilled to have their family history live on. Already people are noticing the boulder and plaque in the park.
“People who grew up here walk by that area and never knew the lighthouse was here until now,” Clark said. “The boulder marks the spot.”
Clark and Patrick Hussey from the Island County Historical Museum located the exact spot by referring to the original blueprints of the lighthouse. First they put a nail in the ground at the location, then a wooden stake, but they were worried it would be pulled out or run over by a lawn mower. Eventually they decided on the boulder that stands there now where the event will take place.
Transportation will be available from the lighthouse parking lot to the boulder. Docents will be wearing period-accurate costumes and uniforms of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Miniature replicas of the lighthouse will be for sale. The event is free and open to the public.