Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-06-07.
The first lighthouse to serve as the Umpqua River Lighthouse was built in 1857 and would only last a few years before toppling over in 1864. A second Umpqua River Lighthouse would become operational nearly thirty years later.
After gold was discovered in California in 1848, settlers started making their way across the country. The news of the discovery brought more than 300,000 people to the West Coast. Many of the once tiny towns that dotted the coastline blossomed, seemingly overnight.
To prepare the West Coast for the influx of settlers, the Treasury Department sent Alexander D. Bache to survey the coast in 1849. His orders were to establish Latitudes and Longitudes of the principal points, bays, harbors, and to determine locations for lighthouses, buoys, and sailing directions.
Bache had selected six locations along the West Coast that he recommended for lighthouses. The locations were New Dungeness, Umpqua, Punta de Los Reyes (Point Reyes), Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and San Pedro.
Congress made an appropriation of $15,000 on March 3, 1851 for a lighthouse and fog signal at Umpqua. The location was selected and title papers for 33 acres of land at the mouth of the Umpqua River were signed on October 1, 1851.
Over the years, several additional appropriations were made. Ten thousand dollars were appropriated in 1854, $19, 942 was appropriated in 1856, and then $5,055 in 1857.
By the fall of 1856, the lighthouse was deemed urgent. The Lighthouse Board had sent the following message to the District Inspector:
The officer in charge of the light-house service on the Pacific coast was instructed to lose no time in commencing the erection of the lighthouse at Umpqua, in Oregon Territory, and it is expected, from the urgent instructions from this office, and the zeal and energy of the officer in charge, that it will be built as soon as the necessary materials can be collected at the site. The illuminating apparatus and lantern for that light reached the Pacific coast in July last.
While the lighthouse was under construction, local Indians were not pleased that their land was being encroached upon. As there was a militia at nearby Fort Umpqua, the Indians wouldn't attack the workers, they instead took it upon themselves to pester the workers by stealing their tools. As the workers were greatly outnumbered, they didn't retaliate.
One day, while walking to the construction site, a worker spotted his hammer leaning against the side of an Indian hut. As the worker went to take his hammer back, he was attacked by two natives. During the struggle both whites and natives came running.
The workers, greatly outnumbered and fearing for their lives, had to do something. The foreman ran back to the supply shed, grabbed several sticks of dynamite, which he lit and tossed. The ensuing blast sent the Indians scurrying. Although the workers kept regular watches fearing additional retaliatory attacks, they never came.
The winter of 1856 saw heavy rains, which slowed progress on the tower. By the following year the Umpqua River Lighthouse was completed and plans were being made to have the lighthouse operational by the fall. Constructed was a Cape Cod-style building with a tower rising 65½ feet above it. Inside the lantern was a third-order Fresnel lens, which went operational on October 10, 1857.
During construction, a grave mistake was made in selecting the location. Survey crews had chosen the sandy shore on the north side of the river, which, several years later, would compromise the foundation. On February 8, 1861, the Umpqua River would rise nearly 45 feet after 72 inches of rain had fallen over fourth months.
The storm, combined with record mountain runoff undermined the foundation of the Umpqua River Lighthouse. Over the next several years, the lean became more pronounced, but a gale in October of 1863 nearly toppled the tower.
For several months, as the tower was on the verge of collapse, the keepers reluctantly kept the light while pleading with the Lighthouse Board to abandon the light. Word was received in January 1864 approving the request to abandon it.
Prior to abandoning the tower, the third-order Fresnel lens was removed. After safely removing the lens, the workers sought to remove the iron lantern, however, while that was in process, the tower began to sway, sending the workers scurrying for their lives. Once free, they watched the tower come tumbling down.
As much of the commerce had shifted to southern Oregon ports, after the destruction of the tower, the Lighthouse Board, despite local petitions chose not to erect a new lighthouse. Instead, the mouth of the Umpqua River was marked with a floating buoy and the Lighthouse Board chose to erect a new lighthouse at Cape Arago, 25 miles to the south.
Locals continued to petition the board, however, the petitions were ignored. Over the years, the area continued to grow, and finally in 1888, the Lighthouse Board approved the construction of a new lighthouse. On October 2, 1888, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the project. At this same time, it was announced that a sister lighthouse would be built at Heceta Head during the same period.
To ensure the stability of the new lighthouse, the Lighthouse Board selected a site on the headland above the mouth of the Umpqua River on land that already belonged to the government. After conducting a survey, bids were received and opened on April 21, 1891. The lowest bid for the metalwork was $5,020, which was accepted.
As the aggregate of the lowest bids for the remaining structures (dwellings, barn, oil houses, cisterns, and tower) was more than the remainder of the appropriation, the bids were rejected. Instead, a new advertisement was made for having the work done.
When the bids were opened on August 11, 1891, the lowest bid for the erection of the tower was $12,000. This was accepted and the contract was made on October 5. The lowest bid for the dwellings and other buildings was $17, 879, which also was accepted. The contract for the dwellings was drawn up on September 17, 1891.
Construction of both the tower and dwellings were underway by late 1891 / early 1892. Both the metalwork and the glass for the tower were delivered to the site in March 1892 by the lighthouse tender Manzanita. However, on February 16, 1892, the contractors in charge of construction of the dwellings informed the Lighthouse Board that they would be unable to finish the work.
As the contractor couldn't finish the work, the bondsmen were notified that they would be responsible for the damage and loss resulting from the failure of the contractors. The bondsmen were apprised of the situation, but declined being involved as they withdrew their bond shortly after the contract was made.
