Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-04-23.
The Coquille River Lighthouse near Bandon, Oregon was built to mark the entrance to the Coquille River and to help mariners get past the ever-shifting sand bars. The light would also serve as a coast light for vessels heading up and down the Pacific Ocean.
Prior to 1850, the area around the Coquille River was primarily settled by the Coquille Indians. In 1851, gold was discovered at the nearby Whiskey Run Beach, but its discovery didn't have the same effect as the gold rush in California.
The first permanent settlers arrived in the area in 1853, no doubt attracted by gold, lumber, and fishing. By 1859, a small port was established on the Coquille River to allow access to all inland produce and resources. The town of Averille was established in 1873 by George Bennett and his sons, but was changed to Bandon a year later, named for Bandon, Ireland, which the Bennett Family hailed from.
When Mr. Bennett moved to Oregon, he brought with him a plant with the scientific name of Ulex europaeus, more commonly known as gorse. Gorse is a large, evergreen shrub covered in needle-like leaves and has distinctive yellow flowers during the spring and summer. Although it is native to parts of Western Europe, it would one day destroy the town of Bandon.
During the 1880s, Bandon was known for its fishing and timber industries. Both industries led to more vessels calling on the Coquille River. Although two jetties for the mouth of the river were authorized in 1880, their construction didn't start until 1890 and wouldn't be completed until 1907.
Also in 1890, the Lighthouse Board recommended a lighthouse be erected at the mouth of the river. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:
Coquille River, at the mouth of Coquille River, sea-coast of Oregon - A light of the fourth order with a fog-signal, at this point, would enable vessels bound into the river to hold on close to the bar during the night so that they would be in a position to cross at the next high water. The light would also serve as a coast light and would be of much service to vessels bound up and down the river. It is estimated that this light and fog-signal could be established at a cost of $60,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
On March 3, 1891, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the light and fog signal. In September of that year, the location was visited and a preliminary survey of the north side of the river, at its mouth, was taken in May 1892. After that, measures were initiated to purchase the site.
For most of 1893, negotiations were in process, and finally in 1894, a deed to the land was obtained and a site survey was made. At this time, the Lighthouse Board moved forward with the drawings and specifications for the station.
In April 1895, the contractors shipped men, tools, and material to the station. The crew immediately started working on preparing the rock on which the tower and fog signal would sit. The contractors had completed the work on October 7, 1895 and the light was first displayed on the night of February 29, 1896.
The Light List of 1900 described the station:
White, octagonal, pyramidal tower with black dome and lantern, attached to the easterly side of a white fog-signal building with black roof; white, one-and-one-half story, double dwelling, with brown roof, on sand dunes about 650 feet (1/10th mile) northwesterly from the tower, and a white barn 150 feet to the northward of the dwelling. Fitted with a fourth order fixed light 28 seconds, eclipse two seconds. Height of light above mean water, 47 feet. Distance light visible 12¼ nautical miles. Third class Daboll trumpet, blasts five seconds, silent intervals 25 seconds. To be changed to a first class siren. Height of tower above ground 40 feet.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1896 indicated a few items that were needed in order to complete the station - a good water supply, an oil house, a suitable landing place for supplies, and fences were needed.
It would take a few years, but in time, the issues would be addressed. In 1898, the water supply for the fog signal was still inadequate and the supplies for a 5,0000-gallon water tank were ordered. By 1899, the new redwood tank was mounted on an 8-foot high trestle. That same year, the brick piers under the barn were rebuilt and surrounded by brush and rock to keep them from being undermined.
Less than one year later, during a heavy storm, the surge carried away the water tank and washed away the foundation of the oil house and 75 feet of walk. Luckily, the oil house was recovered and moved to higher ground. A new water tank was purchased and to ensure it wouldn't be carried away, it was mounted on a concrete foundation.
Coquille Light (Courtesy USCG)
Less than a year later, it was decided to mount the oil house atop a concrete foundation as well so it too would be secure. The foundation would be high enough so that it would not be washed away again.
The following year, it was noted in the Annual Report that there was no boathouse at the station. Instead, the keeper hauled the boat up on shore, leaving it exposed to the elements. The report went on to recommend that a boathouse be established.
The same report noted that "The dwelling and barn are built on a bleak sand spit, and immense quantities of sand are frequently piled up around them, rendering access to the different buildings difficult and at times almost impossible."
The Lighthouse Board recommended to replace the bulkhead and plank the area around the buildings to prevent drifting and further recommended to construct portable sand fences, which the keeper could move as needed.
