In 1960, the Seattle Times ran an article with the headline, “Days Too Short on Island: Life Ideal for Wife of Lighthouse-Keeper.” An accompanying photo featured two young boys with their mother, sitting on some sea-tossed driftwood, enjoying a bright sunny day in front of Point Robinson Lighthouse on Maury Island, Washington. For once, the media did not exaggerate.
Mary Hopkins, wife of Officer-in-Charge Gary Lee Hopkins, told the reporter exactly how it was to be in this pleasant “storybook setting.” The Hopkins family had come to Point Robinson the previous year and were enjoying every minute of the beautiful vista and peaceful bay that was “removed from many of the vexations of urban living.”
Even now, these 60 years later, the memories of the idyllic life at Point Robinson are strong in the family, though Gary Lee Hopkins and oldest son Chris Hopkins have passed away in recent years. Ten years ago, Chris built a table-top replica of the lighthouse for his family, and Gary’s wife Mary did an acrylic painting of the station for their other son, Lynn. While the family only stayed there three years in the midst of Gary Lee Hopkin’s 20-year career, it was still considered to be the favorite of all the places he served.
Gary Hopkins and Mary Berg were both born in 1933, though in different parts of the country: Washington and North Dakota, respectively. Mary moved out west where she and Gary met in junior high school in Everett, Washington. Upon leaving high school, Gary joined the Navy and went to basic training in San Diego, California. Mary joined him and they were married there in 1951.
The next four years of Navy assignments for Gary included duty on the USS Peregrine out of Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. Sons Lynn and Chris were born during this time. Gary brought his family back to Everett, Washington in 1955 where he changed jobs and joined the Coast Guard. He was assigned to Neah Bay’s search and rescue unit for the next couple of years and enjoyed going out on patrol. He followed that by another search and rescue assignment in the Tacoma, Washington area before he was put in charge of the Point Robinson Station.
By now, his daughter Jill had been born, so the family of five fit very comfortably in the smaller of the two keeper’s dwellings that they had to themselves. The larger dwelling was shared by the two other Coastguardsmen and their families who were also assigned to the station.
According to the newspaper interview of Mary Hopkins in 1960, it was “absolutely perfect for raising children. We’re not dependent on artificial entertainment. We have learned to shift for ourselves and our lives are better for it. We could have a heavy social schedule because everyone on the island is friendly, but we have a full life as it is.”
Mary Hopkins Torbenson today still recollects many of these things with fondness. Days were spent in many outdoor activities: digging for clams and crabs, picking cherries and wild blackberries to preserve and use in cooking, having fires on the beach to roast weenies and make s’mores when the extended family came for a visit from Everett, sewing, collecting and shellacking driftwood, and enjoying a lot of the wildlife that roamed the woods in the area. Mary loved to watch the orcas jump and play in the bay and to hear the waves lap the shore from her open window at night.
When the tide went out, it left little pools along the beach and the family could find butter crabs big enough to eat. The boys, nine year-old Lynn and seven year-old Chris, used to catch a lot of black sand crabs. There was a big flat tree stump which they built a fence around and pretended the crabs were prisoners that they had to keep inside the fence when they would try to escape.
There was an old boat with a hole in it that Gary patched up for them to use as a play boat. They moored it to a ring fastened on the ways of the boathouse, and the line played out so many feet on a short tether so they could be afloat when the tide was in. Mary would supervise from the beach to be sure they didn’t get into trouble. Lynn recollects today that it was exciting to be in the boat when ships and freighters passed by because they had to watch out for running into the wake which could possibly make them overturn.
Chris was particularly fond of animals. He used to catch wild rabbits and made small cages for them in basement. He would keep them for a day, feed them, and then turn them loose. Once, he and his Mom went to the mail box at top of hill and found a baby deer with no mama around. They brought it home and set it on a table in the house. After petting it and feeding it, they took it back and hid to watch the mama doe come and get it.
Another time, Mary and Chris decided they wanted to see the wildlife close-up, so they went to their neighbor, Mrs. Green’s house. She lived on the top of the hill behind the lighthouse and had rabbit hutches. Chris and his mom got inside a hutch with some cocoa and snacks and stayed a long time into the night to see if any deer would come by. None did, but they had a lot of fun waiting.
When Christmastime came, they would go into the woods and cut their own tree. The families would come from Everett to celebrate the holidays at the lighthouse. Clams were frequently on the menu and everyone liked them, including little Jill. Once when Mary’s mother was visiting, she was deep in conversation with Mary while they were shucking clams. They had two-year-old Jill at the table with them and weren’t paying too much attention to what she was doing. Mary’s mother was taking the stomachs out of the clams to clean them and didn’t notice that Jill was eating them all from the pile where she put them. She had eaten quite a few before they noticed why the pile wasn’t growing.
