Monday, February 21, 2011
The Coast is Clear: Oregon Lighthouses Shine Through
"Danger! Keep away!" For decades, ship captains have heeded warnings from lighthouses along Oregon's rugged coastline.
Lighthouses carry an image of by-gone days when ship captains depended on lighthouse guidance and trusted them for safety. Today, automated lighthouses still play an important part in coastal navigation, but with far less effort than in the past when safe shipping depended on an unerring light keeper and his light.
On a recent trip to Oregon's coast, we were "enlightened" with the stories behind these lighthouses that played such an important role in the state's history. While catching our breath after climbing the Yaquina Head Lighthouse tower's 114 steps, a volunteer guide explained the old-time light keeper's difficult job.
During the day, the keeper's main tasks were to trim the lamp wicks and clean soot, fuel and drippings from the lens. Keepers wore linen aprons so that they wouldn't scratch the lenses. Often times the keeper had an assistant, possibly a member of his family, and together they cleaned, polished and maintained the facilities.
When the light was lit at night and during foggy days, keepers made sure the lamp had sufficient fuel. This meant hauling fuel up the stairs to the top floor. Fuel varied ─ some lamps required lard, others whale or coal oil. The keeper’s duties also included winding the clock mechanism every four hours to ensure the light emitted its signature signal. On the occasions when the clockworks malfunctioned, the keeper on duty turned the lens by hand until dawn when repairs could be made.
The arrival of electricity in the 1930s marked the end of the need for many of the lighthouse keepers. Then, with automation in the 1960s, there was no longer a place, except in history, for the old-time light keeper.
The responsibility of Oregon's lighthouses eventually passed to the U.S. Coast Guard who became the caretaker of the properties and keeper of the lights. In the 1960s, after the installation of automated beacons, the Coast Guard began transferring their lighthouse holdings to other government agencies.
Today’s mariners still depend on these beacons for coastal navigation. The lighthouse serves more than just a warning of approaching land or rocks—each lighthouse's unique sequence of flashing lights is noted on navigation charts to enable the captain to determine the ship's position.
Oregon’s lighthouses provide unique destinations. Following are lighthouses open to the public, listed from north to south. Many are still in active use, others deactivated but worth a visit:
Cape Meares: Deactivated. A pretty little lighthouse with an unusual lens design.
Yaquina Head: Active. Tallest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. Original Fresnel lens still in use.
Yaquina Bay: Deactivated. In service only 3 years. An unusual structure that combined lighthouse and living quarters.
Heceta Head: Active. Strongest light on Oregon coast. The keeper’s quarters is now a bed and breakfast.
Umpqua River: Active, with lens that emits distinctive red and white automated flashes. The first lighthouse in Oregon territory.
Coquille River: Deactivated. Last lighthouse built in Oregon.
Cape Blanco: Active. Has the longest continuously-operated beacon