Grays Harbor Lighthouse

Westport, Washington - 1898 (1898**)

Photo of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse.
 
 
   

History of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse

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

As the Gold Rush of 1849 sparked the development of the San Francisco and the West Coast, lumber became a necessity. Grays Harbor, surrounded by a dense stand of timber, would become America's leading timber port. The Lighthouse Board erected the Grays Harbor Lighthouse to fill the need of both a coastal light and a harbor light.

By the mid-1700s, many explorers had searched the Pacific Northwest for the elusive "River of the West" or the "Northwest Passage," as it was commonly known.

On April 29, 1792, American explorer and fur trader Captain Robert Gray met up with British naval officer Captain George Vancouver. After exchanging pleasantries, Gray told Vancouver about the large river to the south that he had spotted in 1788, but Vancouver doubted the river existed.

After leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca the following day, Gray continued to head south while trading pelts. On May 7, 1792, Gray discovered an estuarine bay a little over 100 miles to the south. Upon entering it, he named it Bulfinch Harbor after Charles Bulfinch, one of the owners of his ship the Columbia Redviva.

Although Gray himself called it Bulfinch Harbor, the journal of John Boit, Gray's Fifth Mate, revealed that most the crew referred to it as Gray's Harbor. After learning that Gray had entered the bay several months earlier, Captain George Vancouver placed the name Gray's Harbor on his charts. Over time the apostrophe was dropped, and it became known as Grays Harbor.

Starting in 1838, the United States Navy sent Captain Charles Wilkes on a series of expeditions throughout the world. In 1841, he explored the Pacific Northwest, which included the coasts of Oregon and Washington. He didn't have too much to say of the Oregon Coast:

The coast outline of Oregon is bold and rocky, and there are but few indentations forming harbors sufficiently large for vessels of any considerable burden, and as most of them are openings at the mouths of rivers, they are usually obstructed by sand bars.

He did speak highly of Washington:

The Straits of Juan de Fuca, however, form the noble entrance to a chain of magnificent harbors on its southern coast, prominent among which is Puget's Sound, consisting of an inlet that stretches into the interior for about one hundred miles parallel to the ocean.

And:

Gray's Harbor is the only one of importance south of Cape Flattery, at the entrance of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and above the mouth of the Columbia.

As the City of San Francisco and others on the West Coast continued to grow after the Gold Rush of 1849, the need for lumber intensified. As the Pacific Northwest had these resources in abundance, many of ports quickly became busy. Nowhere was this more evident than in Grays Harbor.

As Westport, Washington was surrounded by dense old-growth forests; many homesteaders found logging more lucrative than farming. In some of these forests, the trees grew so thick that, when cut down, they often didn't land on the ground. Sawmills sprang up to process the lumber. After processing, they were shipped out.

Locals requested a lighthouse to mark the Grays Harbor as early as 1858. On June 20, 1860, Congress finally appropriated $20,000 for a lighthouse and buoying out the channel. Unfortunately, with the onset of the Civil War, most major projects were canceled and funds redirected to the war effort.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, locals reminded Congress of the need for a lighthouse, but their requests garnered little attention. Maritime commerce between Grays Harbor and Columbia River communities began in 1879, and commercial logging operations commenced on the harbor in 1881.

With the increase of vessels entering the port, the number of sinkings increased dramatically. Nearly two decades later, Congress appropriated $15,500 on July 7, 1884, for a harbor light to mark the entrance to Grays Harbor.

After an examination of points on each side of the entry of the harbor in 1885, the Lighthouse Board selected Point Brown on the north side and made arrangements to purchase a 5-acre tract of land. By the following year, the Lighthouse Board decided that it needed a first-order light rather than a small harbor light. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1887:

Gray's Harbor, Washington Territory - By the act approved July 7, 1884, Congress appropriated $15,500 for the establishment of a light at this place. While the negotiations for the purchase of a site for the light thus authorized were being carried on, the inadequacy of the small harbor light it was proposed to erect to meet the demands of the commerce and navigation of this part of the Pacific coast became apparent, together with the necessity for the establishment of a first-order coast-light about 4 miles north of the site selected for a harbor-light. This matter was considered by the Board at its session held on February 3, 1886, when it was ordered that the proper steps be taken to have $60,000 added to the existing appropriation, to enable the Board to erect a first-order light about 4 miles north of the site selected at Point Brown for the Gray's Harbor light. The Board therefore recommends that an appropriation of $60,000 be made for the establishment of a first-order light, instead of for a harbor-light as originally intended, and that the $15,500 appropriated by the act of July 7, 1884, be made applicable to the same purpose.