Geoduck clams could also be dug on the Point Robinson Lighthouse beach. When Mary’s brother-in-law was visiting, he really wanted to get one, and he dug a hole so deep and wide that he was all the way into it head first with only his feet sticking out. He finally did get the clam which was enjoyed by all.
Besides family gatherings, the three Coast Guard families did a lot of activities together and were good friends. Del Williams was one of the Coastguardsmen living at the station with his wife Beverly and their two-year-old son Jerry. Mary recounted that once on leave, the Williams were vacationing in New York and ate at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. They had some German chocolate cake that was so good that they asked for the recipe, and the hotel gave it to them. When they got back to the lighthouse, there was a bill for $150 from the hotel for sharing the recipe. To exact justice, Beverly gave it to everyone she met and posted it everywhere to make sure no one would be charged that again.
When the Hopkins family first arrived, there was a young couple stationed there whose wife, Minerva, was pregnant with her first child. Mary was concerned that Minerva might not make it to the hospital in time to deliver as she would have to drive from Maury Island to take the ferry from Vashon Island before getting to the hospital. Mary told her as soon as she thought she might be going into labor to let her know and they would leave immediately. When the time came, Mary took her and thankfully, the ferry wasn’t too long in coming. It wasn’t false labor and Minerva had her baby shortly after making it to the hospital where Mary stayed with her through the delivery. This couple left Point Robinson Lighthouse shortly after the baby was born.
Mary remembers climbing up to the light many times to help clean it. Inspectors came to the lighthouse but didn’t go into the dwellings. Once an inspector came to the station and did an inventory in the carpenter shop. The light keepers were only allowed to have so many hammers, screwdrivers, and tools and they had too many of them, so he took them out in a boat and “deep-sixed” them. He did the same to a power saw which made Gary Lee Hopkins upset because they threw away perfectly good tools. They did the same with the boats. They were allowed to only have one rowboat and there were two when the Hopkins’ first got to the lighthouse, so one boat was taken away to dispose of it.
It wasn’t only the lighthouse equipment that suffered an untimely demise. There was a washer and dryer in the basement of the dwelling. It was thought that new ones were needed even though they were working fine. Gary and Mary knew someone who could use them, but they weren’t allowed to give them away. Instead, the set got taken to the dump and physically smashed so no one could recycle them.
In his time off, Gary loved to tinker with cars. He bought an old coupe for $25 that was in bad shape. He worked on it in the carpenter shop at the lighthouse and got the dents out of it, painted it, and got it running. Mary upholstered seats. Gary gave it to his sister for a present when she graduated from high school in Everett.
Of course, for Gary Lee Hopkins, life at Point Robinson Lighthouse wasn’t all about relaxation and idyllic pleasure. He still had to do his job. In addition to tending the light, there were still the buildings and grounds to be maintained, a schedule to be kept, and regulations to follow. In addition to the daily duties of rotational log keeping, cleaning and checking all components of the light and foghorn, the Coastguardsmen could be called on for search and rescue missions when needed.
In another newspaper article from 1959 about the station, Gary Lee Hopkins pointed out, “We frequently get calls from people who want to know ‘if we could possibly’ send help to a boat in trouble. They don’t have to plead with us—that’s our job.” But even he had to admit that the assignment to Point Robinson Light was considered “preferred duty.”
In 1962, after serving there for three years, Gary was then transferred to the Swiftsure Lightship, which was quite a change from the 23-acre freedom of the Point Robinson Lighthouse reservation. He then moved on quickly to the Loran Station 64 on Biorka Island in Alaska, followed by a short stint as an engineering officer in Key West, Florida on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
By the early1960s, Gary and Mary had chosen to take separate paths. He was stationed in Lorain, Ohio as the engineering Officer-in-Charge during the construction of USCGC Vigorous. When that was completed, he returned to Seattle and was stationed aboard the USCGC Wachusett from which he retired in 1971, having served four years with the Navy and 16 years in the Coast Guard. He went on to teach and mentor as a marine engineer at Seattle Central College and then traveled during his retirement years with his later wife, Joy Hopkins. Gary Lee Hopkins passed away in 2011 at the age of 77.
But for Mary Hopkins Torbenson, she still thinks the same today as she stated back in 1960 regarding her time at Point Robinson Lighthouse. “We all have learned valuable lessons living more or less isolated….this is the greatest.”
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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