Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gig Harbor Lighthouse 25th Anniversary

The community is invited to the Gig Harbor Lighthouse 25th Anniversary Celebration at Skansie Brothers Park in downtown Gig Harbor, on Saturday, April 26th from noon to 4pm.  As part of the celebration, time capsules currently held in the Lighthouse from 1987, will be retrieved and returned to their owners, opened and displayed.  In addition, a new round of time capsules to be placed in the lighthouse, can be purchased and packaged for the next generation to make the twenty-five year stay.  The event will feature a photo contest, live music of “Daryl and the Diptones“, educational displays, and fun for the whole family.

This History of the Gig Harbor Sandspit was written by Adele Holmaas Robinette in 1988

The Light on the Sandspit

Gig Harbor’s sandspit...jutting out from the hillside that is fringed with trees...has been the role model for countless photographers and artists who have for many decades captured its beauty on film and palette.

According to the records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in 1866 it was included in approximately 600 acres that was disposed of by the Department of the Army, Land Division, which two years later transferred it to the Department of the Interior.  It was part of a parcel of land (about 77.8 acres) set aside by an executive order as a military reservation.  

Then in April of 1912, a five-year lease was granted to Phil Brautigan and his wife for 10 acres in the northwest corner of this reservation.  Only two years later, a lease for the remainder of the reservation was given to Lottie Rowley for $1.00 a year...extended to August 1930 by the Secretary of Commerce, Superintendent of Lighthouses.

It was in 1921 that part of the leased land was put under the control of the Department of Commerce for use of a lighthouse.  But it was necessary for the keeper of the lighthouse to go over some private land...there being two or three lots occupied by private parties.  In legal terms it was stated “that any lands needed for lighthouses or roadway purposes may be segregated or reserved for such use, and the land so segregated or reserved shall not be subject to disposal hereunder.”  

Private parties residing on the sandspit lots tried to forbid the lighthouse keeper from going across their land to care for the lighthouse, “even threatened him with bodily harm” if he persisted in doing so.  

The lighthouse reservation as well as the Gig Harbor Military Reservation, was finally abandoned and turned over to the Department of the Interior.

In 1926, Mrs. Rowley succeeded in obtaining some additional land to establish and maintain a camp for tourists and was granted permission for a temporary arrangement but restricted it to “desirable” occupants.  

If the sandspit could communicate it would reveal some activities that neighbors will not forget...such as the exploding of fireworks, horses grazing on the sparse foliage, children screaming, adults playing ball, and campers pitching an area where there were no toilet facilities.  

There were other events such as an annual salmon barbecue sponsored by the Tacoma Yacht Club.  Literally dozens of sailboats would drop anchor in the cove; the crews and their guests would then paddle ashore in their skiffs or whistle for one of the neighboring teenagers who would “taxi” them back and forth to the sandspit where most of the food was catered. 

Adele Holmaas Robinette

NOTE: The City of Gig Harbor maintains the lighthouse and the batteries to power it.

Prologue as Recorded by John Holmaas

The Timeline:

1919:  The Gig Harbor sandspit, owned by the US Government, is surveyed for a navigation light.  Over the years, various navigation lights were erected on the sandpit, including a wood structure.

