Destruction Island, located three miles off the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, was truly a treacherous place as its name implies, but not because of shipwrecks. Two separate incidents of Indian-led massacres of explorers gave the island its name in the late 1700s. A hundred years later, it came close to claiming more lives through hardship circumstances endured by fourteen men who were sent to build the lighthouse. However, in this instance, it was due more to government neglect than a hostile environment.
Prior crews had constructed keeper dwellings and other outbuildings in 1889, and head keeper Christian Zauner and assistant Thomas Campbell had taken up residence, even though there was no formal light to keep at that point. The next phase called for the lighthouse tower to be built, and on September 6, 1890, the new construction crew arrived on the island to lay the foundation. The lighthouse tender Manzanita dropped them off with some initial supplies, promising to call again in ten days with more provisions. It was two weeks later that the tender stopped by while on the way to Puget Sound to attend to a naval commission.
The construction superintendent, Mr. A.E. Withers, in looking over the supplies delivered on this return visit, informed the Manzanita’s captain, Charles Richardson, that the amount of food was insufficient for more than a few days. He gave him a requisition for more and told him they would need to be resupplied within the week. But the tender did not return as promised.
Edward Richardson, one of the construction workers (and no known relation to Captain Richardson), later told the Daily Morning Astorian that, “At the end of the week, the supplies began to run short and we were put on half rations and clams. Then a few days later, we had no provisions at all, save a little flour and the men would have to knock off work and go to digging clams for breakfast, dinner, and supper. It was clams three times a day and some of the men became sick. Each day we looked for some signs of the lighthouse tender Manzanita, or a relief boat, but none came.”
Without any means of safe transportation available, the 14 men were stranded on the rocky island of 30 acres. According to a later account, they were able to borrow some potatoes, beans, syrup, and canned corned beef from the two keepers, but for 16 total men, it did not appear that such limited supplies would last much longer. They built a signal fire on the end of the island facing the mainland, hoping to attract the attention of the peaceful Quileute Indians on shore, but it burned for almost a full week before the Indians finally responded and came out in canoes to see what was wrong.
Richardson and another one of the construction crew came back to shore with the Indians and headed for Portland to apprise the lighthouse district office of the situation. It is assumed that the Indians provided whatever necessary food was needed for the rest of the crew left behind.
Richardson stated that he and his comrade had walked all the way to Gray’s Harbor, which is a distance of over sixty miles, and then by means of sailboat, steamers, and rail, finally arrived in Astoria, six days later, en route still to Portland.
The next day, the same newspaper ran another article, this time quoting Superintendent Withers, who by then had made it to Astoria as well. Withers claimed that Richardson had painted too black of a picture, exaggerating the facts, and that the men were never in danger of starving; however, he did agree that there was no telling when the lighthouse tender Manzanita was coming. However, he denied that the men were forced to stop work to dig for clams just to have something to eat. He said they dug them because they wanted to, not because they had to and that they also caught fish.
That same evening, the other 12 men from the crew arrived in Astoria via the tender Manzanita, which had finally shown up at the island a week after the first three had left. They had a much easier trip down the coast than those who had to traverse it on foot.
In interviewing them, the other men did corroborate most of Richardson’s account of hardship. They stated that they went out with candles at low tide after dark and sometimes in the daytime to dig for clams, which they also confirmed was the main staple of their diet. However, they agreed with Withers that they were not in imminent danger of starvation.
The fact that all 12 of them were transported off the island when the lighthouse tender Manzanita finally did arrive adds some sense of urgency for relief to their situation. Also, the trip to Astoria from the island was made in only nine hours, which was considered quite a feat. If some of the men were already sick from eating clams day and night, it might not have been too much longer before the situation would have turned critical.
The newspaper reported that the Manzanita was delayed in arriving at Destruction Island in the first place because “the vessel had been detained on the Sound to take the dry dock commission around those waters, to the detriment of the lighthouse department.”
The newspaper also made mention that it was only a week ago “that supplies ran out at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and the men there were compelled to signal a passing steamer and obtain provisions from it.” That apparently was a somewhat common situation for those stationed at Tillamook Rock Light, as there are several reports of keepers subsisting on very little until the lighthouse tender came or could land due to bad weather.
Orlo Hayward, a keeper serving there from 1919-1921, later told his children that, at one point, their crew of four keepers was down to some beef jerky, a single can of salmon, and some crackers before the lighthouse tender arrived.
Any lighthouse keeper who served at an off-shore light could be placed in a similar situation at any time due to inclement weather or other delays of the tender. It was one of the ongoing hazards of the job that could not be completely avoided. But to be left to subsist on clams because the lighthouse tender was occupied on a sightseeing trip for the Navy was certainly akin to outright neglect and a result of total bureaucratic mismanagement.
The newspaper made a pointed observation based on this incident, that if the lighthouse tender were “to be continued in the service of showing brass buttoned and epauletted officers about Puget sound, it might be well for the sake of humanity for the government to charter a steamer to supply the men with the necessaries of life, who lead isolated lives in the lighthouses.” It would seem that someone in the Navy should have been court martialed, but no action seems to have been taken.
At some future point, the crew was returned to Destruction Island to finish their task; and the lighthouse tower was completed by November of the following year. It took two years, but the Lighthouse Board eventually responded to the pleas for help with the increased workload and needs of servicing the thirteenth district’s lighthouses.
The lighthouse tender Columbine was built and put into service in 1892, which took some of the strain off the Manzanita’s busy schedule. Perhaps this provided additional assurance to light keepers and those lighthouse service personnel on remote islands that they would not be subject to such extreme circumstances again due to a simple lack of proper priorities.
As for the 14 men of the construction crew, one has to wonder if any of them were ever able to enjoy a clam dinner again.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2018 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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