Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Life and Death at the Doomed Smith Island Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison and Debra Baldwin


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This early view of the Smith Island Lighthouse ...

Smith Island Lighthouse that was once located near Port Townsend, Washington is gone. It no longer exists. For all practical purposes, the government abandoned the lighthouse in the late 1960s, and by the late 1980s, all remnants of the lighthouse disappeared from the face of the earth when what little remained of it toppled over the cliff and smashed to pieces.

In the early years of its dignified career the lighthouse that at one time had its own block house to protect its personnel from Native American attacks eventually became a vital link to the mariner at sea. Over the years the Smith Island Lighthouse, built in 1858, went through the up and downs of budget cuts as well as growth when it was staffed by a lighthouse keeper, assistant lighthouses keepers, and eventually a contingent of Coast Guard personnel who staffed a radio beacon station.

Lighthouse keepers and their families came and went. Some did not stay long while others, such as DeWitt C. Dennison (1830-1891), lived at Smith Island Lighthouse for an amazing 25 years. After serving for 25 years as the keeper of Smith Island Lighthouse, time finally caught up with him and he retired. His son Frank Dennison was appointed as his replacement. A few months later DeWitt Dennison died at the lighthouse. Not long after that, Frank Dennison’s mother and siblings left the lighthouse, leaving him there by himself. However, after he built himself a new boat, he courted Fanny Larson who lived on San Juan Island, and before long the couple was married. Two of the couple’s children, Winifred and Dewey, were actually born in the keeper’s house at Smith Island Lighthouse. In 1905 Frank Dennison was transferred to Fairway Island Lighthouse in Alaska. It was not the most desirable place to be stationed, and in 1908 he quit the Lighthouse Service to make his living primarily at fishing. While on a fishing trip in 1910, he disappeared, lost at sea.

In 1909 Katie Poor, a young school teacher, left her small farming community in Nebraska to marry assistant keeper Ray Edgar Dunson and live at Smith Island Lighthouse. Dunson’s father, Joseph Dunson, had been the keeper before him. Reportedly, it was Ray Dunson who introduced rabbits to the island, something that proved to be a mistake as the rabbits soon multiplied at a great rate.

A man named Robert Russell Bay served as the head keeper from May of 1930 to September of 1931, followed by D. W. Clark who served from September 1931 to April 1933. Some of the other keepers who served over the years at Smith Island Lighthouse were Henry Hill, B.B. Meagher, Dwight Southmayd, William Windom, Hal Graves, Arthur Frey, Orval A. Risdon, and R. C. Tolman. For the most part, all of the lighthouse keepers who lived at the remote and isolated Smith Island Lighthouse lived there with their wives, and it was a place where children were born and the kids played with family pets, all while isolated from the outside world.

Tragedy struck in January of 1880 when assistant keeper John Wellington, who served under head keeper C. P. Dyer, drowned at the lighthouse in a tragic boating accident. And he would not be the only assistant keeper to meet his death at Smith Island Lighthouse. Another keeper, who had at one time served with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in World War I, went to Smith Island Lighthouse with his wife, thinking this would be their last government lighthouse post before retirement until tragedy struck.

The Edwin Clements Story

Edwin Clements, who was an assistant keeper at Smith Island Lighthouse in the 1930s, had an interesting life before arriving at Smith Island Lighthouse. Born in Detroit, Michigan on Oct. 8, 1891 to George and Emily Clements, Edwin was the eldest of five children. His family was Canadian and his father had a farm in Ponoka, Canada on which Edwin worked in his early years. His grandfather was a career military man, and when WW I came around, both he and Edwin enlisted to serve in the war - his grandfather in the 34th battalion and Edwin in the 18th Battery Field Artillery at Regina, Saskatchewan. It doesn’t sound all that unusual for two men in a family to serve together, except when you consider that Edwin’s grandfather was 78 years old at the time! He had lied about his age on his enlistment papers, claiming to be only 45, and he ended up serving for nine months before being sent back to Canada. He was later quoted as saying that if another war came along, he would “make another try for it.”

