North Head Lighthouse

Ilwaco, Washington - 1898 (1898**)

Photo of the North Head Lighthouse.

History of the North Head Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-09-07.

Although the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse helped mariners locate and cross the Columbia River bar, its location made it ineffective from vessels approaching from the north. To alleviate that issue, the Lighthouse Board established the North Head Lighthouse.

After numerous explorers searched for fabled "River of the West" and failed, Captain Robert Gray, an American sea merchant entered the river on the evening of May 11, 1792. As he was sailing upriver, he named the river "Columbia" after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.

Gray and his men landed near present-day Chinook, Washington to trade with the Indians. During his stop, he claimed the river and surrounding areas for the United States, an act that would later prove beneficial in land disputes with Britain.

The dispute was resolved with the signing of the Oregon Treaty on June 15, 1846, which designated the border at 49 degrees north. Congress signed an act on August 14, 1848, which established the Oregon Territory; made up of what is today, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana.

By the following year, the U.S. Coast Survey sent Lieutenant William P. McArthur to survey the West Coast. During his examination, he recommended the locations of eight lighthouses - San Diego, Point Conception, Point Pinos, the Farallon Islands, Alcatraz Island, Fort Point, Humboldt Harbor, and Cape Hancock.

At the time of McArthur's survey, the names Cape Hancock and Cape Disappointment were used interchangeably for Cape Disappointment. The Lighthouse Board used the name Hancock until about 1870. After that, government documents showed the Cape Disappointment name.

To mark the mouth of the Columbia River, The Lighthouse Board established the Cape Hancock Lighthouse on the Cape Disappointment headland in 1856. Although the tower was only 53 feet tall, because of the height of the bluff, it had a focal plane of 220 feet above sea level.

Inside the lantern was a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Louis Sautter & Co. of Paris France. On the night of October 1, 1856, Keeper John Boyd lit the lamps illuminating the mouth of the Columbia River for the first time.

By the late 1880s, the Lighthouse Board was reporting that the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was "inadequate for the purposes of commerce and navigation" as it was nearly impossible to see when approaching the mouth of the Columbia from the north.

In 1889, the Lighthouse Board recommended several new first-order lighthouses in the Pacific Northwest including Destruction Island, Grays Harbor, and North Head, which was roughly two miles northwest of Cape Disappointment. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1889 had the following recommendation:

North Head, Cape Disappointment (Hancock), sea-coast of Washington - The present light at Cape Disappointment is inadequate for the purposes of commerce and navigation. It is believed that if North Head is marked by a first-order light, and the proposed light-stations at Gray's Harbor and Destruction Island are completed, that the Pacific coast will be well supplied with lights of the first order from Cape Flattery to Tillamook Rock. Proper measures should be taken for the establishment of a first-order light at North Head. This, it is estimated, will cost $50,000. It is recommended, therefore, that this sum be appropriated for this purpose. When this light is established, the first-order light at Cape Disappointment will no longer be necessary, and it is proposed to then reduce it to a light of the fourth-order. It will then be of sufficient power to benefit vessels close to the bar outside and vessels in the Columbia River.

The Lighthouse Board requested a lighthouse at North Head each subsequent year until February 15, 1893, when Congress authorized it. However, no appropriation was made. The following year Congress appropriated $25,000 on August 18, 1894, and an additional $25,000 the next year on March 2, 1895, fully funding the project.

The Lighthouse Board opened bids for the building of a wagon road leading from the station to the target grounds at Fort Canby on July 15, 1895. As the bids were too high, the road was built by hired labor and materials.

At that time, engineer Carl W. Leick was employed to design the tower and other buildings for the station. Separate advertisements sought bids for the metal work and the station's construction.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1897 contained an update on some of the delays the station faced:

1105. North Head, entrance to Columbia River, Washington - Proposals for furnishing the metal work and for the erection of the station were opened August 3, 1896. On September 8, 1896, contract was made for the erection, and on September 10, 1896, for furnishing the metal work. The contractors for furnishing the metal work have made poor progress. By the terms of the contract, the work was to be completed and delivered on the wharf at Fort Canby, Wash., by February 23, 1897. The contractor for the erection has pushed his work. The dwellings and barn are completed. The tower, workroom, and oil houses were carried up as far as was possible until the metal work arrived. Owing to this delay the contractor has been compelled to cease active operations. On May 10, 1897, he was granted an extension of the time within which his work was to be done.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the North Head LighthouseNorth Head Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

The contractor for the metal work finally delivered the materials on August 24, 1897, which was 173 days late. Due to the delay, the company incurred a penalty of $4,325, or $160 more than the amount they were to receive under the contract.

