Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2005-05-27.
The lighthouse was built primarily to mark the north entrance into the Columbia River. Although the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is about two miles away, many mariners complained that they couldn't see the lighthouse until it was too late, and the vessel ran aground.
The North Head lighthouse was completed and went into service in 1898. It used the first-order Fresnel lens from Cape Disappointment when the Cape Disappointment lighthouse received the smaller fourth-order lens. The lighthouse itself is only sixty-five feet tall, but it sits on a bluff 130 feet high overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Rumor is that the area surrounding the lighthouse is said to be one of the windiest places in the US. Some wind speeds have been clocked at over 150 MPH. While I was visiting the lighthouse, the volunteer told us that at one point, a wild duck was blown into the lighthouse, smashing a window and chipping the big first-order Fresnel lens. One of the rumors is that the keeper's wife couldn't take the howling of the wind day in and day out and jumped over the side of the cliff to her death.
The lighting mechanism in the lighthouse has changed many times over the years. The lighthouse started out with a massive first-order Fresnel lens which came from Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey and burned kerosene. This lens was changed out in 1937 for a smaller fourth-order Fresnel lens which was rotated and lit by electricity. By the 1950s, the fourth-order lens was removed and replaced with a searchlight style light. In 1998, the light was again replaced with a modern marine style beacon which is still in use today. This light is visible 17 miles out to sea.
Another interesting story of this lighthouse is that the keeper of the lighthouse witnessed a submarine attack on Fort Stevens just across the river in Oregon. He was in the lantern room and saw a Japanese sub surface and take several shots at the fort with the deck gun. The keeper quickly extinguished the light and watched the attack. After a few shots, the submarine went down and was not seen again.
The North Head lighthouse keeper's residence is available to rent out for overnight stays. Contact (888) 226-7688 or Cape Disappointment State Park for more information.
Directions: From the Town of Ilwaco, Highway 101 becomes Spruce Street. Head into Fort Canby State Park / Cape Disappointment State Park on North Head Road. The lighthouse is at the end of North Head Lighthouse Drive. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is in the same park.
Access: Grounds open. Tower open in season.View more North Head Lighthouse pictures