The same entry appeared in Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1888 but was followed up with:

A bill for this purpose was favorably reported upon by the Committee on Commerce of the Senate, but it failed to become a law. The recommendation is therefore renewed.

The Lighthouse Board repeated the request for the next four years. By 1890, Grays Harbor had 13 sawmills that exported 60-million board feet of lumber. That year alone, 256 ships departed the harbor carrying 278,000 short tons of cargo.

Congress finally approved the first-order lighthouse for Grays Harbor on February 15, 1893, provided the contract did not exceed $75,000.

The following month, Congress appropriated $20,000, which brought the balance of funds appropriated for the Grays Harbor Lighthouse to $35,500. In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1893, an additional $39,500 was requested to fund the project fully.

By the following year, a site at Point Chehalis about two miles southwest of the southern entrance to the harbor had been selected, surveyed, and approved by the Lighthouse Board. As the landowners refused to sell, the matter was handed over to the U. S. attorney to start condemnation proceedings. While waiting on the courts, Congress finally appropriated the additional $39,500 on March 2, 1895.

An inaccuracy that many books and websites publish is that when the Lighthouse Board had the Grays Harbor Lighthouse erected in 1897, it was a mere 300 feet from the Pacific Ocean. And with the construction of the jetties, sand accreted, making the lighthouse several thousand feet from the water.

The Westport South Beach Historical Society came across maps created by the Army Corps of Engineers that show otherwise. According to the 1895 map, engineers sited the lighthouse on a low dune, roughly 2,100 feet from the high tide mark. Engineers chose this location as it was the high point of the peninsula.

Through the collection of maps that the Westport South Beach Historical Society received via donation, they were able to track the shoreline over time. What they have determined is that the lighthouse, on average, has stood about 2,400 feet from the high tide line since 1900. The furthest it has stood was on a Coast and Geodetic survey map in 1983, where it was 2,760 feet

On October 1, 1895, the court sided with the United States and set the price of the land at $500, which the federal government paid on December 16 that year. Test borings were taken to ensure a proper foundation could be obtained. Also at that time, architect Carl W. Leick prepared drawings and specifications for the station, which were approved on October 16, 1896.

The United States entered into a contract with Mr. Patrick F. Dundon, proprietor of San Francisco Boiler Works, on January 23, 1897, to furnish the iron work. The contract amount was $7,443. A separate agreement was made with Mr. Charles J. Erickson, of Seattle, Washington on January 30, 1897, for the erection of the station. The amount of that contract was $30,700.

Before shipping the iron work from San Francisco to Westport, Washington, Mr. Dundon had the pieces inspected by George W. Freeman, lighthouse superintendent, who signed off on them. In doing so, Mr. Freeman provided a certificate stating that the parts were satisfactory and that they complied with the plans and specifications.

A groundbreaking celebration on August 23, 1897, brought in townsfolk from Westport, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and other neighboring towns and villages. At the festivity, the Reverend J.R. Thompson of Aberdeen placed the cornerstone.

Contractors fabricated docks on the east side of Point Chehalis to land equipment and had built a plank road leading to the station and storage sheds. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1897 provided an update on Mr. Erickson's work:

The contractor for the erection is now at the site with his plant. A road leading to the station and sheds for material was built. Considerable material has been delivered. About two-thirds of the stone for the base of the tower has been cut. The buildings have been located and clearing and grading is going on. The trestle for the water tank and windmill is completed and the well is dug. The bulkhead for the fog-signal building is finished. By the terms of the contract the work must be completed and delivered on or before October 18, 1897.

Mr. Erickson couldn't finish the station as the iron work was late. It was supposed to be delivered on June 18, 1897, but hadn't arrived until October 12. His completion date was October 18, 1897, but due to the delayed iron work, the Lighthouse Board gave him a 30-day extension. Additionally, the Lighthouse Board gave him another 60-day extension on November 26, a deadline which he still didn't meet.

While Mr. Erickson was erecting the station, he found that at the junction of the stories, the iron work needed didn't fit. As he was already running behind, he made the necessary corrections and kept working.

As he had a $30 per day penalty running against his contract, it would have delayed the whole project if he communicated the defect to the Lighthouse Board and waited for new parts. Instead, a bill for $76.25 for the rework that Mr. Erickson had to do was sent to Mr. Dundon. As Mr. Dundon never received notification of the defects, nor was given the opportunity to correct them, and had a certificate saying the parts were within the specifications, he disputed the charges.