1960s:  Wood structure is replaced with a 10-foot high skeleton of steel angle iron with an orange triangle marker and battery operated red light.
1964:  John Holmaas writes the US Coast Guard asking if the existing lighthouse could be replaced with “a more fitting structure” for Gig Harbor.  It was approved with considerable conditions.  (At that time, there were no privately funded and maintained lighthouses within this Coast Guard district.)
July 1984:  US Coast Guard responds to the Holmaas request stating that they are “in principle willing to consider the proposal to construct a lighthouse on Coast Guard property at the entrance to Gig Harbor.”  Guidelines are provided in the letter, including no cost to USCG, plans must be approved by USCG, and lease requirements.
1986:  Don McCarty is elected Gig Harbor’s mayor, he agrees to support a new lighthouse on the sandspit as long as it “didn’t cost the city.”  Irene Widney Hanley agrees to co-chair the Gig Harbor Lighthouse Committee with John Holmaas; Gig Harbor Lighthouse Association is incorporated in December 1986 as a non-profit corporation.
January 1986:  City of Gig Harbor Planning Director Don Orr send memo to City Administrator Mike Wilson listing the three agencies to review the proposed lighthouse, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Ecology, and Pierce County Planning Department.
July 1986:  Residents around the sandspit send petition to Pierce County Planning Department and to local, state, and federal government agencies outlining their concerns of the proposed lighthouse.
July 1986:  One of the proposed designs is submitted by Mark Hutchins, a structure standing at about 22-feet high from base to tip, with a pergola and “widow’s walk” feature at the top.
August 1986:  Committee members meet with US Coast Guard representatives.  At the meeting, the lighthouse plan created by Steve Sparks is presented.  Discussions involve:  level of light brightness, class distinction, liability insurance, height of light, use of solar, responsibility for repairs and replacement, and regulations.
1987:  Campaign begins in full, focusing on fundraising, publicity, public information meetings, structure design, permit research, construction, and installation requirements.
March 7, 1987:  Lighthouse fundraiser “A Day in the Life of Gig Harbor (Gig Harbor/Key Peninsulas)” is held this date soliciting photographs from around the peninsula.  Entrants pay $6.50 to enter and are instructed to photograph a “slice of Peninsula life” on March 7 only.  Images best representing the area life are used to promote the lighthouse campaign.  Major fundraising project is the sale of time capsules to go into the lighthouse at the dedication.  Fourteen-inch long capsules are available for purchase from small (2-inch diameter) to extra large (8-inch diameter).  Opening of time capsules will be 25 years from the lighthouse dedication.  Participants can then retrieve their capsule.  Unclaimed capsules will go to the historical society.
March 1987:  Editorial cartoon by Don Snowden about the lighthouse is published in The Peninsula Gateway.
April 1987:  Commander Parsons of the 13th Coast Guard District, Seattle, receives letter from Pierce County Planning Division stating that the project is exempt from Shoreline Substantial Development Permit requirements.  But they did note their concerns regarding the consistency of the project with the intent of the Shoreline Management Act and the local program.  The letter stated that “The lighthouse may be inconsistent with the Natural Environment because it is of a greater scale than is appropriate.  Furthermore, the 35-square feet concrete sign appears to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the Natural Environment.
May 1987:  Pierce County Councilman Paul Cyr sends letter to the Coast Guard commander requesting meeting between Lighthouse Association and Coast Guard representatives  to “settle any and all apparent discrepancies with respect to this project.  Clearly, the intent and design of the Lighthouse project is to provide the best in terms of a “community betterment” project and an improved navigational aid for approaching boats.
June 1988:  Coast Guard signs lease.
October 21, 1988:  Installation begins Manson Contracting picks up the lighthouse from Gig Harbor Marina.  John Holmaas prepares the shallow foundation which consists of three 35-foot long steel pilings driven into the sandpit for the foundation and two shorter pilings for the “Welcome to Gig Harbor” sign.
April 29, 1989:  Dedication during Gig Harbor’s “Centennial Week” the lighthouse time capsules are installed and the lighthouse official dedicated.  Celebrations include a marine parade.  (The Centennial celebrated Washington Statehood.)
October 21, 1999:  The 10th Anniversary of the lighthouse is celebrated at the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society Museum.

The Design:

With committee driven projects there are widely varying opinions.  Some committee members wanted to see a 35-foot tall lighthouse rather than a smaller scale structure.  The design committee met for months developing the present design.  Architect Steve Sparks and designer Mary Smith provided the final renderings.

The original design for construction:
The foundation is treated piling driven under supervision of geologists, capped with concrete.  The cap will contain metal fasteners to connect the foundation structure to the stem, or body, of the lighthouse.
The stem is pre-cast reinforced concrete, approximately 9-feet in diameter at the base and 5-6 feet at the top in a hexagon shape.  The height is 3-14 feet to accommodate the light at 15-feet.
The stem is divided into 2 compartments.  One is for the storage of the battery, ladder and other operating equipment and supplies; the other is for time capsules.
Two heavy metal locking doors seal the compartments.
The windows are black marble, set into the pre-cast structure.
Cost:  $40,000 to construct; $10,000 to $15,000 for a maintenance trust fund.

The 1986 Lighthouse Committee:
The lighthouse project was funded by a variety of community interests and contributors.  In addition to financial contributions, there were numerous contributors of time, effort and skills.  A partial list includes:

Irene Widney Hanley, Co-Chair GH Lighthouse Association
John Holmaas, Co-Chair GH Lighthouse Association
Tom Morris Sr., Project Support
Jim & Stormy Matthews, Project Support
Bruce & Raelene Rogers, Project Support
Steve Sparks, Architect
Wade Perrow, Contractor
Ken Tepley, Construction Foreman
Mary Smith, Artist
Carole Holmaas, Chair Finance Committee
Al Bissette, Engineer
Donna Roper Tait, Legal Counsel
Don McCarty, Mayor of Gig Harbor
Glen Henderson, Sealand Industry, Lightinh
Steve Stambaugh, Steelworker
Bob Hall, Time Capsules, Video
Tom Taylor, The Peninsula Gateway, Publicity & Fundraising
Renee Crist, “Day in the Life” Photography Contest
Harry Mashburn, Construction
Gig Harbor Marina, Construction Off-Site
Peter Haug, Manson Construction, Installation

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. Hi your blog is awesome and its nice that its easy to communicate and understand the topic like this that it is so interesting for reading.

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  2. I.have a bunch of original cartoon drawings by snowden about.Washington do you guys know if thier worth anything or if anyone would be interested in them

    1. Matt, please email casey@harborhistorymuseum and Casey is working on a Snowden exhibit.