Lighthouses stand sentinel on rugged coasts, helping ships navigate the dangerous cliffs, reefs, and rocks. They served as a beacon for navigation, marking dangers close to shore. They each had their own signature flash, acting like a GPS, helping sailors understand their location.
In the fog, the lighthouse, on the side of Heceta Head would’ve helped sailors.
Imagine being a traveler in the 1800s. To reach faraway lands, you couldn’t just hop on a plane and get there in a few hours. You most likely would’ve taken a ship. The captain and crew would have to navigate the ocean and make sure you didn’t sink close to shores, where the ship would encounter rocky terrain, shallow areas, or dark cliffs invisible in the dark.
Just like pilots rely on the towers to help them land, the ship captains relied on lighthouses to guide them. Often, lighthouses and their keepers held the lives of travelers, ship crews in their hands. Without them, fewer ships would’ve made it safely to shore.
To make sure their light is visible from far away, lighthouses used Fresnel lenses, allowing the same light to travel farther, magnifying it. These lenses are some of the most spectacular pieces of equipment in the lighthouses we visited.
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What Is a Fresnel Lens?
Developed by the French physicist and engineer, Jean August Fresnel in 1822, it improved lighthouse technology all over the world. The lens looks spectacular, resembling a huge glass beehive. It comprises a series of prisms, mounted on a frame. Prisms, used in telescopes, too, take the light rays that scatter all over the place and focus it in one beam.
Taking many of these lenses and building one huge combination of them results in a work of art, but also an innovation in focusing and making the light not only brighter but adding patterns to it. Hundreds of glass prisms form this unit, each cut, ground and polished. As much as I admire its beauty, its functions were lifesaving for many ships.
The working Fresnel lens at Heceta Head
Before using this lens, the light from a lighthouse was visible about 8 miles, 12 the most on a clear night. The Fresnel lens added to this distance, making the light visible to around 20 miles. But it wasn’t only the distance of its visibility that helped mariners who depended on the light.
A Fresnel lens can produce individual light patterns, each different from the next, by varying its installed panels and their movement. This helped ship captains understand their location, like a GPS. Before the use of this lens, lighthouses each had the same white light shining. This helped to understand that shore was close, but not the location. By giving each lighthouse a signature pattern, mariners knew where they were, by locating a specific lighthouse.
The Fresnel lens inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Though the Fresnel lens revolutionized the way lighthouses operate and saved many lives, its inventor didn’t get to enjoy the fame and fortune he deserved. He died of tuberculosis just five years after he invented the lens, in 1837, at 39. His legacy still stands though, as lighthouses around the world still use the Fresnel lens and others are in museums around the world.
The Lighthouses of the Oregon Coast
The coast of Oregon has 11 lighthouses, two of which privately owned, constructed much later. Some are still working, though I’m not sure how much they are needed.
Location: 1 mile off the coast of Tillamook, on a rock 133 feet above the ocean.
Working: No, decommissioned in 1957.
Open to the public: No.
Location: Cape Meares, Tillamook.
Working: No, decommissioned in 1963.
Open to the public: Yes, from April 1 – October 31, daily: 11 am – 4 pm. Admission: free
Location: Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area; Newport
Open to the public: Yes. Guided tours. Times posted in the Interpretive Center
Location: At the mouth of the Yaquina River, Newport.
Working: Yes; decommissioned in 1874; reactivated in 1996.
Open to the public: Yes, as a museum and gift shop.
Location: Heceta Head, Florence .
Open to public: Yes, for tours and as a bed and breakfast
Location: Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, South of Reedsport
Open to the public: Yes.
Location: on a narrow island off the entrance to Coos Bay, Charleston
Open to public: No
Location: Near Bandon
Open to public: No
Location: Near Cape Blanco State Park, North of Port Orford
Open to public: Restricted access April 1 – October 31
Location: South of Yachats
Open to the public: No
Open to public: No
Visiting the Lighthouses
Our trips to the Oregon coast always include a few stops to historic lighthouses, and this last one was no exception.
