Cape Arago Lighthouse

Charleston, Oregon - 1934 (1866**)

Photo of the Cape Arago Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Arago Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-05-23.

After the collapse of the Umpqua River Lighthouse in 1864, rather than rebuilding the lighthouse, the Lighthouse Board chose to erect the Cape Arago Lighthouse 25 miles to the south as most of the commerce had shifted to southern Oregon ports.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, several Native American tribes had occupied the lands around Coos Bay. Although the exploration of the area by the Spanish and British took place in the 1500-1600s, the first permanent settlement of the area around Coos Bay took place in 1853 when J.C. Tolman established the town of Marshfield.

After gold was discovered in California in 1848, there was a massive influx of settlers. To prepare the West Coast for this influx, a survey was conducted, which resulted in recommendations for six lighthouses. One of the recommended locations was at the mouth of the Umpqua River.

The Umpqua River Lighthouse was placed into service on October 10, 1857. However, as survey crews had chosen the sandy shore of the Umpqua River as its site, it didn't last long. By January 1864, the tower had toppled over.

Locals began petitioning to have the tower rebuilt, but by then, most of the commerce had shifted to the ports in Southern Oregon, prompting the Lighthouse Board to disregard the requests and mark the mouth of the Umpqua River with a floating buoy.

Instead, the Lighthouse Board focused on Cape Arago and Coos Bay, 25 miles to the south. It was of the opinion of the Lighthouse Board that "the interests of commerce will be best subserved by establishing a new light upon Cape Arago, instead of re-erecting at Umpqua."

Ironically, the light at Arago was meant to be a replacement for the failed Umpqua River Lighthouse, instead, it actually drew shipping traffic away from the Umpqua River and helped grow Coos Bay.

As the United States was still embroiled in the Civil War, funds were short. With that, on July 2, 1864, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a new lighthouse at "Cape Gregory," which actually sat 2½ miles north of Cape Arago.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the 1866 Cape Arago Lighthouse1866 Cape Arago Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

Although the light that would be built at Cape Arago should have been a first-class lighthouse as it was to serve both as a light for Coos Bay and as light for offshore traffic, as Congress could only appropriate $15,000 that could not be accomplished.

Chiefs Island, an oddly-shaped small islet about 100 yards from the mainland, which sat just south of the opening to Coos Bay was the site chosen. The larger part of the island sat closer to shore and contained the keeper's dwelling, while the lighthouse was placed at the end of a narrow peninsula.

A 25-foot tall, octagonal, skeletal tower was erected. The upper section of the tower was enclosed to form a watch room. Inside the lantern room was a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which had a focal plane of 75 feet. The light was exhibited for the first time on November 1, 1866.

Given its exposure to the Pacific Ocean, the island and lighthouse were frequently buffeted by high winds and heavy surf. Erosion from the surf was always a concern and while traversing the narrow sliver of land to get to the lighthouse, winds often swept the keepers off their feet.

One such storm was the gale of November 1875 that damaged the buildings. Some of the repairs that could be made, were. Others had to wait for supplies brought by a lighthouse tender, which couldn't safely land until June 1876.

That same year, a footbridge was built to the island. Prior to that, the only access keepers had to the island was via boat. The entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board tells of the bridge and the repairs made to the dwelling:

470. Cape Arago, (Gregory,) sea-coast of Oregon - A bridge connecting the island on which the light is situated with the main-land has been built, the keeper's dwelling repainted and reshingled, a concrete floor laid in the cellar, kitchen floor renewed, a new plank walk laid from the keeper's dwelling to the tower, and a new cistern built. In June a double-wick Funck lamp was put up in place of the Franklin lamp formerly used. Everything connected with this station is now in good order.

Although the bridge connecting the island to the mainland made the keeper's life easier, it would have a contentious relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Within the first three years of being placed into service, it would require repairs or being rebuilt each year.

It was reported that the bridge required repairs in the spring of 1877. Later that year, a gale in November 1877 destroyed not only the bridge but the boathouse and the tramway for hoisting supplies from the beach to the lighthouse. All were rebuilt the following spring.

In December 1878, large masses of kelp collected around the bridge connecting the lighthouse to the shore and by their weight broke five of the iron rod braces. Repairs were made in the spring of 1879.

The lighting apparatus was upgraded in 1880. Hains mineral oil lamps replaced the older Funck lard oil lamps as mineral oil was cleaner burning and provided a brighter light.

