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6.5 Earthquake Damages Grays Harbor Lighthouse on April 29, 1965

Updated on January 7, 2011
This photo shows what the Grays Harbor Lighthouse looked like in 1965.  It was 3000 feet from the ocean at that time.
This photo shows what the Grays Harbor Lighthouse looked like in 1965. It was 3000 feet from the ocean at that time. | Source
This was the Grays Harbor Life Boat Station for the USCG in 1965.  My husband, Ted R. Ward was stationed here from 1963 to 1966.
This was the Grays Harbor Life Boat Station for the USCG in 1965. My husband, Ted R. Ward was stationed here from 1963 to 1966. | Source
The 6.5 magnitude earthquake on April 29, 1965 was the fourth strongest documented quake in the Puget Sound region since 1850.
The 6.5 magnitude earthquake on April 29, 1965 was the fourth strongest documented quake in the Puget Sound region since 1850. | Source

The damage to the 107-foot tall Grays Harbor lighthouse from the 6.5 magnitude earthquake at 7:28 am on April 29, 1965 was restricted to the Lantern room at the top of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse. The “clamshell” Fresnel lens was not functional any longer. The lens was leaning to the left and sitting on the bottom of the 20 gallon tub. The lighthouse tender reported the damage to the commanding officer of the Life Boat Station.

The Grays Harbor Life Boat station was manned by personnel of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) at Westport Washington. My husband, Ted R. Ward, was the senior chief on duty that morning. His commanding officer, C. Lippincott, ordered Ted to “see what he could do to get the lens in working order before night fall”.

When Ted inspected the lighthouse he found that there were globs of grey matter rolling around on the bottom floor of the lighthouse and on each of the 135 steps to the first landing level called the service area. He saw Mercury in every conceivable crack in the service area room. He checked the middle level which was the watch room where the electric drive motor apparatus was installed. Thankfully the drive assembly was not damaged. The top level was the lantern room where the lens was located. All three landing levels were saturated with gallons of uncontained Mercury free floating or sitting on any and all surfaces.

Ted realized that the 45 seconds of earthquake ground shaking had caused the Mercury pool to slosh about so much, the Mercury spilled out. There were about 6 or 7 gallons of Mercury left in the pool which was not enough Mercury to sustain the Fresnel lens in its proper position.

He figured out that if he replaced the missing Mercury, the lens should “float” in the Mercury pool as it had before the earthquake. He went back down the 135 steps to the base of the tallest lighthouse in Washington State and found a storage locker. He opened the storage locker, removed a foxtail broom, dust pan and a galvanized three gallon bucket. He began “sweeping” Mercury blobs into the dust pan and then poured the blobs into the bucket.

Struggling to contain the roving blobs of Mercury, he finally had the bucket about two thirds full. Now what? He had progressed as far up as 25 steps. The Mercury was contaminated from dirt, dust and other impurities on the floor and steps which had to be removed. Quick to take action, he drove back to the USCG lifeboat station and took rolls of cheesecloth from the kitchen and a clean five gallon plastic tub from the laundry room. He drove back to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse.

He made multiple trips up and down those 135 steps the rest of the day. He would get as much Mercury in the 3 gallon bucket as he could carry at a time. He would strain the Mercury through the cheesecloth into the five gallon tub. Once it was clean of the impurities, he would pour the contents into the Mercury Bearing.

After doing all this “sweeping” and “cleaning”, he did not rescue enough loose Mercury from the floors and stairs to allow the clamshell Fresnel lens to float and rotate as it should. He was about 5 gallons short. He had to find more Mercury.

He remembered seeing about 15 metal cylinders stacked in the dark back corner of the storage locker on the ground floor. He went back down the 135 steps once again. Inside the storage locker he flipped on the light switch. The single 40 watt light bulb suspended from the middle of the ceiling cast shadows on the stacked cylinders.  They were not labeled. He twisted the cap on one of the cylinders and Mercury oozed out.

 Ah ha!! He had found the much needed Mercury. These cylinders were about 4 inches in diameter and 18 inches in length. They were weighed in around 60 pound each. Each canister held approximately one gallon of Mercury. He could only carry one cylinder at a time. It was very labor intensive to go up 135 steps carrying a 60 pound cylinder five times. He had to come back down those same 135 steps five times to bring down the empty cylinder and put it back in the storage room.  He finally got the last cylinder up to the lantern room about 4:30pm. He poured the last of the Mercury into the pool.

Success!!!! The Fresnel lens floated and rotated freely once again. He restored power to the light lens by resetting the breaker switches. The lens lit up and the light cascaded out the on to the horizon for 24miles. He had completed his task as assigned by his commanding officer.

The damage to Grays Harbor Lighthouse was not made public because of the speed and efficiency of Ted R. Ward to correct the problem. The lighthouse could assist once again with the aid to navigation as it had every day since it was built back in 1897.

He told me about this experience during a memorial service for a fellow “COASTIE” who had passed away on November 11, 2010, Veterans Day. During my husband’s 21 years in the service he and his crewmen were routinely exposed almost daily to various sorts of poisonous compounds such as asbestos, lead paint, solvents, chemicals and Mercury just to name a few.

Some interesting facts About Mercury:

 One of only five naturally occurring elements that is liquid at room temperature.

 Mercury is poisonous and can cause your brain to rot.

 The old name for Mercury was Quicksilver which is 13.5 times denser than water.

 Almost anything will float in Mercury baths. They were used as a low-friction rotation mechanism for the lighthouse lens.

 The saying “Mad as a Hatter” was coined by people working in the hat industry because animal skins were dunked in a Mercury nitrate solution which caused an epidemic of psychiatric problems among workers in this industry.

 Mercury is used in such things as: coating on back of mirrors and dental amalgam fillings.

 Mercury is not very expensive to buy, just horribly expensive to dispose of in today’s world.

 A cylinder of Mercury weighs 76 pounds and is the size of a loaf of bread.

LC Ward.

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