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PUBLISHED: 3:58 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Sea beacon to historic B&B, eventually

Courtesy photo
  The Sentinel Island lighthouse is of reinforced concrete in an Art Deco style. The tower rises 25 feet above the main building and includes the original 13-foot lantern.
Whether it is the lore of shipwrecks and quirky keepers, or the beauty of simple structures that soar above rugged coasts, something about lighthouses draws passionate people.

Gary Gillette is one of them.

About a decade ago, Gillette, who is an architect for the City and Borough of Juneau and an historic preservation specialist, started filling out paperwork to transfer ownership of the Sentinel Island lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Gastineau Channel Historical Society.

Last year the society took ownership of the site and opens it for a fee to wedding parties, families and adventurers who want a glimpse of an Alaska that is hard to find. "It's comfortable, but pretty rustic," Gillette said. There is propane heat, a kitchen sink and an outhouse, but no electricity.

North of Juneau by about 23 miles, the Sentinel Island station dates back to 1902. The original lighthouse was one of the two earliest American-built lighthouses in the Territory of Alaska. The current lighthouse went up in 1935.

It's made of reinforced concrete in an Art Deco style. The tower rises 25 feet above the main building and includes the original 13-foot lantern, which flashed a white light with a 17-mile range. The property also includes a boathouse, shop, dock and tramway on 6.5 acres.

April usually brings stellar sea lions, humpback whales and orcas to the waters off Sentinel Island. Three years ago this month, the winds of spring carried welcome news for Gillette.


Courtesy photo
  North of Juneau by about 23 miles, the Sentinel Island station dates back to 1902. The original lighthouse was one of the two earliest American-built lighthouses in the Territory of Alaska.
In an April 2004, ceremony at the Juneau Federal Building attended by federal, state and local dignitaries, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced the selection of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society as the first group to receive a lighthouse in Alaska under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

The program, which affects about 300 lighthouses nationwide, allowed the Sentinel property to be transferred to the Society at no cost. Non-profit groups receiving lighthouses must use them for public purposes, such as education, museums and maritime displays. Sentinel is one of eight historic Alaska lighthouses that eventually will be transferred under the program.

"Historic lighthouses like Sentinel Point are national treasures," Norton said at the time. "This program recognizes the value of these structures by transferring them from the Coast Guard to the best possible stewards for their long-term preservation," she said.

To take over the lighthouse, the society had to prove it was an eligible nonprofit organization with a history of preserving artifacts. Norton pointed to its six-year track record of leasing the site from the Coast Guard and working on preserving its buildings for its selection.

For Gillette, it was the culmination of years of paperwork. The actual property transfer didn't occur until 2006.

"It took a long time," he said.

And the work is just beginning. The society hopes to fully restore the structure over the next two to five years - an effort that will include updating the water system and fixing the 13 original windows. The Coast Guard removed the double hung frames and glass and covered the holes with Plexiglas. Others, it filled with concrete. "It's probably good that they did that because it saved the building from water deterioration, but now we're chipping away ten inches of concrete in some places and you have to be strong to do it," Gillette says. He's always looking for volunteers, but at this point in the restoration he needs people with basic carpentry skills or an ability to use a jackhammer.

The lighthouse still functions as a beacon for sailors, using a modern solar-powered light that is maintained by the Coast Guard.

Gillette said ultimately the society would like to see the lighthouse function as an historic bed and breakfast. For now, it rents the lighthouse to overnight guests as a way to help cover preservation costs. Visitors have to find their own transportation there. The Island can be reached by helicopter and boat.

"You can also kayak from Eagle Beach," Gillette said. The preservation expert admits he's surprised by the number of calls he has received to rent the site. "I guess they just want something different," he said.

In early April, the U.S. General Services Administration announced it would soon be selling 17 historic lighthouses across the country. Gillette says he has news for prospective buyers. "It's hard work," he said.

There are two notable books about Southeast Alaska lighthouses - Northern Lights: tales of Alaska's lighthouses and their keepers, and another by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Both are out of print, but available at local libraries. For fiction readers, Murder at Five Finger Light by Sue Henry is set at another Southeast beacon, near Petersburg.


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