As the contract made with Mr. Dundon for the iron work retained 20% until the work was complete, he was owed $1,488.60. Due to the changes that needed to be made to use the defective parts, Mr. Erickson was owed $76.25. As such, the Lighthouse Board referred the issue to the Comptroller of the Treasury

The comptroller cited case law stating that Mr. Dundon should have had the opportunity to correct the defects and as he wasn't, he is entitled to the full contract amount. The Lighthouse Board recommended that Mr. Erickson be reimbursed the $76.25 for the extra labor.

He must have also been owed a balance on his contract as he filed suit against the United States on April 19, 1899, for "compensation for additional labor, etc., in constructing the buildings." The United States Circuit court heard the case on June 27, 1900, and on March 29, 1901, judgment was rendered in favor of the plaintiff for $4,599.92.

Mr. Erickson finished the station on March 26, 1898. When completed, the Grays Harbor Lighthouse was the tallest lighthouse in Washington State standing 107 feet tall. The tower rests upon a 12-foot-thick sandstone base, and its four-feet-thick brick walls taper as the tower rises.

The exterior of the octagonal tower was then cement-washed to give it a smooth appearance. It remained "cement" color until 1901 when it was painted white. The interior brick was covered by 12" by 12" hollow tiles and given a concrete wash.

German-born architect Carl W. Leick designed several prominent structures in Astoria, including the Clatsop County Courthouse and the Captain George Flavel House, before moving to Portland and taking a job with the Engineering Office of the Thirteenth Lighthouse District.

As the architect of the Thirteenth Lighthouse District, he designed 40 lighthouses throughout the Pacific Northwest - 22 in Washington, 11 in Alaska, and 7 in Oregon, which includes the second lighthouse at Cape Arago. Despite all that, from its noble appearance, it is easy to understand why many consider the Grays Harbor Lighthouse Carl Leick's greatest achievement.

Photo showing the spiral stairs inside the Grays Harbor Lighthouse 135 steps leading to the lantern.

To get to the lantern was an iron spiral staircase with 135 steps. Inside the 16-sided lantern sat a third-order bivalve or clamshell-style Fresnel lens, which contractors installed on June 10, 1898. It was known as a "lightning" lens as its flash was so brilliant, it was said to resemble sheet lightning. Its characteristic was alternating red and white flashes of 16-seconds.

The lens floated in a vat of mercury, which provided near frictionless rotation. A clockwork mechanism provided the rotation initially. When electricity came to the site in 1933, an electric bulb provided the illumination, and a small electric motor provided the rotation.

The Lighthouse Board provided two keeper's dwellings, a single family home for the head keeper and a duplex for the two assistants. Each dwelling had an outhouse and a barn. A wooden walkway also connected each house with the tower. The following year, a call bell system enabling communications between the tower and houses was established.

The station's first head keeper, Christian Zauner arrived on June 14 with his wife Hermine and their two daughters. He previously served as an assistant keeper at both the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and Destruction Island Lighthouse. Zauner was the longest serving keeper at the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, having served 27 years there.

On the evening of June 30; he lit the lamp placing the lighthouse into service. Gathered below to witness the spectacle were Thirteenth Lighthouse District officials, local dignitaries, and residents.

To finish off the station, contractors constructed a water tank, a windmill to pump water to the fog signal, a well, and a fog signal building. The fog signal apparatus, sent from the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island, arrived on August 23, 1898. However, the equipment was old, rusty, and required extensive repairs before it could function.

Rather than using the old equipment, new sirens and engines arrived on November 26, 1898. By February 15, 1899, the apparatus was installed, and signal went into commission several weeks later on March 8. Coal-fired boilers generated steam to power the signal's twin horns.

Although many books and websites state that the fog signal building burned down in 1916, The Westport South Beach Historical Society recently found out in June 2017 that the original 1897 fog signal burned down in October 1923. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but it did occur while the sirens were in use and the keeper on duty was otherwise occupied.

Starting around 1918, the Lighthouse Service requested $10,000 for improving Grays Harbor Light Station. They reasoned that the fog signal building and machinery were "quite old." The entry is detailed here:

The present steam fog-signal plant at this station is located in a frame building. Both the machinery and building are quite old and in poor condition. It is proposed to construct a new fireproof building and install an electrically operated siren as soon as funds permit.

The entry then lists $3,000 for the fog signal building and $7,000 for the purchase and installation of the apparatus. The same entry appeared throughout the years; the only change is the cost. By 1919, the price was $15,000, and by 1921, it was $20,000.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse Grays Harbor Lighthouse circa 1925 (Courtesy CG)

The Lighthouse Service repeated the request in 1924, which finally garnered an appropriation after the structure burned down in October 1923. District designers drew up plans for the new fireproof fog signal building the following year. By 1926, contractors had erected a new concrete fog signal building with asbestos shingle roofing roughly 2,145 feet west of the lighthouse, at the water's edge. Its total cost was $24,588.

