Located on the West Coast, this isolated lighthouse has a beautiful story to share.
by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Mary Pesonen was only six months away from a brand new life, but even that short amount of time seemed too long for the pain and hopeless that had engulfed her. Early one morning, she decided to bring an end to everything by hurling herself off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. Did she have second thoughts and regrets as she made her fatal plunge? Perhaps, for her ghost is believed to haunt the grounds where she lived and died, at the North Head Lighthouse near the fishing port of Ilwaco, Washington.
The life and tragic death of Mary Watson Pesonen in 1923 caught my attention during a summer trip to the southwest Washington Coast with my sister, Linda, and brother-in-law, Ted. Ilwaco lies near the base of a long spit of land on the north side of the immense mouth of the Columbia River, which forms the border between Washington and Oregon. The coastal waters are treacherous and the bar has dangerous currents and sand bars. The area is known as “the graveyard of the Pacific” because of the many ships that have been wrecked there. The North Head lighthouse, which went into operation in 1898, served to alert ships coming down from the north. The lighthouse was automated in 1961. In 1983 it was turned over to Washington state as a public, historic site.
I love visiting lighthouses, for many of them are haunted. They are full of mystery, located in lonely spots, tended by dedicated men and women who endured isolation and harsh conditions.
North Head Lighthouse sits on a rugged basalt cliff that rises 194 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The location is described as one of the foggiest and windiest places on the entire West Coast of America. When I enquired about ghosts, I was not surprised to hear that the place is haunted – not the lighthouse itself, but the nearby residence of the head lightkeeper. The details were sketchy, and we eventually pieced together the whole story by tracking down old newspaper articles and paying a visit to the Ilwaco Cemetery.
When the North Head light went into operation, it was placed under the direction of Alexander K. Pesonen as head keeper. There were two assistants, and the three of them pulled eight-hour shifts to keep the light going from dusk til dawn every day. It was demanding work, hauling the kerosene and rapeseed and whale oil from storage houses up the stairs, and keeping the mirrors and Fresnel lens properly polished during the daylight hours. The terrain was beautiful but the climate was damp and dreary, and the winds were often fierce.
Pesonen was a bit of a local maritime celebrity. Born in Finland in 1859, he immigrated to America and made his way to the Columbia. He served on a tender named the Manzanita, and then as a keeper of the famous Tillamook Rock Lighthouse at Tillamook, Oregon, spending eight years as head keeper. During his tenure, he saved the lighthouse from a severe storm, the waves of which nearly engulfed the structure and threatened to sweep everything out to sea.
In 1890, two years after assuming his duties at North Head, Pesonen married Mary Watson, a native of Ireland, born in 1870. As the wife of the head keeper, Mary was expected to oversee all domestic affairs for herself, her husband, and the assistant keepers, who lived in a duplex house next door. There were gardens to tend and chickens and animals to feed and manage. Mary’s duties were regulated by the Lighthouse Service, and subject to inspection.
The Pesonens, who remained childless, spent the next twenty-five years at North Head. They were both well-regarded in the community – but something was not right with Mary. Perhaps she had always been prone to depression and over the course of time her condition worsened under the harsh conditions. By the spring of 1923, at age 54, her mental condition was so serious that her husband took her all the way to Portland, Oregon, for medical help. She was diagnosed with depression and a mental breakdown – “melancholia” was the common term back then — and was placed under treatment.
On Friday, June 8, 1923, Mary returned to North Head in good spirits. She was cheerful and even wrote a long letter to a friend in Portland. Her husband must have been relieved. In six months, he was due to retire with handsome benefits, and the couple had plans for a relaxed and refreshing new life, developing their land at Shoalwater Bay for cranberry crops, and spending the winters in warm and sunny California.
It was not to be. At 5 AM on June 9, Mary awoke and told her husband he could remain in bed while she went out for a walk – as her doctor had advised – and to do some small errands. She dressed and put on her coat, and took her little dog, who always went with her when she walked about the spit. She was not seen alive again.
After a half hour longer in bed, Alex arose and dressed and started looking for his wife. Soon the little dog came back alone, acting strangely. Now Pesonen was quite worried. He contacted the local radio station and the weather bureau and organized a search party. The dog led them to a grim discovery – Mary’s coat lying on the ground, and the marks of a slide down the sharp cliff to jagged rocks and the surf below.
With a heavy heart, Pesonen notified people in Ilwaco and the coast guard at Fort Canby, to recruit more people to search for Mary’s body. They tried dynamite blasting in the water to force up the corpse in case it had sunk, but had no success. Finally at the end of the day, Frank Hammond, one of the assistant lightkeepers, found her body floating in a cove where it had been washed in by the tide. It took a tremendous effort to haul the body up the cliff.
Mary’s death made newspaper headlines in both states; even the Seattle Times carried the story. The headlines trumpeted suicide, citing illness and temporary insanity that drove her to a “rash act.” She was buried on Monday, June 11 in Ilwaco Cemetery, “amid a bower of flowers which bore the unspoken grief of the many friends who had known and loved Mrs. Pesonen during her long residence at North Head,” according to the Ilwaco Tribune.
Broken-hearted, Alex continued in his post until his retirement on September 30, 1923. For the next year, his life unraveled. He was injured in a train wreck in 1924 and began to suffer heart problems, which kept him in constant travel to and from Portland for medical treatment. On August 12, 1925, he was staying at the home of friends in Ilwaco, awaiting a bus to Portland, when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried next to his wife. His decline and demise soon after the death of his wife is not surprising, for it is not uncommon for a bereaved partner or spouse to literally die of grief.
While researching this story, I consulted my friend Dr. Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and author of forty books, including GHOST: Investigating the Other Side. I asked Katherine about the psychological states of suicidal people. Mary had seemed to respond to treatment, and had come home in high spirits. Why would she throw herself off a cliff if she were feeling better – and with retirement only months away?
We will never know all the underlying factors, of course, but Katherine had some excellent observations. “The stats for suicide indicate that the improvement after a treatment is a very risky time, as they now have the energy to carry out what they’ve been planning,” she said. “That explains her cheerful state of mind. She was ready. And, not to stereotype, but the Irish can be prone to depression. She probably had a mental disorder that wasn’t treatable — no psychotropic drugs for it.”
Life in a lighthouse, with its harsh environment, weather and isolation, surely must tax even the hardiest of souls. If Mary was prone to depression, it may have been amazing that she kept herself together as long as she did.
Mary’s ghost is seen and felt in the head lightkeeper’s house where she spent the last twenty-five years of her life. In death she remains there, perhaps in sorrow that she cut short not only her own life, but the dream she would have shared with her beloved in their last years together.
The Ilwaco Tribune, June 15, 1923
The South Bend Journal, June 15, 1923
The Seattle Times, June 9, 1923
Lucero, Donella J. and Nancy L. Hobbs. Lighthouses of the Cape. Privately published, 2009.
“North Head Lighthouse,” http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=116
Katherine Ramsland, http://www.katherineramsland.com
Rosemary Ellen Guiley is a leading expert in the paranormal and the author of 45+ books. Her website is www.visionaryliving.com.