Sentinel Island Lighthouse has been a beacon for boaters since 1902
Sentinel Island, located along Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, was the location of one of the first U.S. lighthouses built in Alaska. (Towards the end of the Russian-American Company occupation of Alaska it had a whale-oil-fueled beacon in a cupola atop Baranof’s Castle in Sitka.)
The Inside Passage is an island-protected coastal route along the Northwest Coast of North America. It stretches from Washington state through western British Columbia to southeast Alaska. After the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, boat traffic along the Inside Passage increased immensely. However, there were few navigational aides along the route. According to National Park Service documents, there were more than 300 accidents along the Inside Passage in 1898.
In 1900 the federal government provided funds to build two lighthouses in Southeast Alaska. One of those was the Sentinel Island Light, 25 miles north of Juneau at the southern entrance to Lynn Canal. The other was Five Fingers Island Light about 80 miles south of Juneau in Stephens Passage.
Work on the lighthouses began in 1901 and both were placed into service on the same day, March 1, 1902. In the next three years, seven other lights were established along the Alaska portion of the Inside Passage.
Two lighthouses have occupied Sentinel Island. The first was a wood-frame two-story duplex keepers’ residence with an attached tower topped by the lantern room.
During the 1930s the U.S. Lighthouse Bureau (which was later absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard) replaced many of the wooden lighthouses in Southeast Alaska. The new lighthouse buildings used reinforced concrete in their construction, and were built in the Art Deco architectural style, typified by symmetrical rectilinear design, flat roofs, and low-relief geometric design details.
The Sentinel Island light was one of those replaced, and the drawing shows this second lighthouse — built between 1933 and 1935. According to the 1990 book, Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation in Alaska History, the lower portion of the new lighthouse is a 24-foot by 38-foot reinforced-concrete structure containing a fog-signal room and a full basement. Rising from the northeast side of the fog-signal room is a centrally-located 25-foot-tall by 11-foot-square tower.
The new lighthouse was built adjacent to the old one, and when the new light tower was almost complete a wooden trestle was built between the new and old lighthouses. The original lantern room was then slid across the trestle to the top of the new tower.
The top of the old, now unnecessary tower was demolished, but the lower portion of the first lighthouse building continued to be used as the keepers’ residence. In 1966 the 1935 light house was automated, eliminating the needs for resident keepers. In 1971 the empty, deteriorating lighthouse residence was razed to reduce maintenance costs, and in 1987 solar panels were added to the roof of the lighthouse to eliminate the need for a generator. The fog signal was discontinued in 1996.
The Gastineau Channel Historical Society began leasing the Sentinel Island Lighthouse in 1998 for the purpose of protecting and restoring it. The Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year. On April 26, 2004, the U.S. Interior Department transferred the lighthouse to the historical society — the first Alaskan lighthouse to be transferred under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
The historical society is still active in maintaining and upgrading the lighthouse property. In addition to the 1935 lighthouse, the property includes a dock, boathouse, tramway from the dock to the lighthouse, hoist house that contained equipment to operate the tram, and blacksmith shop. The foundations for the original lighthouse and the original fog signal building are also still extant.
The Gastineau Channel Historical Society, upon special request, offers tours of the lighthouse and related facilities, as well as overnight stays in the lighthouse.
- Lighthouses and other aids to Navigation in Alaskan History. U.S. Coast Guard Seventeenth District. 1990
- “Sentinel Island Light Station, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Gary H. Gillette. National Park Service. 1998
- “Sentinel Island Lighthouse.” From Lighthousefriends.com website. 2020