Due to the remoteness of the station and the cost associated with landing supplies, in 1881, the carpenters felt it would be best to make all repairs at one time, rather than several times throughout the year. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:

511. Cape Arago (Gregory), on a small island, at the western extremity of Cape Arago, Oregon - In July, mineral-oil lamps were substituted for the lard-oil lamps previously used. When carpenters were sent to repair the damage done by the winter's storms, it was thought best, owing to the isolation of the station and the great expense attending the delivery of material, to add every improvement and repair required to make the dwelling comfortable and the tower dry and easy [sic] of access. The floors of the kitchen and dining-rooms were relaid; the plank walk, 1,300 feet long, connecting the dwelling with the tower, was rebuilt; the glass in the windows of the tower was taken out, the frames repaired, and the glass reset with new screws; a frame storehouse for mineral-oil was built near the tower; the broken posts of the bridge leading to the mainland were replaced by new ones and securely braced; a boat-house was built on the beach at South Slough, to enable the keeper to get his supplies readily from Empire City; an inclosing [sic] fence was erected on the east side of the reservation, from the bay to the sea-coast, to keep out trespassers and to protect the gardens of the keepers, and the building of the station were repainted.

Between 1882 and 1883, a wagon road was constructed from the boathouse at South Slough to the lighthouse. Also, in 1883, an acre of the lighthouse grounds was cleared of timber and sown with seed to form a pasture, the old shed used as a storehouse was replaced with a 10-foot by 20-foot structure, and 400 feet of picket fence were built.

A new 5,000-gallon cistern was built in 1884, and between 1884 and 1885, nearly 11 acres of land were cleared and seeded for pasture. A new barn was built in 1885, and storms later that year destroyed the boathouse and partially destroyed the bridge. The boathouse was rebuilt in February 1886 and a temporary footbridge was built.

Plans and specifications were received for a new footbridge but were rejected due to excessive costs. Instead, a wire rope tramway between the mainland and the island was erected. The unit consisted of framed-towers at each end, connected by a one-inch wire rope, upon which a trolley was suspended. Power was supplied by a hand winch on the island.

By 1893, a first-class fog signal was being recommended for Cape Arago. The location recommended was at the point, where the lighthouse was located. The Lighthouse board estimated that it could be built for $5,500.

That same year, the Lighthouse Board recommended that the keeper's dwelling, erected in 1866 and ill-adapted to accommodate the two keepers and their families, be rebuilt as it was on the verge of collapse. They recommended a double set of quarters be built and estimated its cost not exceed $10,000.

To pay for the upgrades, the Lighthouse Board had pointed to an act approved on March 3, 1891, which provided $50,000 to build a fog signal and lighthouse at the mouth of the Coquille River in Bandon, Oregon. The board had found that the work could be completed for much less, and requested $15,500 from that appropriation.

The same request was repeated in 1894 and was approved on August 18. Plans and specifications were drawn up throughout 1895, and due to delays, the work was finally completed on May 14, 1896. Once the fog signal machinery was put in place, the fog signal was placed into operation on September 16, 1896.

Materials to repair the footbridge between the island and mainland were landed on the island, and the work completed on July 28, 1898. As the old oil house was too small, a new galvanized oil house was built that year as well.

It was soon discovered that the water supply for the fog signal was inadequate. Therefore, in 1899, a 5,000-gallon redwood water tank was erected on the south side of the fog signal building and connected with the iron tank. That same year, a new fourth-order Funck-Heap lamp replaced the old ones.

By 1905, the erosion that was noted in 1866 was beginning to take its toll. In a letter from the Secretary of Commerce and Labor to the Senate Committee on Commerce noted that Cape Arago "is in great danger of being carried away by the action of the waves as the encroachment of the sea has already removed materials overlying the rock to such an extent as to endanger the foundations of the structure."

In the same letter, ship's captains complained that the light and fog signal were "antiquated and insufficient" and that it "renders navigation of the waters difficult and dangerous." They also stated that its fog signal was "practically useless" and that "it cannot be heard at a safe distance." They asked for a better light and fog signal.

The Board responded by saying that Cape Arago was considered satisfactory for certain purposes, its range of visibility was limited by its elevation and that if it were raised, it would be visible at a greater distance.

