Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-04-03.
By the mid-1800s, the west coast of the United States had entered a period of rapid settlement, with most settlers arriving by sailing ship or covered wagons. For the ones arriving by ship, in order to provide safety, the U.S. Government sought to establish lighthouses up and down the coast. One of the lighthouses established was the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, near Newport, Oregon.
After gold was discovered in California in 1848, settlers started making their way across the country. The news of the discovery brought more than 300,000 people to the West Coast. Many of the once tiny towns that dotted the coastline blossomed, seemingly overnight.
The small town of San Francisco, population 1,000 in 1848, exploded to more than 25,000 full-time residents within two years. To feed the growth of the newly incorporated city, many other ports on the West Coast sprung up to support the growth. Ports in Oregon shipped coal, lumber, and other supplies to San Francisco.
In 1852, the schooner Juliet was wrecked on the shores of the Yaquina River. The captain of the schooner noted that within the river and bay, there was an abundance of oysters, clams, and many types of fish. He also noted that the land was mostly level and had not been claimed.
Further exploration of the area in the early 1860s found a small, delectable variety of oysters, which were subsequently shipped to California, where they fetched top dollar on the San Francisco Market. This discovery and demand for the oysters led to increased shipping within Yaquina Bay.
A survey carried out by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1868 determined that the bay was much deeper than locals speculated. This news led the settlers to believe that their town could become the "San Francisco" of Oregon, with a little help from the federal government.
Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
As the Lighthouse Board was looking to expand operations on the West Coast and create a 13th Lighthouse District based in Portland, Oregon, they evaluated the situation and in 1870, they recommended a pair of range lights to guide vessels into the safety of the bay.
When Colonel Williamson, the engineer in charge of the project, determined that there was inadequate space for range lights and with a fast-approaching deadline for the use of the appropriation, he got approval for and designed a small lighthouse for the hill, overlooking the bay. When completed in 1871, it was known as the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse.
As trade along the West Coast continued to grow year over year, the Lighthouse Board was also looking to fill in many dark areas along the Pacific Coast of Oregon. As the construction of the Yaquina Bay lighthouse was going on, the Lighthouse Board identified "Cape Foulweather," an outlying point of land on the Pacific Ocean, as a location for a lighthouse, and reserved a plot of land.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1870 had the following entry:
Cape Foulweather, sea-coast of Oregon - An estimate was submitted last year for a sea-coast light at this point. A reservation of the necessary land has been made. This being one of the outlying points on the Pacific coast upon which a first-class light must be placed, sooner or later, and in consideration of the commerce of that coast, the estimate is renewed this year.
When seeing "Cape Foulweather" on the many government documents, many books and websites mistakenly report that the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was supposed to be built at Cape Foulweather and that the crew accidentally built the light at Yaquina Head.
The truth is, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was built where it was intended. Today, Cape Foulweather, as it appears on maps, is about 12 miles north of New Port, Oregon and Yaquina Head, a similar outlying point is only four miles north of Newport.
Because these two points were similar in that they were both outlying points on the Pacific Ocean, and that they were separated by several miles, both locals and nautical charts regularly confused the two points, and more times than not, Yaquina Head was often called Cape Foulweather.
By 1871, Congress had appropriated $90,000 for a first-class lighthouse. Engineers had recommended a brick tower of at least 80 feet, thus the tower would have a focal plane of at least 150 feet above sea level. Construction of the lighthouse begun in the fall of 1871.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1872 details many of the hardships endured during the construction of the station and speaks to the remoteness of the station:
Cape Foulweather, sea-coast of Oregon - Work has been seriously hindered by the difficulties connected with the transportation of materials. Since the commencement of work in the autumn of 1871 the lighters have been destroyed twice, and the schooner engaged in bringing materials from San Francisco has been obliged to discharge most of her freight at Newport, to be reshipped in milder weather, besides twice getting on the bar at the mouth of Yaquina Bay, and being once partially wrecked. Part of the materials have been hauled from Newport, six miles over an almost impassable road to the light-house site. The metal-work was completed at Portland, Oregon, June 1, 1872. After the failure of persistent efforts to charter a vessel for carrying iron and brick from Portland to the c???, the metal-work was shipped via San Francisco. About one-half the time since the work began has been lost on account of the difficulties of transportation. The foundation of the tower has been laid, and work commenced on the keeper's dwelling, a double frame house. Both will probably be completed this season.
The keeper's dwelling was completed in September of 1872, and it appeared that the station was on track to be operational by January of 1873, but several sections of the lantern were lost at sea while enroute from the East Coast. The delay in sourcing new parts pushed the lighting of the station back to August 20, 1873.
When the station was completed, a 93-foot masonry tower, topped with a black lantern, stood atop the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Attached to the tower by a small passageway was a one-story workroom. To the east of the tower was a two-story keeper's duplex and a brick cistern. One side of the duplex was for the head keeper, while the other side was split among the two assistant keepers.
