All Over The Map: One-of-a-kind historic Pierce County lighthouse gets restoration
On a tiny piece of land jutting out into the water just north of Tacoma is the historic Browns Point Lighthouse.
This distinctive looking lighthouse at the northeast entrance to Tacoma’s Commencement Bay that dates to 1933 is unusual compared to other lighthouses because it’s not cylinder shaped. Browns Point Lighthouse is more of a tall box, and the mildly “art deco” appearance of the nearly 40-foot tall concrete tower makes it a one-of-a-kind in the Pacific Northwest.
Before the concrete version was built, a wooden lighthouse had stood at Browns Point from 1903 to 1933. Before that, what’s called a “stake light” – just a lantern hanging from a pole offshore – first went into service on December 12, 1887, to mark the entrance to Commencement Bay in those heady times, when Tacoma had secured the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway.
It’s not clear who Browns Point – with no apostrophe – was named for, but the popular theory is that the name comes from an early and now forgotten settler. The U.S. Navy called the spot Point Harris in 1841 for a sailmaker named Alvin Harris who was part of the United States Exploring Expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. For some reason, Point Harris didn’t stick.
Ironically, the point was not named for Oscar Brown, even though he was the lighthouse keeper living in the keeper’s residence at Browns Point from 1903 to 1939.
A nonprofit community group called Points Northeast Historical Society is restoring the whole complex of lighthouse-related buildings at Browns Point in partnership with MetroParks Tacoma. They’ve been very successful securing around $200,000 in grants, and have about $40,000 still to raise to complete the project.
“We’re in the midst of restoring it, it’s a big project, and we’re going to restore it to the way it looked in 1933,” said Jim Harnish, former president and current vice-president of Points Northeast Historical Society. “The cupola on top has been missing for decades, it’s called the lantern, it’s the structure around the light” – that will be replicated by a local artisan – “and the windows are all boarded up.”
Those boards will be removed and the windows replaced, Harnish told KIRO Radio.
Harnish and his group worked closely with the Coast Guard to get approval for the restoration work, because the ornate light is still operational, still providing mariners with a visual warning of shallow water and a landmark indicating the northeast entrance to Commencement Bay.
Though the structure has changed little in nearly 90 years, the light source and lens have been upgraded over the years, and the live-in lighthouse keepers went away when the operation was automated in 1963. Also gone is the foghorn that for decades sounded an audible warning when visibility was limited by weather conditions.
However, Browns Point Lighthouse Park is open to the public, even during COVID-19. And, once the pandemic is over, the charming 1903 lighthouse keeper’s cottage will be made available again for short-term rentals.
In addition to their volunteer work to restore the lighthouse and surrounding buildings, Points Northeast Historical Society also keeps busy nursing a good-natured feud with the nearby Federal Way Historical Society, which is just over the Pierce-King County boundary north of Browns Point.
The land where the Browns Point Lighthouse stands was historically home to indigenous Puyallup people for thousands of years, says Jim Harnish, and research points to Captain George Vancouver as the first European visitor to the area in May 1792.
But Vancouver’s actual landing spot is somewhat disputed in and around Browns Point and nearby Dash Point.
“We have this kind of running battle with the Federal Way Historical Society,” Harnish said. “They say Vancouver landed in King County. We said, ‘No, no, no. He landed here [in Pierce County].’ We have a plaque in the ground that says so [and] we have checked out all the coordinates from Vancouver’s log to try to prove the case.”
Fortunately, the running battle over local history has not yet descended into bare-knuckled open conflict – despite the passion on both sides of the dispute, and both sides of the county line.
“It’s like one of those friendly kind of conversations,” Harnish said, chuckling.