Roundup: Oregon Coast Lighthouses

Lighthouses bear an air of mystique. Tragedy, hauntings, beauty, calamities, restorations – whether presently active or decommissioned, each of Oregon’s coastal lighthouses has a colored past and a rich story to tell.

Thinking of a lighthouse as merely a uniquely shaped building set in a beautiful, dramatic location with the sea at its feet does not even begin to do it justice. It’s worth reflecting on the purpose of these coastal guardians. In the words of a former lighthouse keeper:

When a mariner saw a bright light piercing the abysmal black of night, it was like a glimpse of heaven, especially under adverse weather and sea conditions. It was blessed assurance for a shipmaster to be able to get his bearings from a beacon along the shore or from a light clearly marking a sea-girt obstruction, for there are no more horrifying sounds to any mariner than those of the unexpected roar of breakers in the inky blackness of night and then the grinding, scraping screams of a ship being ripped open by an immovable, encrusted reef.
James A. Gibbs,
Oregon’s Seacoast Lighthouses

Tending the Tower

To truly appreciate the courage and fortitude involved in establishing and maintaining these sentinels, one must begin to grasp the enormity of duties and strains of the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear. Their job involved enduring the elements and isolation in order to protect seafaring vessels. It took countless hours of effort in their quest to keep ships safe.

A glimpse into the life of a lighthouse keeper is provided by another lighthouse enthusiast and author:

The most important responsibility of the wickies was to keep the station’s light clear and running from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise. […] The responsibilities included cleaning and polishing the lens, cleaning and filling the lamp, dusting the complex driving mechanism, as well as cleaning the walls, floors, and galleries of the lamp room. […]

Because storms cracked booms, threw boulders and stones against the lighthouses, and the saltwater corroded metal and ate away at structures, maintenance and repair were also a continuing responsibility[…] Storms not only broke lighthouse windows, but the wind-driven sand pitted lamp room windows that needed to be replaced at towering heights, so the warning light could penetrate the glass.
Dennis M. Powers,
Sentinel of the Seas

Audible Warning

For those not tending a lighthouse, it’s easy to overlook the fact that most include a foghorn. Solitude, close quarters, lengthy duties, weighty responsibility – I am in awe that these strains were periodically withstood accompanied by a blaring backdrop. These authors convey the impact of such devices:

When wet, gray layers of fog envelope the Oregon coast, it is almost as if one is blindfolded. Shipmasters and lighthouse keepers become tense. Danger stalks the sea. To live through long sieges of fog is a form of torment, diaphones or air sirens blasting shattering notes at intervals accurate to a split second. So great is the volume of sound and so penetrating, the noise and vibration can become an instrument of torture. James A. Gibbs, Tillamook Light

When fog draped its heavy shroud over an area, the lighthouse’s foghorn didn’t stop blasting until the dark mists dissipated—and that could take days. […] As these horns blasted, keepers over time could permanently lose part or most of their hearing. Wickies changed their way of talking when the horn sounded and would only talk during intervals of silence. After the foghorn stopped, the keepers and their families often found themselves still talking in that same strange staccato language. Dennis M. Powers, Sentinel of the Seas

Lighthouse Roundup

As with any 100 Steps page, the intent is not to explain an area or feature, but only to provide information so you can determine if a walking venue is suitable. There are many websites and books devoted to lighthouse history and colorful tales, and if you want to learn about these prodigious structures, I direct you to those. The introduction above is included merely to perhaps tickle your interest, providing further enticement to get out and walk amongst these beautiful pieces of Oregon maritime history.

Below is a list of Oregon’s coastal lighthouses, 100 Steps-style.

Cape Blanco Lighthouse

  • Sixes

Cape Blanco State Park

  • Oldest standing lighthouse on the Oregon coast
  • 125 steps
  • mild grassy slope
  • Active, Tours

Coquille River Lighthouse

  • Bandon

Bullards Beach State Park

  • Tower contains a solar-powered light
  • 125 steps
  • level except for 20 very steep steps
  • Decommissioned, Tours

Cape Arago Lighthouse

  • Charleston

Sunset Bay State Park

  • Stands on Chief’s Island, an islet
  • No public access
  • Active, No tours

Umpqua River Lighthouse

  • Winchester Bay

Umpqua Lighthouse State Park

  • Lens emits distinctive red-and-white flashes
  • 25 steps
  • flat pavement
  • Active, Tours

Heceta Head Lighthouse

  • Florence

Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint

  • Rated the strongest light on the Oregon coast
  • 0.5 miles
  • 150-foot elevation gain
  • Active, Tours

Yaquina Bay Lighthouse

  • Newport

Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site

  • Only existing wooden lighthouse in Oregon
  • 175 steps
  • Steep stairs, then steep to moderate brick path, one resting spot
  • Active, Tours

Yaquina Head Lighthouse

  • Newport

Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area

  • Tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast
  • 250 steps
  • Smooth pavement and sidewalk on slight incline with two resting spots
  • Active, Tours

Cape Meares Lighthouse

  • Tillamook

Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint

  • Oregon’s shortest lighthouse
  • 0.2 miles
  • Paved trail of moderate decline, steeper after it turns
  • Decommissioned, Tours

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

  • Cannon Beach

Ecola State Park

  • Stands on a basalt rock islet
  • No public access
  • Decommissioned, No tours

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

  • Ilwaco, WA

Cape Disappointment State Park

  • First lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest
  • 0.6 miles
  • 200 feet elevation gain
  • Decommissioned, No tours

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