Cape Disappointment Light: the oldest functioning lighthouse on the West Coast5 min read
The Cape Disappointment Light is a lighthouse on Cape Disappointment near the mouth of the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington.
Starting as a small stream at the base of the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia travels more than 1,200 miles, merging with various rivers and streams, until it meets the Pacific Ocean. Its force flowing into the sea creates one of the most treacherous bars in the world as evidenced by the 234 identified ships that stranded, sank, or burned near its mouth between 1725 and 1961.
On May 11, 1792 American Robert Gray, a seafarer apparently more interested in finding furs for the China market than the honor of discovery, was the first to successfully cross the bar, and the river was named after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.
A prominent cape on the north side of the river’s mouth helps mark the entrance to the river. Named “Kah’eese” by the local Indians, and then Cape San Rogue, it received its current name from Captain John Meares, after vainly trying to seek shelter from a turbulent sea on July 6, 1788. Out of frustration, he christened the cape, not by chance, “Cape Disappointment” after his inability to locate the river’s mouth.
Before there were lighthouses on the site, ships bound for Portland and Astoria navigated their way through the high waves and shifting sandbars, focusing on fluttering white flags and notched trees along the shoreline by day and flickering signal fires by night.
Despite heroic efforts, the sea offshore of the Long Beach Peninsula became known as ‘The Graveyard of the Pacific’.
It was 1843 when a lighthouse was recommended for the cape, one of the first eight on the West Coast, due to a large number of shipwrecks.
Thus on April 30, 1852, a contract was entered into for its construction at Cape Disappointment, in what was then the Oregon Territory.
The following year lighthouse construction materials were in route and stashed in the hull of the Oriole.
However, after waiting offshore for eight days for conditions to improve, the Oriole attempted to cross the bar and wrecked directly below the cape.
The thirty-two-man crew narrowly escaped with their lives, but both the vessel and all building supplies on board were lost. Construction finally got underway two years later, but was again delayed when it was discovered that the upper diameter of the tower was not large enough to accommodate the lantern room for the four-ton, first-order Fresnel Lens, manufactured in Paris by Louis Sautter & Co.
And so the entire tower had to be dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt.
Its reconstruction took an additional two years, but the first lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest was finally lit on October 15, 1856, with the keeper’s residence about a quarter-mile away.
The first keeper was John Boyd, a cripple who died on duty on October 26, 1865. As the keepers found standing watch there unpleasant in the cool fall weather, Boyd sent the following request to Hartman Bache, his boss in San Francisco: “As the winter advances we find it very damp, cold and uncomfortable watching with the light without a fire in the tower. As the dwelling is situated so far from the tower, those having the watch are obliged to sleep there. We require a small stove very much and shall suffer without one through long cold nights. One that we could heat oil and water on would be preferable.”
On October 25, 1858, Second Assistant Keeper Harrington was crossing over the river in the station’s boat, when it capsized. A man on the other shore sent three Indians in a canoe to rescue him, but before they could reach him, the boat drifted and Harrington was never seen again.
Cape Disappointment Light Station was tended by the Captain J.W. “Joel” Munson from 1865 to 1877. On March 1865 the bark Industry wrecked near the cape, and of the twenty-four people on board, only seven survived. The keeper was greatly disturbed that more people could have been saved if a lifesaving craft had been available for the keepers at the cape and, after finding a battered longboat on the beach, he decided to rebuild it for use for this purpose.
On May 1866, the W.B. Scranton, loaded with eight hundred tons of freight from San Francisco, was driven into the middle sands of the bar.
Keeper Munson launched his craft with a few other men and was able to rescue the entire crew.
Thanks to his efforts, a lifesaving station was established at Cape Disappointment in 1871, and his famous craft became part of the station’s initial equipment. The tradition of lifesaving continues still today at the Coast Guard lifeboat station and training school located on the cape.
However the lighthouse had several shortcomings: the fog bell was sometimes inaudible due to the roar of ocean waves. It was discontinued in 1881 and moved to West Point Light in Seattle, and eventually to Warrior Rock Light near Portland.
Moreover, the light was not visible to ships approaching from the north, a problem corrected by building a lighthouse at North Head, two miles from Cape Disappointment. The first-order lens was moved to North Head and a fourth-order lens installed at Cape Disappointment.
A class C radiobeacon was established there in 1936, and the lighthouse was electrified the following year, in 1937.
In 1956, the Coast Guard intended to close the station, claiming that the Columbia River Lightship and entrance range lights were sufficient to mark the river, but retained the light when the Columbia River bar pilots protested. The light was automated in 1973 even though the patriarch of Northwest lighthouses, still equipped with its fourth-order lens, remains active still today and open to the visitors.
Images from web – Google Research