Can the Mukilteo Lighthouse’s antique lens be saved?

MUKILTEO — What might be the oldest historic artifact in the city, one that’s still in use, could be forced into retirement.

The U.S. Coast Guard has proposed that the antique glass casing around the light in the Mukilteo Lighthouse be removed from the tower, put on display and replaced with a modern light system.

The antique Fresnel lens system, made in France in 1852, is the only one of its type still in use in the state. It is getting harder to maintain, a Coast Guard official said in a letter to the city. The Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining the light.

The Fresnel lens was installed in the lighthouse in the mid-1920s, according to the Mukilteo Historical Society. It’s been in continuous use ever since.

“We very strongly want to preserve the lens in place,” wrote John Petroff, president of the historical preservation group, in a letter to the Coast Guard. “If unable to do so, we would consider it a tragic loss.”

While there could be room for compromise, the Coast Guard’s primary responsibility is to marine traffic safety, said Cmdr. John Moriarty of the Coast Guard in Seattle.

The issue is not with the lens system itself as much as the parts that hold its many panels together and enable it to rotate, Moriarty said.

The parts are glued with an epoxy, similar to the caulking in a bathtub, and that erodes with time, he said. Eventually, it will need to be repaired, and when that happens, it will be expensive, Moriarty said.

“There’s much more that goes into it than replacing a window in your home and your car,” he said.

There have been times the automated Mukilteo light — which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week — has stopped rotating and has had to be adjusted, he said.

“There are very few companies in the United States that have the expertise and experience to maintain this historic artifact,” Moriarty wrote in the letter to the city.

Historical society members say they know people who could do it. They’ve offered to take over responsibility for the light themselves, unless it’s prohibitively expensive.

“There are people we could clearly draw on to do the maintenance,” historical society member John Collier said.

Moriarty wouldn’t rule out such an agreement, but said it would involve officially turning over responsibility for the light from the federal government to a private organization. That’s happened in other parts of the country, he said.

“It is a possibility, but it’s something we have to be very careful of legally,” he said. “We have to be careful about how much responsibility we are placing on them.”

Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said he would support such an arrangement. The city of Mukilteo owns the lighthouse and the property, while members of the Mukilteo Historical Society are caretakers of the lighthouse and the former keepers’ quarters next to it. Tours are offered noon to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays, April through September.

The lens was made according to a design created by Augustin Fresnel of France in 1822. Ridges and concentric rings in the glass refract and direct light so powerfully that the 150-watt halogen bulbs in the Mukilteo Lighthouse can be seen 12 miles down Puget Sound, Collier said.

Many of the Fresnel lenses are still used in Europe but few are still used in the United States and only one — in Mukilteo — in Washington state, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, based at the lighthouse at Point-no-Point north of Kingston.

“I think that what they’re trying to do by keeping the lens is so important for the history of Washington state,” Gales said. “If anybody could work with the Coast Guard to keep the lens in place and operating, they certainly could.”

The rarity of Fresnel lenses in use makes the one in Mukilteo a great educational draw, members of the historical society say. The lighthouse has 12,000 to 15,000 visitors a year, members say.

“It draws lighthouse aficionados from all over the West,” Collier said. “It’s so much better than seeing it in a museum standing there. It’s so exciting to see an historical artifact function like it did almost 200 years ago.”

Moriarty, the Coast Guard commander, praised the work of the historical society and expressed optimism something can be worked out.

“We’re at the point where we can start working on that together,” he said.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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