From the beginning of the settlement of families in the Washington Territory, there were stories told of shipwrecks, wailing gulls seeking refuge from harsh storms and lonely lighthouse keepers. Most stories, especially those of the keepers, were based on true accounts. The keepers in the extreme northwest had to courageously deal with treacherous winds and rough seas. One such Lighthouse was New Dungeness, located at Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
The New Dungeness Spit derived its name from Captain George Vancouver who named it after Dungeness Point on the rugged coast of England where a lighthouse had stood since 1746. In 1850, a Congressional Act provided for a lighthouse to be constructed at New Dungeness. Several years later, funding was provided for the lighthouse. New Dungeness was first lit on December 14, 1857, making it the first to be lit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the second to be lit north of Cape Disappointment. The lighthouse was 90 feet tall with a winding stairwell to the top. Kerosene was used for the light and it had a large bell for a fog signal, which was tolled by a heavy rope attached to a windlass. Later, the lighthouse was lowered to 70 feet after it was determined that the cracked tower was unsafe. Even with the light and fog bells and horns, the spit has had a history of shipwrecks. These included the bark CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL, the WASHINGTON LIBBY, the R.K. HAM and the steamer SIOUX.
On 1 March 1858, Henry Blake, of England, became the first New Dungeness Lighthouse keeper. He first came to the Washington Territory at the age of twenty. This duty post was a dreary and lonely one especially for a young, single man. Life would smile on him after he met the daughter of a prospector, who settled at the mouth of a nearby creek. That settler's name was John McDonnell, of New Orleans. The creek was later named after McDonnell.
A year or so after Blake's arrival, he heard McDonnell had a serious illness and walked the length of the spit to offer his assistance to McDonnell family. There was a shortage of young women nearby…a friendship quickly matured into a romance between Blake and McConnell's daughter. In August of 1862, Mary Ann McDonnell became the bride of Henry Blake. Shortly thereafter, John McDonnell succumbed to his illness and died. His widow and family moved into the lighthouse with the newlyweds. With the help of his wife, Blake kept the light burning at New Dungeness for ten more years. During those years, three of their five children were born in the lighthouse. Their names were Catherine, Richard, and Clara. Later, daughters Mary and Hannah were born.
One September night in 1868, the family witnessed a terrible event. Through their telescope, they were shocked to see a brutal attack on a small band of a Vancouver Island Tribe, the Tsinshians, by a tribe that lived near New Dungeness, the S'Klallam Tribe. The family heard screams and saw the local tribe hacking through the camp of the Canadian tribe who had set up tents nearby for the night. Blake rushed to the scene only to return with disappointing reports of no survivors. Later, they discovered that that report was not all true. During the early morning they heard a knock on the downstairs storeroom door. They found a young pregnant girl severely cut and bleeding. She had been slashed several times in the abdomen and was hanging on to dear life. Courageously she made her way through water, sand, seaweed and silt to find her way to the Blake's.
Mary Ann Blake cared for the girl and nursed her back to good health. The girl tried to offer them compensation for taking care of her. She tried to do so with a piece of gold she had hidden in her mouth. It was the custom to offer help and hospitality to anyone who needed it, so the Blake's refused the gold. They took her to the home of the Rainey family on the mainland, where she took refuge until the authorities came.
The New Dungeness Lighthouse proved to be one of the most significant to this country. Whether it was because of the dangerous waters that it watched or the historical battles that took place on its soil, it is only fitting that the first to keep this light was a brave and compassionate person such as Henry Blake.