In the meantime, Edwin Clements followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and went on to France as a sergeant attached to the 21st Howitzer Battery and on October 17, 1917 he was wounded and awarded a military medal for bravery. He continued serving with the 21st Battery until the armistice in 1918. After the Great War, he returned to Canada where, on April 19, 1919, he married Elizabeth “Bessie” McClellan, who had been working as a nurse in the King George Hospital in Winnipeg. In 1920, they then moved to Milltown, Washington where Edwin had to be repatriated since he had served in the Canadian forces during the war. Sometime during the following period, Edwin and Bessie adopted a son, Alec Savage. Unfortunately, Alec became a disappointment to Edwin later in life and they became estranged.

In 1929, Edwin moved to Seattle, Washington and in the early 1930s, he joined the United States Lighthouse Service and was assigned to be an assistant keeper on Patos Island Lighthouse on the Georgia Strait on Puget Sound, Washington. He served there for a number of years before being transferred to Smith Island as an assistant keeper, which he hoped would be his last duty station. Heroically and tragically, that part came true in an unexpected way.

In 1939, there were at least three lighthouse families serving on Smith Island. In charge was head keeper Charles “Charley” Bearman who was there with his wife Anna, both in their 50’s, along with their daughter Sylvia, age 19. Charley Bearman had replaced Charles Nykel as the head keeper. Edwin Clements was 48 years old when he arrived with his wife Bessie at Smith Island Lighthouse. Clements was appointed an assistant keeper to serve under Charley Bearman.

The other assistant was 26 year old George Welsh who had his young family with him - his wife Josephine, age 25; daughter Mary Jane, age 2; and newborn son Patrick, age 4 months. It is believed that George had been newly been assigned to Smith Island only at the beginning of December that year. Before Smith Island Lighthouse, George Welsh had been stationed with the Coast Guard at Willapa Bay.

Smith Island has an interesting topography. While the main lighthouse was situated on the island itself, there was a long spit of attached land, known as Minor Island, that projected out about 1000 feet to the east, and when the tide was in, it covered the spit, making it impossible for ships to see.  So, a kerosene lamp was kept lit at the end of the spit to prevent ships from crashing onto these rocks. One of the duties of the Smith Island Lighthouse keepers was to tend to the Minor Island light as well, ensuring that it remained lit every night.

On the evening of December 29, 1939, there was a bad storm raging, and the light on Minor Island had gone out. The duty that night fell to George Welsh to attend to it. But because of his young family and new infant son, and perhaps also because of his unfamiliarity with the sea conditions and being so new to Smith Island, Edwin did not want him to risk the trip and volunteered instead to take his place to relight the lamp. He never returned that night.

Edwin Clements’ boat was found upturned on the beach the next day, and the day after that, his body was recovered by the Coast Guard crew who had been sent to find him. Edwin had given his life in taking George’s place - a true hero’s sacrifice in the line of duty.

Edwin Clements was buried in Crown Hill cemetery in Seattle and his beloved Bessie rests beside him. Unfortunately, until now, his years of service at either Patos Island or Smith Island were not recorded, and without immediate posterity to keep his memory fresh, he had slipped into the void for these many years until Lighthouse Digest obtained an old photo album of photos and newspaper clippings from a yard sale of family life at Smith Island Lighthouse, which led to the research to locate additional photos from descendants of the light keepers.

It was written of Edwin Clements that he had a kindly nature, lovable traits of character, and amiable consideration for all about him. His sister, in telling the story of his untimely death to her family, was known to say “that’s just the kind of man he was…” And in a newspaper article written by the Canadian Legion in memoriam of his death, they wrote, “No words can set forth his generous love of his fellow men, and his death was, we know, as he would have wished it, “ON DUTY”- his constant desire to aid others.”