Though we didn’t visit all seven open to the public, we enjoyed tours in and around a few of these lighthouses. The ones we saw were interesting, touring them gave us a great history lesson about travel in the old days and the Oregon coast.
Cape Meares Lighthouse
The shortest of all lighthouses on the Oregon Coast, Cape Meares Lighthouse is only 38 feet high. However, it sits on a cliff, 217 feet above the ocean.
Cape Meares Lighthouse, the shortest one on the Oregon Coast
The Cape and lighthouse were named after John Meares, the first known captain to sail the Tillamook Bay. Building on it started in August 1888 but wasn’t finished until December 1889.
The Fresnel lens used was brought by ship from France. It weighed one ton, even without the rest of its parts. With no roads from inland, they used a hand-operated crane made of spruce trees cut on the cape to pull it to the top of the cape from below.
The lighthouse in Cape Meares lit up for the first time on January 1st, 1890, with its signature light, a two-second red flash, followed by a 60-second white flash.
The keeper used a kerosene lamp inside the lens, later replaced by an oil vapor lamp that burned more efficient.
The light on top of the Cape Meares
The lighthouse was so isolated; they didn’t even have a wagon road leading to it. I can’t imagine how they brought in the oil for the lamp and the other supplies. Things got easier when they finally finished a road to Netarts Bay, then in 1934 electricity replaced the oil burning light.
On April 1st, 1963 the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse. Until 2014 they used a DCB aero-beacon, mounted on a concrete structure near it. Read a more in-depth history of this lighthouse, here.
View from Cape Meares
Today, the lighthouse is part of the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and National Wildlife Refuge. Though two roads leading up to it, only one is open, from Oceanside. The road itself is scenic, and the area around the lighthouse is home to the famous Octopus Tree and large Sitka spruce trees.
The famous Octopus Tree on Cape Meares
Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Standing 93 feet tall, 162 feet above sea level, the lighthouse at Yaquina Head is the tallest on the Oregon Coast.
The tower of the Yaquina Head lighthouse
It took a year to build it, on the edge of this narrow strip of land.
Yaquina Head Lighthouse
The first keeper turned on the lard oil-burning fixed white light at sunset on August 20th, 1873. The light was sitting in a black lantern on top of the tower, inside a Fresnel lens, sending out a steady white light visible for 19 miles.
It not only helped mariners as a point of reference, but it also helped guide them into the Yaquina Bay harbor, replacing the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse.
Looking out into the ocean, I see why the lighthouse was needed.
The very high winds frequent on Yaquina Head took their toll on the lighthouse and on the keeper’s dwelling. They had to rebuild the structures many times over the years, but in 1938, when the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, they demolished the original keeper’s house.
This lighthouse became automated in 1966, and it still operates today and flashes its unique pattern of 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 14 seconds off all day long. The light now comes from a 1000-watt light bulb.
Read the full history of the lighthouse here.
Touring the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
We visited this lighthouse and climbed its 114 steps (they told us the number, but my kids counted the steps, too).
The stairway to the top of the lighthouse in Yaquina Head is gorgeous, and fun to climb. Counting the steps to the top.
The close-up look at a working Fresnel lens and the view from the top made the long climb worthwhile.
We got to have a close look at the Fresnel lens on top. The view of the ocean from the top. The sun created a rainbow through the Fresnel lens
The Protected Area Around the Lighthouse
Today, the lighthouse at Yaquina Head is part of the federally owned Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Cobble Beach, just steps away from the lighthouse, is a great place for tidepooling. When we spend time there, we always spot seals on the rocks, thousands of seabirds and when we visited in May we noticed a few migrating whales.
Tidepools on Cobble Beach and a view of the lighthouse
Heceta Head Lighthouse
Part of an Oregon State Park, Heceta Head Lighthouse is the most visited and photographed lighthouse on the coast. Its automated beacon is the strongest on the coast, seen as far as 21 miles from land.
