On Saturday, April 1, the historic Mukilteo Lighthouse opens for its 25th season of weekend tours. Operated by the Mukilteo Historical Society, the Mukilteo Light Station — as it is officially called — welcomes visitors on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from noon to 5 p.m. through Sept. 24. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.
You can take a tour led by a Historical Society docent, see the exhibits in the adjacent museum and enjoy sweeping views of Possession Sound from both the 38-foot high lighthouse tower and surrounding grounds. The lighthouse is the centerpiece of Mukilteo Lighthouse Park, owned and operated by the City of Mukilteo.
It is one of just six lighthouses in Washington state that remain open to the public. The other 20 lighthouses in Washington are not open to the public.
The Mukilteo Light Station is listed on both the Washington State Heritage Register and National Register of Historic Places. It offers a wonderful slice of history — and it continues to play an important navigational role with its Fourth Order Fresnel lens, which has a range of 12 nautical miles.
The lighthouse was constructed in 1905 out of wood, unlike most other brick and concrete lighthouses of the era. It became operational in 1906, using a revolving Fresnel lens that required winding every three hours. In 1927, the original lens was replaced with the fixed (non-rotating) Fourth Order Fresnel lens that is still in use, and electricity was introduced to power it.
You have to see this hand-crafted Fresnel lens in the lighthouse tower to appreciate its ingenious design. Developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel for lighthouses, the lens captures more oblique light from its source, allowing the lighthouse beam to be visible over greater distances. It shines 24 hours a day, flashing two seconds on and three seconds off.
In 1939, the station was transferred from the U.S. Lighthouse Service to the U.S. Coast Guard Service. Two Coast Guard families lived in the two houses on either side of the lighthouse until 1966. When the Coast Guard announced plans to replace the Fresnel lens with a modern optic in 1960, Mukilteo residents protested to save the historic Fresnel lens. The lighthouse and a modern fog signal were automated in 1979.
In 1991, Coast Guard leased the lighthouse to the City of Mukilteo, and the Mukilteo Historical Society began offering tours the following year. In 2001, the Coast Guard turned over ownership of the lighthouse to the City of Mukilteo. Historical Society volunteers then became lighthouse keepers, docents and park gardeners. However, only Coast Guard personnel are allowed to change the light bulbs and clean the lens, which takes about 4.5 hours.
So, climb the 36 steps up a spiral staircase to the lighthouse tower to marvel at this Fresnel lens and learn more from the docent. Then, explore the adjacent museum’s permanent, wheel-chair accessible exhibit, “100 Years of Light,” with photos and displays from the first 100 years of the Mukilteo Light Station.
Discover how the Fresnel lens works, how it is powered and the purpose of the brass/copper panel on the back. Learn how ships navigate using lighthouses and why each light has its own flash pattern so ship captains can distinguish between them.
Note the plaque commemorating all (except the last) official lighthouse keepers — and there were 18 keepers total. Its first keeper served the longest: 19 years. The Mukilteo Light Station was considered a choice assignment because of its proximity to civilization; it was often the reward given to keepers for outstanding service in remote lighthouse locations.
You can also see a bulls-eye, Fourth Order Fresnel lens, originally located in the Desdemona Sands Lighthouse near the mouth of the Columbia River. That lighthouse was dismantled in the mid-1950s, and the Mukilteo Historical Society purchased the lens in 1995 to save it from destruction.
Outside the lighthouse is a red iron triangle, originally used to alert townspeople of a fire at the station or a shipwreck off shore. The Mukilteo Historical Society encourages you to ring it.
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Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.