Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Ilwaco, Washington - 1856 (1856**)

Photo of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.

History of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2005-05-27.

The area got the name from a fur trader named John Meares. He saw the headland and tried to cross over the bar into the Columbia River. When he missed, he named the area Cape Disappointment. Given that the Columbia River is the second longest river in the US at over 1200 miles long. By the time the current reaches the Pacific, it crashes creating a hazardous bar that mariners must cross. Due to this fact, the area has become known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Originally, locals cut the tops of trees and used a white flag to create a daymark. At night they would set trees on fire to mark the entrance. By 1848, the Government agreed that a lighthouse was needed, but it would still be almost another eight years before a lighthouse was built.

Due to the foggy nature of the area, a 1600 pound bronze bell was used as a fog signal. Due to the pounding surf and dead spots, the bell wasn't used very long before it was discontinued. In the mid to late 1900s, a radio-beacon was installed to warn of fog in the area.

One of the keepers, Joel Munson is credited with organizing a lifesaving crew at the lighthouse. He rebuilt a wooden lifeboat of a foundered ship that would be used by the crew. Later, the Government would create a permanent lifesaving station at nearby Fort Canby. Initially, the lighthouse was outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens. This was used in the lighthouse until the North Head Lighthouse was built in 1898. At that point, it was replaced with a smaller fourth-order lens.

The U.S. Coast Guard still has a station at Cape Disappointment and monitors distress calls from mariners. The Cape Disappointment lighthouse is the the oldest lighthouse in Washington State and is one of the oldest standing structures in the Pacific Northwest.

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. Follow the signs to the Lighthouse parking area. There is a hiking path which leads to the lighthouse. If I remember correctly, it is about a 1/2 to 3/4 mile trail. The North Head Lighthouse is in the same park.

Access: Grounds open. Tower closed.

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Tower Information
Tower Height: 53.00'
Focal Plane: 220'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 46.27600 N
*Longitude: -124.05200 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.