Before there were lighthouses on the Peninsula, ships bound for Portland and Astoria navigated their way through the high waves and shifting sandbars, focusing on fluttering white flags and notched trees along the shoreline by day and flickering signal fires by night. These methods were crude at best and, despite heroic efforts, the sea offshore of the Long Beach Peninsula became known as ‘The Graveyard of the Pacific’.
The lighthouses of the Peninsula, favorite visitor stops both winter and summer, are two of 750 guarding the shores of the United States. Completed in 1856, the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse guides sailors into the mouth of the Columbia River from the south. The century-old North Head Lighthouse, completed in 1898, guides mariners approaching from the north. Both lighthouses were taken under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939.
The Peninsula’s first lighthouse, Cape Disappointment, had a bumpy beginning. As early as 1848, a government survey had recommended a lighthouse due to the great number of shipwrecks. Lighthouse construction materials were underway in 1853, stashed in the hull of the ship Oriole when it sank two miles off shore. While a few items were salvaged, the bulk of the shipment was lost.
Problems continued to plague the project, including the discovery that a lantern for the lighthouse had never been ordered. A first order Fresnel (pronounced ‘fray-nel’) lens, invented at the turn of the 19th century by Augustin Jean Fresnel and ground and constructed in Paris in 1841, was shipped from its first home at the Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey. The lens, using 18 wicks, burned five gallons of kerosene each night and produced a light that could be seen 20 miles out to sea. Purchased for approximately $4,500, it would cost $6 million to create today.
In dense fog, the lighthouse originally rang out the deep, resonant tones of a 1,600-pound bronze bell as warning. It was later learned that the configuration of Cape Disappointment was such that there were ‘dead spots’ where the bell could not be heard, and use of the bell was discontinued. The 53-foot masonry lighthouse was completed in 1856.
A smaller fourth order Fresnel lens replaced the first order lens in 1937. Rotated with electricity, the smaller lens generated a more powerful light and alternately flashed a one-second bright white light every 6.5 and 21.5 seconds. This rotation is a unique characteristic that identifies the lighthouse to passing ships. A revolving Crouse-Hinds searchlight replaced the Fresnel lens in 1950 and, in 1998, the present marine rotating beacon light was installed. The existing light can be seen 17 miles out to sea. The original, first-order Fresnel lens is on display at the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Both lighthouses were taken under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. In the early 1990s the Cape Disappointment light underwent a major renovation, complete with a new paint job with black and white stripes with a dark green top.
Both lighthouses are fully functional and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Read about the North Head Lighthouse
Did You Know?
- Cape Disappointment is the oldest functioning lighthouse on the west coast.
- In 1788, British fur trader John Meares named the area Cape Disappointment after his inability to locate the river’s mouth.