The delay in the delivery of the metal work slowed George Langford, the contractor constructing the station. As such, the Lighthouse Board gave him an extension until November 15, 1897, to complete the job, which he did. Langford then filed a suit against the United States on February 25, 1898, to recover $5,868, damages which he incurred by the delay of the metal work. The United States circuit court heard the case on June 29, 1899, and on July 28, 1899, they awarded the contractor $1,146.04.

When Langford completed the station, built were two oil houses, a keeper's residence and a duplex to house two assistant keepers, a barn, a 65-foot conical tower, and other outbuildings. On January 15, 1898, the Lighthouse Board had the first-order Fresnel lens removed from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and established a temporary lens-lantern.

A fourth-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier and Benard replaced the temporary lens-lantern at the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse on February 17. Workers then installed the first-order Fresnel lens at the North Head Lighthouse where Keeper Alexander K. Pesonen placed it into service on the night of May 16, 1898. Together with his two assistant keepers, the three men kept the light.

Alexander K. Pesonen was born in Finland in 1859 and emigrated to the United States in 1876. Once in the country, he took a job with the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment where he previously served on the lighthouse tender Manzanita and at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse as second assistant, first assistant, and finally as the head keeper.

In 1890, Keeper Pesonen, having been the head keeper at the North Head Light for two years, met and married twenty-year-old Mary Watson, a native of Ireland. Together, they spent the next 25 years at the North Head Lighthouse. Many believe that the incessant "howling of the winds" and the isolation of the station wore on Mary. By early spring 1923, due to Mary Pesonen's condition, Keeper Pesonen took her to Portland to get her help. Doctors advised that she suffered from depression and started treatment. She returned to the North Head Lighthouse some weeks later on June 8, 1923, seemingly in good spirits.

The following morning Mary woke around 5 am to take her morning walk, as her doctor had advised. As Mary left the dwelling, she put on her coat and took her dog with her. Within a half hour, Keeper Pesonen awoke and went to look for Mary.

Keeper Pesonen was alarmed when the dog returned home, but his wife did not. He organized a search party to look for Mary. The family dog eventually led the party to a spot under the fire control station, near the lighthouse, where they found her coat lying on the edge of the cliff. There they found marks on the side that looked as if someone had slid down the cliff.

Throughout the day, the search party continued to look for the body. Around 5 pm, Frank Hammond, Second Assistant Keeper at the North Head Lighthouse, found Mary's body lying in a cove just beyond where the Pesonen's had a garden. It had drifted in with the tide.

Keeper Pesonen was set to retire just a few months later on September 30, 1923. The couple had planned to develop a cranberry farm near Shoalwater Bay and spend their winters in California. After burying his wife in the Ilwaco Cemetary, he carried out his duties until his retirement. Less than two years later, he passed away on August 12, 1925, of a heart attack.

In 1902, the United States Weather Bureau established a weather station at the North Head Lighthouse. On January 29, 1921, gusts of 160 miles per hour were unofficially recorded by the weather station after a windstorm broke the instruments.

In 1907, the Navy Department set up wireless communication stations along the West Coast. At the North Head Lighthouse, radio buildings and antennae shared space with the weather station, located between the keeper's dwellings and the lighthouse tower.

The Navy Department assigned the call sign NPE to the North Head Lightstation where the station sent out time signals, notices of hazards to navigation, and messages to and from ships at sea. The Navy decommissioned the station in 1955, and soon after that, had the buildings torn down.

When electricity came to the station in 1935, the U.S. Lighthouse Service removed the first-order Fresnel lens, choosing to replace it with a smaller American-made, McBeth-Evans, double-bullseye, fourth-order lens. After being decommissioned, the first-order lens was displayed at the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center on the grounds of Cape Disappointment State Park.

During World War II Japanese submarines were detected along the coast of Oregon and Washington. One particular night, the light keeper on duty at the North Head Lighthouse witnessed a submarine fire upon Fort Stevens, which was across the river in Oregon.

After detecting the sub, the keeper quickly extinguished the light in the tower. He then watched the submarine surface, fire several shots at the fort, and then submerge below the water. The submarine never resurfaced.

The Coast Guard replaced the fourth-order Fresnel lens in the early 1950s with rotating aerobeacons. The aerobeacons remained in use until September 28, 1992, when a modern beacon replaced it on the outside railing.

Today the fourth-order Fresnel lens that was in use at the North Head Lighthouse is one of two fourth-order Fresnel lenses on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The second, made by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, occupied the lantern at the Barbers Point Lighthouse in Hawaii.

