Cape Decision: Past, Present & Future

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lightDuring his voyage of discovery in 1793, Captain George Vancouver sailed throughout much of present-day Southeast Alaska bestowing names left and right on bays, islands, lakes, straits, points, coves, inlets, ports, passages, and capes; such is the prerogative of an explorer. Near the end of that year’s sailing season, Vancouver named the tip of the nearby island Cape Decision. Just off the point, Vancouver made an important decision that he had progressed far enough north to be beyond the islands claimed by Spanish explorers. It would be over a century later before the Lighthouse Service would make the decision to build the Cape Decision Lighthouse, the last lighthouse built in Alaska.

For several years following the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, the vast majority of vessels made their way between Seattle and Juneau by following a twisting route through the myriad of islands that parallel this stretch of the northwest coast. By remaining “inside” the islands, the captains and passengers could enjoy a safer and smoother journey than that experienced “outside” the islands in the open North Pacific.

lighthouse details flashing As vessels’ girths increased through the years, alternate routes through the strait passages had to be used. In particular, some ships were unable to transit Wrangell Narrows and were forced to make a detour around Cape Decision. To follow this lengthier route, Captains sailing north now follow Sumner Strait to its end at Cape Decision, where they are briefly exposed to the full swells off the ocean before entering Chatham Strait.

Passenger vessels were not the only ones transiting the waters near Cape Decision. Fishermen were also passing by the cape to reach the open “outside” waters near Cape Ommaney in search of more lucrative catches. Several fishing communities, like Port Alexander on the eastern side of Baranof Island, along with the supporting salmon canneries, herring salteries, and reduction plants, soon dotted the shores of Sumner and Chatam Straits. During most of the 1930s, Port Alexander was home to the largest salmon trolling fleet in Alaska. Although its wintertime population dwindled to around one hundred, during the summer fishing season the city swelled to over a thousand inhabitants.

mapsThe first attempt to light these waters was an acetylene lantern placed on the Spanish Islands, just off the southern end of Kuiu Island. The lantern, however, proved ineffective, and in 1929, Congress appropriated $59,400 for a lighthouse. Inclement weather and delays in obtaining additional funding pushed the completion date of the Cape Decision Lighthouse out to March 15, 1932. By that time, $158,000 had been spent on the project.

In the early 1930's, Port Alexander harbored the largest salmon troll fleet in all of Alaska and community celebrations regularly drew 2,000 people, all of whom arrived by boat. It was the last light station to be established along Alaska's rugged coastline and was manned until 1974 when a reliable diesel electric system replaced the lightkeeper. The navigational light is now powered by a solar array and battery bank.

Stewardship of the Cape Decision Lighthouse was awarded to the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society in 1997. The Cape Decision Lighthouse was added to the Registry of Historic Places in 2005.