The Heceta Head lighthouse
Built in England, its Fresnel lens comprises 640 prisms in eight panels, which made it difficult to install. While construction on this lighthouse started in 1892, it only turned on in March 1894.
The station was so remote; it had trouble getting its keepers to stay. They stayed only a year or two, until one, Olaf Hansen, a Native Norwegian came back in 1904, a year after leaving. He stayed till 1920, raised a family there, and became an influential member of the surrounding community.
View of the Heceta Head Lighthouse
In 1931, construction workers moved into the area. It was the time when they built the Cape Creek Bridge, a tunnel, and the highway. In 1934 they brought electricity to the lighthouse, making life easier for the keepers.
The Lighthouse Becomes a Military Installation
As the US was moving closer to WWII, the government turned the Heceta Lighthouse into a military installation. In 1942, they assigned additional Coast Guard personnel to it.
By late 1943, over 75 men lived there, members of stationed troops. They built barracks and a mess hall where the original keeper’s house was, and they added a lookout tower in the vicinity.
After the war, they used the lighthouse as before, and in 1963 it became automated. With no keeper on the grounds, they placed a sensor in the tower that alerted the Coast Guard in Florence if the light was out.
A Haunted Lighthouse?
Heceta Head Lighthouse has another claim to fame as one of the haunted lighthouses in the US. Whether the rumor started because someone believed it, or as a means to attract more visitors, the ghost from the keeper’s duplex got Heceta Head Lighthouse featured in the documentary “Haunted Lighthouses of America”.
This ghost was supposed to be a woman from the 1890s, wife of one of the keepers, named Rue, also known as the “Gray Lady”. Some of the keepers claimed to have experienced unexplained things around the property after the ghost stories started circulating. Or maybe it was the other way around and their experiences triggered the ghost stories.
Either way, after being featured in the documentary of the ghost stories, the lighthouse got more visitors, searching for interesting tidbits about this ghost. Some of the keepers denied its existence, but others had some fun with the stories. Real ghost or not, the lighthouse is listed as #8 as America’s most haunted lighthouses in Coastal Living Magazine.
The Lighthouse Today Is Part of the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint
With or without the ghost, after the war, the Coast Guard no longer needed the lighthouse. So, the lighthouse became public domain and eventually turned over to the State of Oregon and incorporated into the Devil’s Elbow State Park, later renamed the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint.
Heceta Head Lighthouse. View from the trail
You can find it in a cove at Cape Creek. You can park there, and take the short trail to the lighthouse and the keeper’s house. We couldn’t visit the inside of this lighthouse since it was closed for renovations, but the grounds are worth the hike.
In addition to visiting the lighthouse, we experienced wildlife on these trails. Common murres, cormorants, and gulls have nesting areas close by visible from some of the trails. Brown pelicans fly by often, and sea lions are always close by. In late April and early May grey whales are migrating, traveling between Alaska and Baja California. They come close to the shore, so they are visible from the cape.
The beach area offers opportunities for tidepooling, exploring small natural caves and playing in the sand.
Tidepool on the beach by Heceta Head
To reach the Heceta Head Lighthouse and the natural area around it, take the turn-off from the Coast Highway I-101 towards Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint. Since it is a State Park, the daily use fee is $5, which you can buy at the automated machine in the parking lot.
Umpqua River Lighthouse
Oregon’s first lighthouse was built on the Umpqua River in 1857, but it only lasted four years before it collapsed. Built in 1894, the new lighthouse still stands and signals the entrance to the Umpqua River.
Part of the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, the lighthouse is surrounded by a protected natural area, by the Oregon Sand Dunes. A day use area and campground surround Lake Marie. Since we were there on a weekend, we didn’t stop. The area was teeming with people, we didn’t even find a parking spot. Next time we’ll plan on going back during a weekday, to visit the area.
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Emese Fromm is the editor and the main writer for Wanderer Writes. Some of her travel articles have been featured in publications like Matador Network, GoNomad, DesertUSA, MapQuest Travel, among others. She loves to travel the world with her family, trying to find the less-traveled path anywhere she goes (sometimes she succeeds).