In the end, the Lighthouse Board recommended a new lighthouse and fog signal be established at Cape Arago. They estimated the cost for both was $20,000 and asked for the appropriation. The act was approved on March 4, 1907, but as no proposals were received, the light and fog signal would be built by hired labor and the purchase of materials.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the 1909 Cape Arago Lighthouse1909 Cape Arago Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

By the following year, a new wood-framed fog signal building with attached tower was erected. The structure, designed by Carl Leick, engineer for the 13th lighthouse district, was nearly identical to the Ediz Hook and the Mukilteo Lighthouses, both in Washington State. Also, erected at that time was a new bridge leading from the mainland to the island.

This time, to ensure the structure would be on stable ground, it was erected on the larger section of the island rather than the narrow finger of land jutting out into the sea. The original skeletal tower remained but was abandoned. It was eventually blown up in 1937.

The fog signal plant consisted of two 18-horsepower oil engines and air compressors, which operated an automatic siren. Inside the lantern was a new fourth-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier, Bernard & Turenne, in Paris France. The lamps were changed over to incandescent oil vapor lamps, which were placed into service on July 1, 1909.

For the next several decades, things went well for the station. The only maintenance item noted was in 1922 for "installing a water system and constructing an elevated walk and bridge, $9,176."

Due to erosion affecting the main part of the island, the second lighthouse was threatened, forcing a third Cape Arago Lighthouse to be built in 1934. Local contractor, Jake Hillstrom, built the new fog signal and tower, using the plans from Point Robinson Lighthouse in Washington State.

To be able to withstand the wind and the weather, the current lighthouse was built using reinforced concrete. The octagonal-shaped tower stood 44 feet tall and was outfitted with the fourth-order Fresnel lens, which was moved over from the second tower. The new lighthouse received electrical power, retiring the old oil lamps.

Rather than being torn down, the second lighthouse structure had the tower removed and was moved a short distance. There, it functioned as the keeper's office. For a short time, all three lighthouses occupied the island.

Coast Guard personnel lived in a one-story, cinder-block four-plex that sat just over the bridge on the mainland. As it sat unused, the 1896 keeper's duplex was razed in 1957 and the second lighthouse, serving as a keeper's office, was torn down in the 1960s.

The Cape Arago Lighthouse was automated on April 15, 1966. In 1993, the Coast Guard removed the fourth-order Fresnel from the tower, replacing it with a modern optic. The lens was then placed on display at the Coast Guard Air Station North Bend. Later that year, the Cape Arago Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In mid-October 2005, the Coast Guard placed a 30-day notice to mariners stating that the lighthouse would be discontinued if it wasn't needed by mariners. As Chief Dale Dempsey of the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation Office in Charleston, Oregon received no responses, the Cape Arago Lighthouse was discontinued on January 1, 2006.

Soon after the lighthouse went dark, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians applied for the ownership of the Cape Arago Lighthouse. However, as they didn't fall under any of the categories that would allow it to be transferred under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, Oregon's Congressional delegation introduced a bill to allow the transfer.

It took a number of years, but on August 3, 2013, the Coast Guard and the federal government turned over the Cape Arago Lighthouse to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. The transfer included Chief's Island and the surrounding 24 acres of land.

In February 2013, the bridge that connected the island to the mainland was demolished due to safety issues and vandalism concerns.

Today, the fourth-order Fresnel lens that was once in the Cape Arago Lighthouse is on permanent loan to the Coos History Museum in Coos Bay, Oregon. Scott Partney Construction crafted the exhibit case for the lens, which is in the main exhibit hall.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Lighthouses of the Pacific Coast: Your Guide to the Lighthouses of California, Oregon, and Washington, Randy Leffingwell, 2000.
  3. Oregon's Seacoast Lighthouses, Jim Gibbs & Bert Webber, June 2003.
  4. "Oregon's Cape Arago Lighthouse," Staff, Lighthouse Digest, October 2007.
  5. "Lighthouse Bridge to Be Demolished," Staff, Lighthouse Digest, January / February 2013.
  6. Exhibit Updates Steve Greif, WaterWays, Summer 2016.

Directions: The lighthouse is best viewed from Sunset Bay State Park. The lighthouse is located on a island just off the park. Distant views are possible from within the park.

Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. The grounds and tower are closed to the public.

View more Cape Arago Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 44.00'
Focal Plane: 100'
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (2006)
*Latitude: 43.34125 N
*Longitude: -124.37530 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.