Many of the details of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse are nearly identical to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina, which was constructed one year earlier. The same plans for the gallery details, lantern room, roof and ball vent, base and interior stairs were used in both lighthouses. The work room is also identical in both design and plan to the work room at the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Inside the lantern was a massive first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Fenestre of Paris, Francis. From within the lens, a four-wick, lard-oil lamp displayed a fixed white light that was visible for 19 miles. The tower would not only provide a point of reference for mariners for the central Oregon Coast, it would also serve as a harbor entrance light for Yaquina Bay.
Yaquina Head was known for its windy conditions. In fact, during its construction, one of the crew members working a derrick atop the bluff was blown off the cliff. His oil skins acted like a small parachute in the wind and somewhat slowed his fall. The worker survived the fall, suffering only minor injuries.
The same frequent winds would take their toll on the keeper's dwelling. Within two years, the two sides exposed to the severe winds began leaking. To reinforce them and provide relief, they were covered over with rustic siding. Also in 1875, the tower was whitewashed, giving it its white appearance.
High winds would once again take their toll on the station in 1879. For nearly one week in March, winds buffeted the station, wreaking havoc, breaking many panes of glass, blowing shingles from the roof of the oil house, and destroying 50 feet of picket fence.
Keeper's found that many of the windows broke from loose gravel that was pulled from the beach below and blown against the dwelling. To remedy the situation, an 8-foot tall, close board fence was built at the crest of the bluff in 1880. The fence would cause many of the small pebbles and gravel to fall back to the beach below.
That same year, two new structures were built on the station grounds. The first was a new dwelling for the second assistant keeper and the second was a stable. A new two-story barn was built at the station in 1886. As the barn wasn't big enough to accommodate wagons, a wagon shed was built in 1896.
In 1885, a 3-foot-wide, 130-foot long tramway was built at the station. The unit allowed supplies and material to be brought up from the beach, which was 85 feet below. A small car rode along the tracks and was pulled to the top of the bluff by a geared winch. For light loads, a snatch-block was provided, which allowed the keeper to use a team of horses for lighter loads.
Three years later, the lamps were changed over from lard oil to the more efficient mineral oil, which is today known as kerosene. The following year, a new iron oil house was erected to safely store the more volatile oil. Previously, the lard oil was stored in the north work room at the bottom of the tower.
Starting in 1899, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry recommending the construction of a new keeper's dwelling:
67. Yaquina Head, Oregon - The quarters furnished the three keepers are insufficient for their needs. These quarters can not [sic] be added to or altered to meet the needs of the station. A new building is required. It is estimated that a suitable one can be erected for not exceeding $4,000, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of that amount be made therefor.
Nearly every entry for the Yaquina Head Light after the entry in 1899 referenced the need for a new keeper's dwelling. Some reports included other things worth noting, such as a new cistern being installed, new walkways, road repair, or others, but they usually always included the need for a new dwelling.
Each year, the requests were ignored. Finally, the entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor for the year 1908 stated that the second assistant keeper was living in the storehouse:
Thirteenth district - Yaquina Head, Oregon - There are three keepers at this station, for whose accommodation at double dwelling is at present provided, which is used by the keeper and the first assistant. The second assistant keeper lives in a storehouse which has been temporarily fitted up as a dwelling.
It would take a little over two decades from the original request before there would be any movement on the issue. Congress finally appropriated $6,500 on July 19, 1919. The following year, the plans and specifications were prepared and an advertisement for bids was put out.
All bids received were rejected as being excessive. At that point, the plans were modified and sent out once again. This time, there was success and a bid of $6,266 was accepted. The contractors constructed a 35-foot by 30-foot Bungalow-style building east of the original keeper's dwelling.
When the Coast Guard took over in 1938, the original 1872 keeper's dwelling was demolished. Constructed on the same site as the original dwelling was a one-story, L-shaped structure with a gabled roof.
The lighthouse was automated in 1966, and at that time, the last two keepers boarded up the two dwellings and left the station. Over time, Mother Nature and vandals took their toll on the dwellings. At some point, a plan was developed to use one of the dwellings as a visitor's center, but when that fell through, the Field Family was awarded a contract to dismantle the dwellings.
Both dwellings were carefully disassembled in 1984 to preserve as much lumber as possible. The Field Family then used the resources to build a new house by the Yachats River.
In 1980, the 100-acre Yaquina Headland was named an Outstanding Natural Area by Congress, and put under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management. Several years later, the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses was formed to preserve and restore both the Yaquina Head and the Yaquina Bay Lighthouses. The newly established Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is one of eight protected "outstanding" areas, three of which have lighthouses. The other two are the Piedra Blancas Lighthouse in California and the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Florida.
The Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses took over preservation of the lighthouse, allowing visitors to once again climb the majestic tower. In 2001, the interior of the tower underwent a thorough restoration, and in 2006, the exterior underwent a $1 million restoration in which the tower was returned to its original colors, white, black, and gray.
Today, the tower is open for climbing, and receives, on average, 400,000 visitors a year.
Directions: In the Town of Agate Beach, follow NW Lighthouse Drive to the end.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The grounds and the tower are open for tours.View more Yaquina Head Lighthouse pictures