Point Wilson Light Station, Fort Worden

Point Wilson Light Station, Fort Worden

by | Jan 21, 2022

Point Wilson is a low broad sand spit that extends northeast for 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from the northern end of the Quimper Peninsula on the grounds of former Fort Worden, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the southern entrance to Admiralty Inlet, about 31 miles (50 km) east of Port Angeles and 2 miles (3.2 km) north of Port Townsend, Washington. The Chimakum people called this point Kam-kam-ho and the S’Klallam called it Kam-Kum. It was named Point Wilson in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver after his colleague Captain George Wilson, who was an officer in the Royal Navy and saw service in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and Napoleonic Wars. The spit is formed by sediment eroded from bluffs by waves along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and transported along the coast by longshore currents. The sediment is deposited where the shoreline changes direction and the longshore current spreads out or dissipates, initially creating a submerged sandbar and eventually an above-water spit. The basement rocks of the Quimper Peninsula, which is a northern extension of the Olympic Peninsula, are partially formed by the subduction of oceanic basalts. The Olympic Mountains in the center of the Olympic Peninsula are a tectonic mélange consisting primarily of Eocene sandstones, turbidites, and basaltic oceanic crust. Most of the bedrock along the coast is overlain by unconsolidated glacial sediments composed of sand and gravel which were deposited at different times as a result of repeated glacial advances and retreats during the Pleistocene. In the early Pleistocene, an extension of the Cordilleran ice sheet of western Canada, advanced into Puget Sound and was augmented by alpine glaciation in the Cascade Range and the Olympic Mountains. During the Last Glacial Maximum, the ice sheet attained thicknesses of more than 5,900 feet (1800 m). The Strait of Juan de Fuca was partially occupied by the Juan de Fuca lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet during Salmon Springs and Fraser glaciations. The Fraser glaciation was about 15,000-11,000 years ago and created most of the present-day landscape. The first human inhabitants arrived 10,000-8,000 years ago. The descendants of the earliest people to occupy Puget Sound became the present-day Coast Salish.

The Chimakum were a Coast Salish people that inhabited the Quimper Peninsula in the vicinity of Point Wilson. According to oral history, the Chimakums were a remnant of a Quileute band who had fled the outer Pacific Coast from a high tide that took four days to ebb. They migrated to an area around the southern shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the western shores of Puget Sound near the present­-day towns of Port Townsend, Discovery Bay, Port Hadlock, Port Ludlow, and Chimakum. A creek also bears the name ‘Chimakum’. The Chimakum had a reputation as an aggressive people and engaged other tribes including the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Clal­lam, Makah, and Nitinat of Canada. In 1592, Ioannis Phokas, a Greek explorer sailing under the Spanish flag and also known by the Spanish name of Juan de Fuca, claimed to have found the entrance to the Strait of Anián, also known as the Northwest Passage. Rumors of this discovery prompted other explorers to come to the area. In 1778, English Captain James Cook sailed past the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, naming it Cape Flattery, but missed the strait due to weather. In 1787, Captain Charles Barkley, an English maritime fur trader, entered the strait with his ship Imperial Eagle. In 1790, Manuel Quimper, a Spanish-Peruvian explorer and cartographer participated in charting the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He spent two months mapping and naming geographic features along the south shore of Vancouver Island and the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula. On the Olympic Peninsula, he traded with and observed the customs of the S’Klallam tribe who lived near Dungeness. In the spring of 1792, the English explorer Captain George Vancouver sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the HMS Discovery and rounded Point Wilson to anchor in a harbor he named Port Townsend after George Townshend the Marquis of Townshend. Few Europeans explored beyond the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula for the next 50 years. The first American settlers came to the peninsula and established homesteads and farms along the northern coast in 1853. By that time, warfare and disease had decimated the Chimakum population and the remaining tribal members had been assimilated into the S’Klallam tribe.

A small fortified guardhouse named Fort Wilson was built in 1855 at Point Wilson by residents of Port Townsend for use in the event of surprise attacks by roving bands of hostile Natives. By 1865, Point Wilson marked a critical turning point for ships bound for Seattle and Tacoma and the first navigation aid was a ship’s bell hung in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Townsend. As vessel traffic increased, shipping interests and the citizens of Port Townsend lobbied the U.S. Lighthouse Board for a light and fog signal to mark the western shore of Admiralty Inlet and the entrance into Port Townsend’s harbor. In 1879, the side-wheeler lighthouse tender S.S. Shubrick delivered building materials to the point, and construction of the light station began immediately. The lighthouse consisted of a square wooden tower on the roof of a two-story light keeper’s house. The station included a fog signal building with a steam-powered whistle. In 1896, the federal government started work on the construction of Fort Worden on the high bluffs above the Point Wilson Light Station. The imposing military post was one of three forts built to protect Puget Sound, forming a ‘triangle of fire‘ along with Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, just south of Port Townsend. The ideal location for the light station on Point Wilson was also constantly exposed to high tides and stormy weather which caused severe erosion where the tower was built. In 1886, a picket fence was built to catch and accumulate drifting sand. However, by 1904, much of the beach had eroded, threatening the integrity of the lighthouse. The problem was temporarily fixed with 1,542 tons (1,398,879 kg) of stone reinforcement piled on the eastern and northern sides of the point. In 1914, a new lighthouse was built of reinforced concrete with an octagonal tower 46 feet (14 m) tall and a beacon height of 51 feet (16 m), which made it the tallest light on Puget Sound. The tower on the original lighthouse was removed and the building was used as a residence. In 1957, the State of Washington purchased Fort Worden for use as a diagnostic and treatment center for troubled youths, and in 1973,  Fort Worden State Park was opened. The light station was automated in 1976 and is now monitored remotely from the Coast Guard Air Station at Port Angeles. Point Wilson is still under serious threat from shoreline erosion and rising sea levels. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Wilson and Fort Worden here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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