Inside the new building sat radio-activated, type "F," compressed air sirens. A separate concrete structure adjacent to the fog signal building housed Grays Harbor's first radio beacon, with the call sign NMW. The Coast Guard built other structures to the east of the lighthouse, which included a radio compass building, transmitter house, and quarters for the direction-finding operators.

When the Coast Guard and the Lighthouse Service merged in 1939, oversight of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse fell on personnel from the Coast Guard's Radio Station Westport. In 1946, the Coast Guard took the 1926 fog signal and radio beacon out of service.

Updated radio beacon equipment was placed in the service room of the tower and erected a new radio station northeast of the old structures. Sometime after 1950, the Coast Guard razed the old radio buildings. In 1972, the Coast Guard had relocated the radio operations to other locations.

The Coast Guard had built a new fog signal on the south jetty, a little over a mile northwest of the lighthouse. It is unclear what happened to the 1926 fog signal building. Residents report that the abandoned building washed away, but it could have also been torn down. Either of these most likely happened after 1949 as 1949 site plans show the building extant.

Around 1964, the Coast Guard removed the tower's attached workroom as its steel frame, and the concrete roof had deteriorated beyond repair. Around that same time, they also had the windows in the tower bricked-up and covered over. Today, one would never know they were ever there.

The Coast Guard established a new Motor Lifeboat Station at Grays Harbor in 1971. At that time, they razed the 1898 keeper's quarters and replaced them with family housing for Coast Guard personnel.

The Grays Harbor Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

By the late 1960s, the Coast Guard automated the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, and in the 1990s, the Coast Guard was looking to remove the vat of mercury in which the Fresnel lens rotated due to health concerns.

The original third-order Fresnel lens was turned off in August 1992. Replacing it was a smaller FA-251 beacon mounted on the outside railing, which uses a 35-watt bulb.

By 2002, the federal government had listed the Grays Harbor Lighthouse as one of the lights to be excessed. Before being excessed, the lighthouse underwent a $220,000 restoration, which was carried out by C & C General Contractors of Tacoma, Washington.

The restoration started in early November 2003 and finished up in March 2004. The contractor removed mold and mildew, filled in cracks in the structure and then plastered over them, removed old paint, repaired the rust on the iron work, primed and painted the structure, and replaced deteriorated wood louvers with new steel ones.

Included in the restoration was the replacement of the glass in the lantern, carried out by All-West Glass of Oakville, Washington. Over time, sand and wind had diminished the quality of the glass. The job took three weeks, and when done, the glass was a uniform quarter-inch thick throughout the lantern.

As the restoration was being carried out, the Westport South Beach Historical Society applied for ownership of the Grays Harbor Lighthouse. In December 2003, the General Services Administration notified them that their bid was accepted. In 2004, the Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse and adjacent oil houses under provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 to the Westport South Beach Historical Society.

When the station was first built, it was a mere 300 feet from the Pacific Ocean. To improve the entrance to Grays Harbor, the Army Corps of Engineers built a set of jetties in the early 1900s. The piers helped capture sand, and today the lighthouse stands around 3,0000 feet from the ocean.

Reference:

  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. National register of Historic Places, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Various.
  3. Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce, United States, Various.
  4. "Grays Harbor Light Station Keepers Log - 1915," Peter Eberle, FogHorn, June 2017.
  5. "Coast Guard Renovates Grays Harbor Lighthouse," PA2 Anthony Juarez, Lighthouse Digest, June 2004.
  6. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, June 1, 2003.
  7. "A Light of National Significance," Westport-South Beach Historical Society, http://www.westportmaritimemuseum.com, 2015.
  8. "Grays Harbor Light Station Location," Peter Eberle, FogHorn, March 2017.

Directions: From I-5, get off at US-101 and head west. At the US-101 / SR-8 split, take SR-8 for about 20 miles until the town of Elma. At this point, SR-8 ends, and US-12 continues west. Continue on US-12 until Aberdeen. From here, take US-101 south across the river to connect to SR-105. Continue on SR-105 for about 19 miles, and then follow the north spur of SR-105 into Westport. Once in Westport, make a left onto Ocean Ave. West.

Access: The Grays Harbor Lighthouse and two adjacent oil houses are owned by the Westport South Beach Historical Society. Grounds open. Tower open during tours offered by the Westport Maritime Museum.

While visiting the lighthouse, take the time to visit the Westport Maritime Museum. It features the first-order Fresnel lens originally used in the Destruction Island Lighthouse.

View more Grays Harbor Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 107.00'
Focal Plane: 123'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 46.88822 N
*Longitude: -124.11692 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.