Digest>Archives> May 2006

A Visit with Jim Gibbs

By Elinor DeWire

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If you’ve spent many time researching west coast lighthouses, you know Jim Gibbs’ work. Jim is to west coast lighthouses what Edward Rowe Snow was and Ken Black is to New England lighthouses. He not only worked as a lightkeeper firsthand, but has successfully conveyed his personal knowledge through his many publications and has rescued countless lighthouse artifacts.

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Jim Gibbs listens as Elinor DeWire interviews his ...

Jim’s half-dozen books on the lighthouses of the “left coast” were the only resources available when I began researching years ago. With titles like Lighthouses of the Pacific, Oregon’s Seacoast Lighthouses and Twilight on the Lighthouses, Jim has made a name for himself in pharology. The autobiographical Tillamook Rock is my favorite, a quintessential portrait of a young man’s tenure on a remote offshore rock lighthouse. Written in 1979, more than 30 years after Jim served as a lightkeeper at Tillamook Rock, the book still resonates with the bittersweet experience of being “exiled,” as Jim called it, at “Terrible Tilly.”

I had the pleasure of visiting Jim in March 2005 at his home at Yachats, Oregon. My daughter and I were on a Pacific NW photo jaunt for a new book when we stopped by to say hello and photograph Jim’s lighthouse and the little private museum inside it. In 1976, Jim built Cleft of the Rock Lighthouse, a handsome pyramidal sentinel perched on Cape Perpetua, just south of Yachats. The lighthouse and adjoining quarters where Jim resides overlook one of the stormiest areas of the Pacific.

“There’s nothing out there for more than 6,000 miles,” Jim said as we stood together looking out to sea. “My lighthouse isn’t a major aid, but it’s important for inshore vessels, especially fishermen who take bearings on it.”

Cleft of the Rock Light is licensed as a private navigational aid and is regularly inspected by the Coast Guard. Its signal is five white flashes and one red flash. The tower is a replica of Fiddle Reef Lighthouse near Victoria, British Columbia. The lens is a 300mm acrylic beacon Jim salvaged from Solander Island Light, also in British Columbia.

Jim is no rookie when it comes to lightkeeping or lighthouse building. In addition to his tour at Tillamook Light in the 1940s, he built his first private lighthouse in 1965 at Skunk Bay near Hansville, Washington. Jim and his late wife, Cherie, used Skunk Bay Light as a vacation retreat. At that time, Jim was editor of the Marine Digest and lived in Seattle. A stint as president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in the late 1940s had convinced him that local lighthouses and their artifacts were in danger of being lost. He was determined to save everything he could.

In the early 1960s, Jim had hopes of rescuing the crumbling 1858 Smith Island Lighthouse in the San Juan Islands. He wanted to relocate it to his property at Skunk Bay. But an engineering study revealed that the 300-ton sandstone structure would not withstand the move. Only the lantern could be relocated. It was placed atop a wooden tower Jim built at Skunk Bay. He remembers how well-built the Smith Island Lighthouse lantern was:

“When we took it apart, the bolts were shiny and clean, like a brand new penny. It was in excellent condition. A part of Smith Island Lighthouse now lives at Skunk Bay.”

The Smith Island lens was transferred to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Eventually, the shell of the lighthouse collapsed into the water. Had Jim not stepped forward to save the lens and lantern, it’s likely these relics would have been lost too, as many lighthouse artifacts were in years past.

Sometimes, lenses and other parts were simply dumped into the sea: “The Coast Guard didn’t realize that these things would have so much meaning someday,” Jim said. “They had no use for them and assumed no one wanted them. Hardly anyone realized how valuable they were.”

Jim realized their value though. Inside the Skunk Bay Lighthouse went another orphan artifact he rescued. While poking around in a Coast Guard scrap yard, he found the fourth order lens from Semiahmoo Lighthouse in Bellingham, decommissioned in 1944.

“I suspected it was going to be dismantled and sold for the brass in the frame,” Jim said. “Prisms sometimes were handed out to Coast Guard people as souvenirs. I wanted to keep it intact.”

About the same time, he also rescued a fourth order flashing lens said to be from Patos Island Light. It, too, was headed for the scrap heap and possible meltdown. The Patos optic, along with many other artifacts, is now kept at Jim’s small personal museum at Cleft of the Rock Light.

In fact, Jim’s entire house is a veritable maritime museum. He has examples of lens, lanterns (the original pole optics used in Puget Sound), old buoy lights, drum lenses and lighthouse tools. A brass oil can from Tillamook Light sits on a table, and nearby is a box of red lead used to mix paint in the days of the old lighthouse service. Historic photos of west coast lighthouses decorate the walls; a portrait of the Columbia River Lightship hangs in Jim’s library. In addition, he recovered many artifacts from old Puget Sound ships. What’s truly amazing is that most of his collection has already been donated to museums.

Now 82 and widowed, Jim no longer does research or writes books on his old electric typewriter: “Publishers don’t accept typed manuscripts anymore,” he said with a grin, “and computers baffle me.”

It’s doubtful technology would hold back a person of Jim’s genius and energy. More likely, he has chosen to relax in his golden years, contemplate a wonderful life and enjoy the view from his aerie at Cleft of the Rock.

From the picture window, he can see an urn nestled amid the flowers on his lawn. It contains the ashes of his wife who passed away in 1999. Her little Dachshund, Tinker, is Jim’s constant companion. Only a few hundred yards away live his daughter and son-in-law and their menagerie of pets.

Jim is a deacon in his church and still enjoys reading and loves writing letters. Those I’ve received from him are artifacts in themselves — full of great stories and historical information and evidence that he takes pride in a handwritten piece. He’s still first and foremost a writer. In a recent letter, he told me of watching the sea from Cleft of the Rock Light:

“The ocean has been kicking up its heels of late, and the migrating northbound gray whales are hard to spot in the slate-colored wind-driven waters…..”

Ever the lightkeeper, Jim Gibbs still keeps the wicks trimmed for all of us, in literal sense and in his heart.

This story appeared in the May 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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