Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-05-14.
Among the central Oregon Coast, perched high above the Pacific Ocean, stands the Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of the most photographed lighthouses in the United States. The name of the point of land upon which the lighthouse stands dates back to the late 1700s.
Spain had claimed Alaska and the Pacific Northwest as early as 1493 and as they were so confident of their claims, they did not explore or settle the area. By the late 18th century, after learning of Russian and British arrivals in the claimed territories, Spain sent out parties to discover the extent of any encroachment.
In 1775, Spain sent out a Portuguese explorer and navigator named Don Bruno de Heceta from San Blas, Mexico with two vessels (Santiago and the Sonora), a 45 man crew, and provisions to last a year. His orders were to land often, take possession, erect a cross and plant a bottle containing a record of the act of possession.
Although the expedition was to make it to the 65th parallel, the two ships made it to the "Point of the Martyrs," which is near present day Point Greenville, Washington. On July 30, 1775, the two ships parted company.
With rough seas and a crew suffering from scurvy, Heceta, in command of the larger Santiago, continued north to, what is today, the border between Washington and British Columbia. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, at the helm of the smaller Sonora would continue further north.
On August 15, 1775, the Sonora entered Sitka Sound, successfully reaching the 59th parallel. After performing numerous "acts of sovereignty" claiming the territory, the crew headed south. On September 8, 1775, the two ships rejoined, traveling back to San Blas, Mexico.
It was on this trip that Don Bruno de Heceta spotted the headland that today bears his name. As he sailed by, he remarked that "the water was shallow some distance offshore." This would be one of the reasons, nearly 120 years after the Heceta's expedition that a lighthouse would be built at this point.
A U.S. Coast Survey, carried out in 1862 confirmed Heceta's findings that the water was indeed shallow. It was George Davidson, author of the Pacific Coast Pilot that officially placed the name Heceta Head on the headland.
After the bill creating the Oregon Territory was signed on August 13, 1848, coastal ports were quickly established, but trade was hampered by the lack of aids to navigation. Soon thereafter, the Pacific coast was mapped and 16 locations were selected for lighthouses.
Heceta Head was not selected at this time for a lighthouse. In fact, there was no mention of a lighthouse for the location until 1888. That year, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
Heceta Head, near the mouth of the Siuslaw River, between Cape Arago and Cape Foulweather, sea-coast of Oregon - A light is much needed here. It is estimated that it will cost $80,000 to establish a coast-light of the first order at this point. The Board recommended that this be done, in its reply to the letter of the Committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives. A bill for the purpose is now pending before Congress.
The bill was passed by the Senate on February 25, 1889. Less than a week later, on March 2, Congress approved the act, which appropriated $80,000 for the first-order lighthouse at Heceta Head. Shortly thereafter, measures were taken to select the site and obtain the title.
By 1890, the site was selected and a survey was made and by the following year, title to the land was secured. As the plans called for a wagon road to the nearest county road, which was 7 miles away, additional land use reservations over public property and rights-of-way over private property were needed.
Later that year, a proposal for construction of the wagon road was advertised and the lowest bid was selected. By April 12, 1892, contractors had constructed a road along the side hill from the beach south of the headland to the site of the proposed lighthouse.
While the contractors were working on the wagon road, additional proposals were advertised for the other items needed, such as the metal work, keeper's dwellings, and the tower itself. All bids were opened on November 10, 1891.
The lowest bid for the metal work was $5,000, the lowest bid for the erection of the tower was $13,700, and the lowest bid for the keepers' dwellings, barn, and oil houses was $26,470. All of these bids were accepted and had contracts written.
By June of 1892, the metalwork for the tower was already finished and delivered to the site. Construction of the keeper's dwellings, barn, and oil houses started later that year and were finished by January 25, 1893.
Construction of the tower was delayed as some additional excavation was needed. The contractor was also delayed landing his materials at the site, however, by the winter of 1892, he had completed the foundation up to the belt course before winter storms had forced him to shut down for the winter.
When spring arrived in 1893, the contractor arrived on site and by August 31, the tower was completed. The first-order Fresnel lens was sourced from Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England, which arrived at the station in October. As the lens consisted of eight panels and 640 prisms, installation took nearly two months and was completed in December.
As the lamps were being shipped from the General Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island, New York, they didn't arrive until February of 1894. The lamp, which contained five wicks burning kerosene, was visible for 20 miles into the Pacific Ocean. After passing all tests, the light was officially established on March 30, 1894.
Andrew P. C. Hald, having been transferred from the Cape Meares Lighthouse, was appointed the principal keeper. Eugene M. Walters and John M. Cowan were assigned as the first and second assistants.
In 1895, the slope behind the tower collapsed, causing a landslide which endangered the tower and oil house. The debris was removed and the slope behind the tower was decreased lessening the chance of another landslide.
Due to the remoteness of the station, there was a hard time retaining keepers. As such, many would come and go, typically staying only a few years. One such keeper, Olaf L. Hansen, a native Norwegian, started as an assistant keeper at the station in 1896. He transferred to another station in 1903, but returned to Heceta Head in 1904 as the head keeper, a position he would retain until 1920.
Once back at the Heceta Head Lighthouse, Keeper Olaf Hansen became an influential member of the community. In addition to running the lighthouse, he became a member of the school board, and the postmaster. It was reported that the Heceta Head Post Office was in the basement of the single dwelling on the station grounds.
While serving at Heceta Head, Keeper Hansen and his wife had six children. During his tenure, in 1916, indoor plumbing came to the keepers' dwellings. To make this modern convenience happen, the Lighthouse Service spent $2,575, which went to repair the dwellings, lay a new water supply pipe, install plumbing throughout the dwellings, repair fences, and resurface the road.