That Others May Live

Assistant lighthouse keeper George Welsh went on to have another eight children and many grandchildren, presumably none of whom would have been born had Edwin Clements not gone out that night in his place. George Welsh continued to serve at Smith Island until September 15, 1941 when he was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard.

The Charley Bearman Story

After Edwin Clements’ drowning, Charley Bearman continued as the head keeper at Smith Island Lighthouse where he served until 1942. A book could be written about Charley Bearman’s life. He was born as Carl Henrik Johansson in Finland on November 1, 1887. At some point prior to immigrating to America, he changed his name to Carl Henrik Bjornman and immigrated to the United States. When he arrived in Astoria, Oregon at the age of 20, he changed his name again, this time to Charles Henry Bearman, which he apparently thought was more “American.”

Charley Bearman subsequently met and married Anna Matilda “Tittie” Lindblad Kjalldstrom on December 20, 1908, and the couple eventually had four children: Gunnar, Astrid, Ragnar, and Sylvia. Charley Bearman then held various jobs working at a saw-mill in the logging industry, and also fishing. In 1912 when he became a naturalized citizen, he joined the United States Lighthouse Service and served on the Lighthouse Tender Manzanita. Family records also indicate that Charley Bearman’s brother, Felix, joined the Lighthouse Service and that he also served on board the Lighthouse Tender Manzanita.

In 1914 Charley Bearman was transferred off from the Manzanita to Oregon’s dangerous Tillamook Lighthouse.

(Interestingly, lighthouse records for Tillamook Lighthouse list the spelling of his last name as Bjorman and Bjornman.) Later in life Charley Bearman made a recording of his memories of life at Tillamook Lighthouse. In spite of its dangerous and remote location, Charley Bearman said that his time at Tillamook Lighthouse were among the happiest days of his life. While at Tillamook Lighthouse, he enjoyed making furniture from the wooden crates that were used to hoist supplies on the rocky outpost. He also enjoyed experimenting with cooking for the crew of four men who were always on duty at the lighthouse. To pass the time, he also enjoyed playing cribbage and pinochle with the men. But he also enjoyed the quiet time that he spent reading everything that was made available to the keepers, which helped increase his knowledge.

One night in late March of 1916 while stationed at Tillamook Lighthouse, Charley Bearman claimed that he was awakened by a ghostly figure of his brother Felix who said he said he was there to say goodbye. Charley thought it was a dream of some kind. Later he learned that his 23 year old brother had drowned while he and others were attempting to secure a buoy that had broken its mooring off Peacock Spit in Astoria, Orego; when the boat had overturned.

Shortly after the death of his brother, Charley Bearman resigned from the Lighthouse Service. When the United States entered the Great War in April of 1917, Charley became a foreman at the McEachern Shipyard, doing his duty to help with the war effort. After the conclusion of the war, he went to work as a millwright. In 1934 he secured a new job as a uniformed employee of the U.S. Public Health Service Quarentine Station in Knappton, which he held until 1937 when he again entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service by securing the position as the head keeper of Smith Island Lighthouse. When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, he continued to remain at Smith Island. However, in 1942 the Coast Guard removed him from Smith Island Lighthouse and sent him to supervise projects to convert old hotels and other large buildings into dormitories for the war effort. He remained in the Coast Guard until his retirement in 1955.

The Lighthouse Was Doomed

When Charley Bearman left Smith Island Lighthouse, he knew that it was a doomed station. Erosion had been a constant problem. Once the lighthouse structure was declared unsafe, it was replaced in 1960 by a skeleton tower further back from the eroding cliff. That tower stood 97 feet high above sea level.

For a number of years afterward, the Coast Guard maintained a presence on the island, mainly for the important radio beacon station. But modern technology eventually made the station obsolete. Jim Gibbs, in his book Lighthouses of the Pacific, may have described it the best when he wrote, “It was a sad obituary for old Smith Island Lighthouse when it slid off the cliff, and few were anywhere near to shed a tear over its demise.”

To read this story in its entirety along with all the photos, please click here.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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