By July of 1901, construction crews arrived at the station, set to carry out the tasks. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year has the details:
63. Coquille River, Oregon - It was decided to repair the light and fog-signal building, to erect a boathouse and oil house, and make other improvements. The work was started in July, 1901, and completed in March, 1902. The boathouse was built on a pile foundation with a shear boom to protect the structure from drift. The area around the dwelling, measuring about 100 by 270 feet, was planked and a bulkhead was built around this area where the sand had been blown away. The walk from the dwelling to the fog-signal building was built, and those portions which had been washed away were replaced. A corrugated iron oil house was built on a concrete pier in the rear of and connected to fog-signal building and tower by a bridge, carried on steel beams. All exposed stonework of the fog-signal building and tower was removed for a depth of from 8 to 14 inches and replaced with brick set in cement. The whole cementing on exterior of building was stripped off and recemented, and the roof was recemented where necessary and painted. A new cement floor was laid in the engine room, and the cistern was lined with brick and then cemented. Some 200 feet of sand fence was built.
Over the next few years, no entries appeared in the Annual Report until 1907, when an upgrade to the fog signal machinery was noted. New oil engines and air compressors were installed, taking over for the old and worn out steam plant.
By 1912, mariners were petitioning to have the station moved stating "In its present location the light is of no great benefit to navigation." A proposal was put forth to establish an occulting electric light and fog bell near the end of the south jetty. A cottage for the keeper would be erected near the inner end of the jetty. It was requested that the work could be done for $6,000 and maintenance of the station would be less as it could run by a single keeper.
It would take a few years before any appropriation was made, but on July 1, 1916, Congress appropriated the necessary funds. Soon thereafter, opposition mounted instead requesting no change be made. It appears that the Port of Bandon wanted additional lights established on the south jetty and wanted the Lighthouse Service to assume the cost and operation of them.
As there were no other lights like that in operation, there was no precedent to follow. Although the Lighthouse Service and the Port of Bandon tried over a period of several years to come to an agreement, in the end, it never happened. Finally, in 1924, the money was used to establish an electrically-operated fog bell on the end of the south jetty.
On September 26, 1936 a couple of slash burns from a logging operation got out of control, which started a small forest fire. Under normal conditions, the fire department would have been able to handle it, but once the forest fire reached the gorse, there was no stopping it.
Gorse, by nature, is a very oily plant which causes it to catch fire easily. What the fire fighters found was that when burning gorse plants were sprayed with water, they reacted much like putting water on a grease fire - it spread flaming, oily globs everywhere.
As there was little that could be done, the townsfolk began retreating towards the Coquille River. Once there, the U.S. Lighthouse Service began to ferry people to the dunes on the other side of the river. The fire nearly consumed the entire town, leaving only 16 of the 500 buildings salvageable. The fire, literally bankrupt the community.
As the Coquille River Lighthouse was on the northern side of the Coquille River, it was unaffected. Many locals sought refuge at the lighthouse and the keepers were kept busy cleaning the ash that settled on the station's equipment.
The lighthouse tender Rose played a key role during the conflagration, acting as a communications hub relaying information back to the 13th District Headquarters as all telecommunications lines were down. This action greatly expedited assistance.
After the fire, the town was slow to rebuild. A decline in coastal shipping further hindered the town's recovery and by 1939, the Coast Guard had decommissioned the Coquille River Lighthouse. Its successor was an unmanned light on the jetty. From there, vandals and the elements took their toll on the station.
At some point, due to their dilapidated condition, all outbuildings were razed, leaving only the fog signal and light tower. As the tower was in an equally dilapidated condition, it was thought that it was too far gone to be saved.
With the formation of Bullards Beach State Park in 1962, which included the 11-acre plot and the Coquille River Lighthouse, things began to look up for the lighthouse. A joint plan was developed between the Oregon State Parks and the Army Corps of Engineers where funds were made available for restoration of the structure.
Although the tower was restored and opened to the public in the late 1970s, it was still dark. That changed in 1991 during Bandon's Centennial celebration when a solar-powered light was installed in the lantern.
Today, the lighthouse is open from mid-May through the end of September, staffed by park volunteers to help interpret the history of the area.
Directions: The lighthouse is located in Bullards Beach State Park in Bandon. Heading north on US-101, enter the park just north of the Coquille River. Follow Park Road to the end where it will fork. Follow the right fork towards the ocean.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by Oregon State Parks. Grounds open, tower open in season.View more Coquille (Bandon) River Lighthouse pictures