As the work needed to be done, bids were solicited for the construction of the dwellings and other ancillary buildings. The lowest bid received was $20,250, which was accepted, making the previous contractors responsible for the difference between the two contracts, which was $2,371.
The lighthouse was completed on August 30, 1892 and the dwellings, barn, etc. were completed on January 14, 1893. As of January 19, the station was placed in charge of a watchman while work was being done to get the station operational.
Although the station was completed, the new contractor was still delinquent $2,371. As the entire appropriation was expended, there was no money available to pay the contractor. As the previous contractors still had no paid up, the matter was passed on to the Attorney General of the United States.
In order to pay the new contractor, the Lighthouse Board had recommended a new appropriation of $2,371 be made, which took place on August 18, 1894. This allowed the station to be completed and it was officially placed into service on the night of December 31, 1894.
The tower was built of brick and stood 65 feet tall. At the base of the tower was an attached workroom. Starting at the bottom, the tower wall was five feet thick and tapered to 21 inches thick at the parapet. At the top, the lantern and dome were of iron.
Although the lens and illuminating apparatus were at the tower, there were issues when the installation was attempted. Government documents state that the pedestal that held the lens was too low, and needed an additional base to raise it 15 inches. The work was estimated to cost $200.
Once the work was completed, the lens could be installed. Inside the lantern was a massive first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Cie of Paris, France. Funck mineral oil float lamps provided the illumination and when lit, the characteristic of the lighthouse was white and red alternating flashes.
Over the years, the case against the original contractor for the dwellings dragged on. In the case of the United States v. Smith & Burton and their bondsmen, in 1896, the United States won a judgement of $4,000, however, it had not been paid. On January 3, 1898, contractors Smith and Burton offered to settle for $628.03 and costs, which totaled $690, which the Treasury Department accepted, closing the case.
In 1895, two galvanized iron oil houses were erected and a fence was built around the cleared sections of the station grounds. That same year, the dwellings received furnaces. More than a decade later, to facilitate easier movement of supplies, a new road was built from the station to the beach below.
Major repairs and renovations took place in 1915. The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses to the Secretary of Commerce had the details:
A new water and sewerage [sic] system was installed, including pumping plant and storage tank, repaired and complete plumbing put in, boat house constructed, barn and fences repaired.
The Umpqua River Lighthouse was considered "desirable duty" due to its beautiful surroundings and its lack of fog signal. Others must have found the location desirable as the State of Oregon approached the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1935 looking to secure some land for a state park.
The Bureau of Lighthouses turned over 110 acres under a revocable license in exchange for $1,000. With that, the State of Oregon established the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, which today is one of the most visited parks in the state.
The United States Coast Guard took over the Umpqua River Lighthouse in 1939 and over the years constructed several new buildings including a barracks and a boathouse. The original keepers' dwellings were torn down in the 1950s.
By the 1960s, the station was automated, but watched over by the service personnel of the nearby Coast Guard base in Winchester Bay and the Aids to Navigation team based out of Coos Bay. At some point, the Coast Guard vacated the station completely and in March 1976, the Coast Guard deeded the barracks and boathouse to the Douglas County Parks Department.
On October 21, 1977, the Umpqua River Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior.
Douglas County restored the Coast Guard barracks building in 1980. After the restoration was completed, the ground story of the building was transformed into a lighthouse museum. By 1983, the first-order Fresnel lens was having issues. The massive lens rotated with the help of chariot wheels, but after rotating 24 hours a day for many years, the brass wheels were worn down.
At that time, the Coast Guard wanted to replace the classic lens with a modern DCB-style lens, but after public outcry from concerned local citizens, the Coast Guard relented and had the mechanism restored. In 1993, Douglas County entered into an agreement to lease the lighthouse from the Coast Guard, however, the Coast Guard retained the ownership of the Fresnel lens.
In 2006, JELD-WEN, an Oregon-based company donated windows and a door in an effort to give back to the community. The aluminum windows that were installed in the 1980s were failing, allowing moisture into the walls of the tower.
The company donated 11 custom arch-top windows, which were made at the company's Bend, Oregon facility. The windows feature a revolutionary wood treatment process and are guaranteed to protect against moisture and insect damage for 20 years. In addition to the windows, the company also donated a custom fiberglass door, which is indistinguishable from real wood, yet maintenance free. The door won't expand, swell, or absorb moisture, which is a perfect fit for Oregon's rainy climate.
Several years later, Coast Guard officials compiled a Waterways Analysis and Management System report where they took input from waterway users and consulted with commercial towing companies, the Port of Umpqua and other local entities. What they found is that most of the users considered the lighthouse a secondary aid to navigation.
With those results, the Coast Guard once again tried to remove the historic first-order Fresnel lens from the tower. The Coast Guard spoke with Douglas County, and on April 14, 2012, ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to them, insuring that the lens would remain in the tower.
Today, the entire station is operated and maintained by Douglas County and it is one of the few lighthouses left in the country with an operational first-order Fresnel lens.
Directions: Located on Lighthouse Drive just south of Winchester Bay. Lighthouse Drive is just off US-101 in Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.
Accesss: The lighthouse is owned by Douglas County. The lighthouse and grounds are open during tours. Information on tours can be obtained by calling (541) 271-4632 or visiting the Friends of Umpqua River Light website. If you mention that it took 240,000 bricks to construct the lighthouse tower, you'll get a tour discount.View more Umpqua River Lighthouse pictures