As the Coast Guard continued to upgrade the illuminating apparatus, they installed a VRB-25 electronic revolving beacon in the lantern in December 1996, necessitating the removal of the external light.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the North Head LighthouseNorth Head Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

In 1961, the Coast Guard automated the North Head Lighthouse and the last keeper left the station on July 1 that year. Though the Coast Guard performed regular maintenance on the lighting apparatus, they often overlooked the buildings. Once absent of human touch, the site began to degrade.

After years of neglect, the Coast Guard carried out an extensive renovation on the North Head Lighthouse in 1984. Eventually, the state parks department took over the two keeper's dwellings and converted them into offices and housing for the park rangers.

In 2000, the Washington State Parks Department vacated the houses and turned them into vacation rentals. Each unit has three bedrooms, one bath, period furniture, and a full kitchen.

In 1993, Congress directed the Coast Guard to transfer the North Head Lighthouse to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. But the transfer was held up when soil samples conducted at the site confirmed the presence lead-based paint chips.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 required the Coast Guard to address contamination issues before a title transfer can proceed. The Coast Guard hadn't deemed it a priority as the property wasn't in active use. Therefore remediation stalled for many years.

As the Coast Guard couldn't transfer the North Head Lighthouse to the State of Washington due to the contaminated soil, it instead leased the station to the state. This action allowed the parks department to open the structure for tours and perform some work. But the state was limited to the work they could do as they didn't own the structure.

While waiting for cleanup and title transfer, students from the University of Oregon Pacific Northwest Preservation Field School worked at Cape Disappointment State Park in 2008 to assess the North Head Lighthouse.

They determined that there were about $2 million in project needs for the lighthouse. The school recommended replacing the cracking and crumbling sandstone at the base of the tower, repairing the corroded metalwork in the lantern and gallery, restoring the interior stucco, installing new heating and dehumidification units, and bringing all electrical up to code.

In April of 2009, Janet Easley and Lona Niemi formed the Keepers of the North Head Lighthouse, a non-profit organization, to work towards restoring and preserving the historic lighthouse. The group immediately started fundraising efforts to begin the needed work.

After years of lobbying by the Keepers of the North Head Lighthouse, the Coast Guard finally initiated a cleanup on October 17, 2011. White Shield, Inc., carried out the work, which included excavating the contaminated soil and backfilling the areas with clean gravel or topsoil and sod. Work also included installing a French drain system to eliminate puddles.

On November 19, 2012, the Coast Guard officially transferred the North Head Lighthouse to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Starting in February of 2015, Alabama-based Robinson Iron replaced corroded iron in the lantern with longer-lasting stainless steel. Other work included new windows and frames in the lantern, as well as fresh paint inside the lantern and new black paint on the roof. The tower reopened to visitors on June 5, 2015.

In 2016 the lighthouse again closed to visitors as the Washington State Parks Department carried out a $750,000 restoration. This work included reinstallation of four windows to return the tower to its original condition, which originally had six windows.

Although the group hoped to replace the damaged sandstone floor of the tower, they couldn't find a quarry nearby that had the Chuckanut sandstone, the stone originally used in the lighthouse. As of summer 2017, the restoration was ongoing.

Today, it is clear that the station is in good hands with the Friends of North Head Lighthouse watching over it. However, there is still much work to be done. You can help by becoming a member of the group, volunteering at the lighthouse, or by making a monetary donation. More information is available at their website:

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.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, June 1, 2003.
  3. "First round of repairs finished at North Head Lighthouse," Lyxan Toledanes, The Daily News Online, May 5, 2015.
  4. "North Head Lighthouse closed for restoration," Hayat Normine, The Daily News Online, April 22, 2016.
  5. "North Head Lighthouse reopens in Washington's Cape Disappointment State Park," Terry Richard, The Oregonian, June 2, 2015.
  6. "Shine on! North Head Lighthouse reopens to visitors," Katie Wilson, Chinook Observer, June 8, 2015.
  7. "Keepers of the Light," Amanda Frink, Chinook Observer, November 17, 2009.
  8. "An Icon in Need," Amanda Frink, Chinook Observer, April 21, 2009.
  9. "North Head toxic cleanup begins," Amanda Frink, Chinook Observer, October 11, 2011.
  10. "Things that go bump on the coast," Lynette Rae McAdams, Chinook Observer, October 25, 2012.
  11. "Ilwaco's North Head Lighthouse celebrates 114 years," Dori O'Neal, Tri-City Herald, May 6, 2012.
  12. Ghost Stories of the Long Beach Peninsula (Haunted America), Sydney Stevens, 2014.

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: The North Head Lighthouse is owned by the Washington State Parks Department. Grounds open. Tower open in season. The keeper's dwellings are available for overnight stays.

View more North Head Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 65.00'
Focal Plane: 194'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 46.29890 N
*Longitude: -124.07796 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.