The island itself has a long history. Chugach Eskimos (who call themselves Alutiiq) had summer fish camps here from time immemorial. According to legend, their people are descended from a single couple who came to the island in a kayak from open sea. The fish camps were abandoned in the mid-19th century.
The first Europeans, on a Russian-sponsored expedition, landed on the Northwest Coast of North America on Kayak Island, July 31, 1741. During 10 hours on this day, Vitus Bering took on 35 barrels of fresh water while his naturalist, Georg Steller, noted about 150 plant species, of which he fully described 9 as “unknown or little known.” Among these were the salmonberry, devil’s club, and yellow skunk cabbage. Steller also saw a jay there that was later named for him.
Captain James Cook landed on the island 37 years later. He was looking for a sheltered bay in which to repair his ship. He found such a bay a few days later in Prince William Sound, farther to the west.
The last settlement was located on the north end of the island. It was abandoned in 1892 as a result of a smallpox epidemic. Its surviving Tlingit and Eyak Indian inhabitants moved to Yakutat, 115 miles to the east.
It’s no wonder that Bering, Cook, and Native Americans were drawn to the island from the sea. To the north from the Gulf of Alaska, Cape St. Elias is an unforgettable sight. A pyramid-shaped peak, 1,620 feet high, rises sharply behind the lighthouse. A half-mile spit to the south connects the peak and lighthouse to a picturesque pinnacle rock, 570 feet high, which Captain Cook compared to a “ruined castle.” In the background, on the continent, stands the perpetually snow-covered St. Elias Range. World-traveler and renowned anthropologist Frederica de Laguna, in her work, “Under Mount Saint Elias,” called this isolated coastal region the most beautiful in the world.
Congress approved the construction of a light station at Cape St. Elias in October of 1913, appropriating $115,000 for the construction. Construction began in 1915 and a third order Fresnel lens was installed. In 1927 the station was equipped with radio beacon facilities. It was the second such facility in Alaska. The light was automated by the United States Coast Guard in 1974. In 1998 a solar powered Vega optic was installed, replacing the original lens, which is in the Cordova Museum in Cordova, Alaska.
See the modern 1899 Harriman Expedition at this PBS site.