By 1925, most of the Roosevelt Coast Military Highway was completed with the exception of the 90 miles that ran through the middle of the state. That would change starting in the 1930s. The isolation of the station would diminish by 1931 when construction workers began making their way into the area. Crews would construct the Cape Creek Bridge, a tunnel, and miles of road to link the two sections of the highway.
The station was electrified in October of 1934 when a combination garage and power plant was constructed. This brought many modern conveniences to the keeper and his family, such as electric lighting, washing machines and irons.
For the lighthouse, it meant that the Bunsen-type lamp was removed and replaced with a 500-watt light bulb, which increased the candlepower to one million. There was another benefit to modern lighting, the keepers would no longer have to manually wind the clockwork.
Although the workload was reduced, three keepers were still assigned to the station. Bill Schumacher was the second assistant keeper, a position he held until his resignation in 1939. After his resignation, his position was not filled, thus reducing operational costs.
Keeper Hermann moved from the single residence into the duplex, and in 1940, the Coast Guard had the single dwelling torn down. Rufus Johnson of Mapleton was awarded the contract, which stipulated that for $10 and exchange for his labor, he was given ownership of all salvageable materials. The salvaged lumber was used to build a store in Mapleton, which is now the Alpha-bit Café.
It is unclear why the house was torn down, however, one story claimed that the Japanese had taken pictures of Heceta Head, and that it was torn down in an effort to alter the landscape to prevent the Japanese from recognizing the station. This, however, has never been proven.As the United States moved closer to World War II, the Heceta Head Lighthouse was formally turned into a military installation. Additional Coast Guard personnel were assigned to the station and in 1942, the first assistant, Albert Johnson was transferred to Tongue Point Lighthouse.
Heceta Head Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The transfer freed up his side of the duplex to house troops and by late 1943, more than 75 men were stationed at the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Due to the number of troops, a barracks and mess hall were erected where the original keeper's house once stood. In addition to those buildings, a lookout tower was also built.
Clifford "Cap" Hermann retired from his duties on January 31, 1950 at the age of 70. After that keepers had come and gone, none of which lasted too long. The station was automated on July 20, 1963. A sensor was placed in the tower, which alerted the Coast Guard station in Florence when the light was out. The crew could then make the short drive to switch the tower over to the backup generator.
After automation, the Coast Guard leased the keeper's duplex, the garage, and 10.8 acres to the state of Oregon for use at Devil's Elbow State Park as long as the state agreed to maintain the duplex. In 1965, the Coast Guard notified the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of its intentions to relinquish custody of the station.
As the property was in the public domain before the light station was established, it was recommended that it be returned to the public domain. It was in 1966 that the keeper's duplex, the garage, and the 10.8 acres were transferred to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service rented the dwelling out to families employed in the Siuslaw Forest, but by 1970, the dwelling had deteriorated so much that the Forest Service was having a hard time renting it. The list of repairs included painting the exterior, replacing some doors, windows, and siding, repairing the porch railings and posts, and installing a new sewer system. The cost for the repairs totaled $16,350.
When the repairs weren't made, locals became concerned and formed the "Friends of Heceta House." Later that year, a ten-year lease was signed with Lane Community College under which the rent would be paid in the form of repairs and maintenance work on the interior. The Forest Service agreed to maintain the exterior of the dwelling. An additional term imposed was that the college would hire a full-time caretaker to live in the premises.
Although Lane Community College had maintained the property, the duplex needed additional major repair work. Help arrived in November of 1978 when the Heceta Head Lighthouse, which included the duplex, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This listing allowed for the protection and maintenance of the property.
Lane Community College continued to lease the property until 1995 when the dwelling was turned into a Bed and Breakfast, which is still in use today. It was at this point that the lighthouse was turned over to the State of Oregon and incorporated into the Devil's Elbow State Park.
The Devil's Elbow State Park was later renamed to Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint. The park was officially deeded to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 1998 and in 2001, the remaining property owned by the Coast Guard was transferred to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
In June of 2000, the apparatus that turned the 2,000-pound Fresnel lens malfunctioned, leaving the lens motionless and leaning nearly six inches. To quickly remedy the situation, the Coast Guard mounted a smaller, temporary light on the outside of the lantern.
Initially, it looked like the lens wouldn't be fixed as the Coast Guard couldn't financially justify the expense as it wasn't needed as an aid to navigation. A compromise was worked out between Congressman Peter DeFazio and Admiral James Loy where the Coast Guard would repair the lens and then turn the operation of the tower over to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
To correctly repair the lens, the lens needed to be removed from the tower, which was carried out on February 25, 2001. Koontz Machine Shop manufactured new chariot wheels and resurfaced the bearing surfaces. Lens reassembly started on March 10, and by the night of March 15, the light was once again operational.
On August 1, 2011, a $1.3 million dollar restoration was started on the Heceta Head Lighthouse. The restoration included restoring all metalwork, restoring masonry and stucco walls, restoring / replicating wooden windows and doors, repairing the roof and electrical system, and painting the interior and exterior of the tower.
Upon the initial start of the work, the entire site was closed to the public for two months, after which, the parking lot, the trails, and the visitor's center reopened. Restoration of the tower was completed in 2013 and the tower was officially unveiled to the public on June 8 of that year.
As both the lighthouse and the keeper's duplex are open today, you can experience life as the keepers would have by spending the night at the Heceta House Bed and Breakfast and climbing the tower.
Directions: Located in the Heceta Head State Scenic Viewpoint. After entering the park, you will have to park and hike to the lighthouse. For more information, please see the Heceta Head State Scenic Viewpoint website.
Access: The lighthouse and dwelling are owned by Oregon State Parks. Grounds open, dwelling and tower are open for tours in season.View more Heceta Head Lighthouse pictures