Photo courtesy of Teal Barmore

Cape St. Elias Lightkeepers Association’s (CSELA) biggest fan, Toni Bocci, said that history and preservation are what their project is meant to uphold and continue. Bocci’s more official title is board president and grant manager for the 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Their mission for the last 25 years has been dedicated to preserving, restoring and sharing the Cape St. Elias Light Station with the public.  

At over 100 years old, there are three buildings that make up the complex in addition to the lighthouse itself; a two-story lightkeepers’ residence, boathouse, and winch house as well as the addition of a helicopter pad. 

Three phases have been put in place to start groundwork in preserving this historic lighthouse and its footprint. Phase I of the boathouse renovation project was completed in August of 2023. The former boathouse, now used as a bunkhouse, is the only structure made of wood, the rest are composed of brick. Although most of the cedar shingle siding had blown off the building, the integrity of the structure underneath was in good shape. Old cedar siding was stripped and a breathable waterproof membrane was wrapped around the building. Phase I was completed using in-kind donations of material and volunteer labor over the course of six days.  

Phase II is set to be completed in August 2024, replacing and installing historically correct cedar shingles. Phase III is the reroofing of both the boathouse and winch house.  

Kayak Island is a solitary place with a long history. Abandoned in 1892 as a result of a smallpox epidemic, the last settlement was on the north end of the island. Its surviving Tlingit and Eyak inhabitants moved to Yakutat, 115 miles to the east. Alutiiq peoples had summer fish camps there, but all were abandoned in the mid 19th century.  

The cape is actually the southwestern end of Kayak Island, extending twenty miles out into the Pacific Ocean. A lieutenant of the Russian navy gave the island its name in 1826 for its resemblance to a Native canoe. Due to hidden rocks and reefs, the waters around the cape were regarded as one of the most dangerous points along the entire Alaskan coast. The defining landmark of the island is Pinnacle Rock, standing half a mile off the western end of the cape. 

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Numerous minor lighthouses were constructed in the early 1900s sparked by the Klondike Gold Rush. However, only four additional major lighthouses were built, and Cape St. Elias was the second of these. In June 1914 a survey team established a temporary acetylene light at the base of Pinnacle Rock. Although it was considered as the site for the permanent lighthouse, a shelf on the southwest side of Kayak Island was selected instead as it would afford more space for the station.  

Congress approved the construction of a light station at Cape St. Elias in October 1913, appropriating $115,000. Construction began in 1915 with a third order Fresnel lens installed. In 1916 the U.S. Signal Corps installed a wireless station so the light keepers could notify people in Katalla of approaching ships. In 1927 the station was equipped with radio beacon facilities – the second such facility in Alaska.  

The Cordova Times edition of October 31, 1968 carried a notice that the Seventeenth Coast Guard District planned to automate five Alaskan light stations, including Cape Hinchinbrook and Cape St. Elias. Technological improvements in automatic aids made possible the automation, which would result in an annual savings of $15,000 per station. The automation, scheduled to begin in July of 1970, was estimated to take approximately five years, but the process finished ahead of schedule at Cape St. Elias and Cape Hinchinbrook. Both stations lost their personnel in 1974 when the light was automated. Sometime before 1973, the Fresnel lens was removed from the tower at Cape St. Elias and replaced by a smaller beacon.  

A solar powered Vega optic was installed in 1998. The original Fresnel lens is located in The Cordova Museum. Cape St. Elias Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. 

In 1998, a published article stated that a few select lighthouses would be available to private citizens for a thirty-year lease under the management of the U.S. Coast Guard. Unknowingly, both Cordovans Toni Bocci and Steve Ranney applied. Once applied, they decided to pair up in partnership on the lease. Primarily they are responsible for the insurance, which has recently dramatically increased.  

A $35,000 GoFundMe campaign was put in place to help save and salvage the boathouse building, cover materials, transportation and provisions for the volunteer crews during the coming Phase II and Phase III of the project. The following state and federal agencies have contributed to this project: the Maritime Heritage Grant program administered by the National Parks service; the Department of the Interior; the State of Alaska Office of History and Archaeology; and the State Historic Preservation Office Chief Judith E. Bittner.  

The U.S. Coast Guard hauled a tote with a wood stove, to replace the barrel stove that was in place in the boathouse. The Cordova Community Foundation awarded CSELA in 2023 with $2600 to help facilitate transportation. 

Funding is continued by private donor donations as well as CSELA board of directors and memberships. CSELA said while they’ve applied for multiple grants to help with costs, they need community and user support to reinforce the current grant applications. 

Wildlife camerawoman, Erin Ranney, niece to Steve and Wendy Ranney, debuted her film “My Alaskan Journey” this spring at the North Star Theatre in Cordova, and all donations went directly to CSELA.  

From Kodiak, Ocean Plastics Recovery Project is coming to Kayak Island this summer for six weeks. They have a crew consisting of 15 people to help collect debris and trash. Due to its exposure to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Alaska, tsunamis and earthquakes from Japan, the coast can get littered with debris. 

In an area inhabited only by animals, its location, environment and history make Cape St. Elias Lighthouse unique, wild and stunningly beautiful, said Bocci. Adventure and self-sufficiency are factors if you wish to stay at the remote Cape St. Elias Lighthouse. Today only the boathouse (bunkhouse) is habitable, with a wood stove, water cistern, and propane stove and oven. It is $125 a night with a $10 per person additional fee for propane. Bookings are available via the website https://www.capestelias.org. An individual membership with CSELA is $35 the first year and $10 thereafter. Donations can be made directly at their address P.O. Box 1023, Cordova, AK, 99574, or via their GoFundMe: Preservation of the Cape St. Elias Boathouse.  

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