Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse. Japanese proverb
We cannot claim that we are very knowledgeable about lighthouses. But during our journey we have visited quite a few along the East Coast and now along the West Coast and we have definitely developed a love of lighthouses.
The reasons that we love them are many. Lighthouses are usually located in wild and rugged spots along the coast – places that are very scenic in and of themselves, they have a really strong connection with the history of their towns, the hardworking keepers, their families and their assistants are worthy of admiration and the lighthouses themselves are beautiful – the gorgeous Fresnel lenses, the architecture, the materials, the staircases…
Here are some sea captains looking out at the horizon trying to see the light.
We visited six of Oregon’s nine lighthouses. And since there is no public access to one of them, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse located out at sea, we only really missed two. Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was known as “Terrible Tilly” due to the inhospitable location on that exposed rock.
And the last Oregon lighthouse we visited was the Cape Meares Lighthouse. This stocky lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens was first lit in 1890. And even though it is the shortest lighthouse in Oregon, its position high on a prominent headland made up for its stature. Its light, a fixed white light punctuated by a red flash, was seen for twenty-one miles.
I found the structure with its octagonal tower quite charming and we got a great view of the beautiful lens while walking down the trail towards it. The trail today is easy, but the builders had a much tougher time of it.
The Fresnel lens was shipped from France around Cape Horn to Cape Meares, where a hand-operated crane made from local spruce trees was used to lift the crates containing the prisms of the one-ton lens up the 200 foot cliff to the tower. The octagonal tower is made of sheet iron lined with bricks, the only one of its kind on the Oregon coast.
The Cape Meares Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1963 when an automated beacon was installed on a concrete blockhouse a few feet from the tower. Ownership of the lighthouse changed hands between the Coast Guard, Tillamook County and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and it was vandalized numerous times (!!!). The automated beacon was finally extinguished just last month 124 years after it was first lit. The good news is that the lighthouse has been beautifully restored.
To get to the Cape Meares Lighthouse we drove on the beautiful Three Capes Scenic Loop. There are a number of trails near the lighthouse as well as a Wildlife Refuge. A beautiful area.
We first saw the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse from a distance on the opposite side of the Columbia River at Fort Stevens State Park. As we were leaving we found a rather stern faced bald eagle surveying its domain (and giving us a good look too). There are a lot of bald eagles in this area and their populations are improving due to protections and the banning of DDT some time ago. We see them pretty regularly, but it is still a thrill to see these majestic birds.
The powerful Columbia River merges with various rivers and streams until it flows into the Pacific Ocean here between Oregon and Washington.
Huge crashing waves and storms often form here. We saw some jaw dropping pictures of ships defying death on display around the area.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was built to watch over this dangerous entrance after an increase in commerce along the river and numerous shipwrecks. The lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens was first lit in 1856.
The lens was moved to the North Head Lighthouse in 1898 and replaced with a fourth-order Fresnel lens with a signature of alternate red and white flashes spaced by fifteen seconds. It was automated in 1973 and continues to be an active lighthouse operated by the Coast Guard. So it’s not open to the public.
We walked the trail to the lighthouse and to an observation post just beyond it. The observation post’s sign “if the door is closed please leave the Coast Guardsman to his duties” was a bit discouraging. But it was a clear and calm day and the river was quiet so the door was open.
Coast Guardsman Doyle invited us in and gave us a quick overview of the Columbia River’s currents and dangers. He was a very adorable guy and he even let Angel hang out in the building with us. He also let us take a peek through his giant binoculars. Sweet.
Our next stop was the North Head Lighthouse, where our friends Nina and Paul were volunteering. We were really looking forward to their tour and later meeting them and their “12 paws” for dinner at their motorhome “the Beast”.
Nina was the welcoming committee, fee collector (a deal at $2.50), sandal police (no sandals allowed up the stairway) and introduction provider at the entrance. Paul was the amazing fact provider and informative dude at the top. What a team!
North Head Lighthouse was built because captains of ships traveling from the north couldn’t see Cape Disappointment Lighthouse’s light until they had almost reached the Columbia River and shipwrecks from that direction continued. The lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens, which was moved there from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, was first lit in 1898.
The first-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a fourth-order lens in 1935, replaced once again and automated in the 1950s, and replaced yet again around 1998.
North Head Lighthouse is currently managed by Washington State Parks, who recently begun repairs to the well weathered lighthouse in conjunction with the Keepers of North Head Lighthouse. I can’t wait to see this antique beauty restored.
The Cape Disappointment and North Head lighthouses are part of Cape Disappointment State Park, which is one of the Lewis and Clark National and Historical State Parks, and features beaches, hiking trails and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Lots to see there.
While Paul and Nina finished their duties at the North Cape Lighthouse, we took a quick side trip to visit the town of Long Beach nearby. Long Beach is aptly named for the 28 miles of remote beach found there.
Nina suggested we check out Marsh’s Free Museum. It’s a mega souvenir shop but also has a huge collection of antiques including lots of games, animal heads and other artifacts throughout the building.
Although its claim to fame is an extremely creepy “mummy” of an “alligator man” who was supposedly found in Florida, the museum’s collection is way more interesting than the alligator man. A completely unique and funky place.
Our tours of lighthouses and their surroundings always reveal new and interesting findings.