Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-03-23.
The Yaquina Bay Lighthouse most likely had the shortest career as a lighthouse in the United States, a mere 34 months. The town of Newport was founded in 1866 and two years later, the U.S. Coast Survey discovered that its bay was deeper than the locals had thought.
This led the homesteaders to believe, that with some help from the government, their town could become the "San Francisco of Oregon." After consulting with the Lighthouse Board, the board had recommended a set of range lights to guide vessels safely into the bay.
The people of Newport lobbied Senator George Williams to push Congress to appropriate the $20,000 required for the range lights, which he was able to do. Installation of the lighthouses fell on Colonel Robert Williamson from the Corps of Engineers, who had just finished building the Cape Blanco Lighthouse, near Port Orford, Oregon.
Range lights work by pairing two lights on a distant horizon. When the two lights are arranged, one atop the other, a mariner knows that they are on the correct path heading into the harbor. In order to accomplish this, the lights must be separated by distance. After surveying the Newport area, Colonel Williamson found the space inadequate for range lights.
The following entry in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the year 1870 was published:
Yaquina, Oregon, entrance to Yaquina Bay - An appropriation was made at the last session of Congress for lighting the entrance to this bay. An examination of the locality has been made, and the work will be commenced as soon as a proper site and valid title can be obtained.
In order to mark the bay at Newport and since funding was already appropriated and the time of the appropriation was running out, Colonel Williamson got approval for and designed a small lighthouse for the hill, overlooking Yaquina Bay.
That same year, the Lighthouse Board was looking to enhance its operations along the West Coast and establish a 13th Lighthouse District, which would be based out of Portland, Oregon. Major Henry M. Robert was assigned to lead the new district, and with that, was put in charge of building the lighthouse at Yaquina Bay.
Construction of the new lighthouse was started on May 1, 1871 and completed in November of that year. The total cost of the structure, including the furniture was $17,067.67. Keeper Charles H. Peirce lit the lamp for the first time on the night of November 3, 1871. Inside the lantern was an L. Sautter & Cie fifth-order Fresnel lens.
Yaquina Bay Lighthouse (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
Due to growing commerce along the West Coast and an increase in ships, plying the waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Lighthouse Board sought to establish a new first-class lighthouse along the Oregon Coast. In 1870, the board had submitted an estimate for a light at Cape Foulweather, about 12 miles north of Newport.
Although progress was slow and the project ran into numerous delays, by 1873, the new first-class lighthouse at Yaquina Head, standing 93 feet tall, was completed. The light was first exhibited on August 23, 1873.
Although Lighthouse Board records repeatedly reference Cape Foulweather, a point of land about six miles north of Yaquina Head, the new first-class lighthouse was established at Yaquina Head, only four miles north of Yaquina Bay. Yaquina Head was always the intended location of the lighthouse, the discrepancy comes from the charts being labeled incorrectly.
Although Yaquina Bay had decent depths, getting into the bay was a problem for mariners due to the shallow, rock-strewn entrance. Because of this, entrance could only be made at high tide and was never attempted in the dark. Rather than enter in the dark, ships would anchor offshore and wait for morning. As no ships dared enter Yaquina Bay at night, the lighthouse really served no purpose.
That fact, along with the better visibility of the new first-class lighthouse at Yaquina Head a few miles to the north, meant that the much smaller Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was unnecessary. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1874 talked about its closure:
458. Yaquina, entrance to Yaquina Bay, Oregon - Since the establishment of the light upon Cape Foulweather, (Yaquina Head,) Yaquina light is no longer necessary. An examination of this station was made in May last, by the inspector and engineer of the district, and its discontinuance recommended. The light will be extinguished October 1.
Less than three years after its establishment, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was discontinued on October 1, 1873. The keeper, Charles Peirce, was reassigned to the Cape Blanco Lighthouse, roughly 150 miles south. The fifth-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1874 and shipped to San Francisco, to be installed in the newly constructed Yerba Buena Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was looked after by caretakers for several years after its discontinuance. Although it was offered for sale in 1877, it never sold as the price offered was too low.
The following year, it was listed in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse board as "wretched and uninhabitable," but repairs were made to the roof and the siding to prevent the building from going to ruin as there was some anticipation that it might be relit when the railroad from the Willamette River to Yaquina Bay was completed.
In 1880, ownership of the old Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was transferred to the War Department for use by the Army Corps of Engineers. The property would be used to house a civilian engineer, James Polhemus and his family, while he oversaw the construction of the jetties at the entrance to Yaquina Bay.
The Army Corps of Engineers would discontinue its use in 1895 when the jetties were completed and the Polhemus family moved out.
The following year, the U.S. Life-Saving Service established a station in South Beach, an area two miles south of Yaquina Bay. Over the years, the area around Newport grew, leading to increased activity in Yaquina Bay. This led to discussions about relocating the life-saving service closer to the mouth of Yaquina Bay, which would allow the group to provide a more efficient service.
After some discussions, in 1906, the War Department transferred the old Yaquina Bay Lighthouse to the Life-Saving Service. After making repairs, the service officially moved in on August 1, 1906. When the Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, the station was renamed to Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay.
The Coast Guard vacated the property in 1933 when they moved to a new facility on Newport's Bayfront. The following year, the Oregon State Highway Division bought the property, including the lighthouse for use as a state park. As the state really only wanted the land, the lighthouse quickly fell into disrepair.
By 1946, the building was in such poor condition that it was slated for demolition. A group of concerned citizens formed the Lincoln County Historical Society. The group tried to raise funds to preserve the structure, but when that failed, plans were again put in place to raze the dilapidated structure.
The demolition plans were scrapped in 1955 and once again, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse had escaped the wrecking ball. The lighthouse was dedicated as a historical site in 1956 by the Lincoln County Historical Society who then proceeded to operate the lighthouse as a county museum.
In 1970, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is historically significant as it is the only existing wooden lighthouse in the state, is the only existing lighthouse with attached keeper's quarters in the state, and is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Newport.
Four years later, the Oregon State Parks Department had the structure restored under the Historic Preservation Act. At that time, ownership of the structure was transferred to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
In the late 1980s, the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses was formed to help manage the lighthouse. The group worked to get the light re-lit, which took place on December 7, 1996. Inside the lantern is a 250-mm modern optic, donated by noted lighthouse historian, Jim Gibbs.
Today, the lighthouse is open for tours most days, with the exception of holidays. The Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses operate the museum and gift shop.
Directions: In the Town of Newport, follow US-101 south to Yaquina Bay State Park. The lighthouse is in the middle of the park.
Access: The Grounds, dwelling, and tower are open. The lighthouse is owned by the Oregon State Parks Department. It is managed by the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses.View more Yaquina Bay Lighthouse pictures