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 Cape Disappointment, WA    
A hike of some distance required.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Starting as a small stream at the base of the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia River travels more than 1,200 miles, merging with various rivers and streams, until it meets the Pacific Ocean. The force of the Columbia flowing into the sea creates one of the most treacherous bars in the world. There are 234 identified ships that stranded, sunk, or burned near the mouth of the river between 1725 and 1961.

On May 11, 1792, Robert Gray, a seafarer more interested in finding furs for the China market than the honor of discovery, was the first Euro-American to successfully cross the bar. The river was named after his ship, the Columbia Redivivia.

Early view of Cape Disappointment. Note fog bell and first-order lens.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A cape on the mouth's north side marks the entrance to the river. Named "Kah'eese" by the local Indians, and then Cape San Rogue by Brunot Heceta in 1775, the cape received its current name from Captain John Meares. After vainly trying to seek shelter from a turbulent sea on July 6, 1788, Meares wrote, "Disappointment continued to accompany us...we can safely say no river San Rogue exists." Out of frustration, Meares christened the cape, "Cape Disappointment."

A white flag placed on top of the cape was originally used to mark the river entrance. Then three prominent spruce trees growing at the cape's summit were topped to mark the point. A ship would take a bearing on the trees from five miles offshore, then head for the southerly tip of the cape to navigate through the deepest part of the river.

A lighthouse was recommended for the cape in 1848, one of the first eight on the West Coast, and on April 30, 1852, a contract was entered into for its construction. The contract originally allocated $31,000 for Cape Disappointment, but this amount was augmented by $7,500, due to certain modifications that were needed in the original design.

In recommending a lighthouse on Cape Disappointment and five buoys to mark the channel, William P. McArthur of the U. S. Coast survey wrote, "The greatly increasing commerce of Oregon demands that these improvements be made immediately. Within the last eighteen months, more vessels have crossed the Columbia river bar than had crossed it perhaps in all time past, and during that time no vessel has received the slightest injury; and but few have met with much delay."

After having completed four lighthouses in California, the contractors Gibbons & Kelly of Baltimore, Maryland dispatched the Oriole to Cape Disappointment. On September 18, 1853, after waiting offshore for eight days for conditions to improve, the Oriole attempted to cross the bar and wrecked directly below the cape. The thirty-seven-man crew narrowly escaped with their lives, but both the vessel and all building supplies on board were lost. Two years later construction finally got underway, but was again delayed when it was discovered that the upper diameter of the tower was not large enough to accommodate the lantern room for the four-ton, first-order Fresnel Lens, which had been transferred from a New England lighthouse. The entire tower had to be dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt.

The lighthouse has continued to watch over the entrance of the Columbia River since it was first lit on October 15, 1856. It stands fifty-three feet tall, has a focal plane of 220 feet above the sea, and tapers from a diameter of fourteen feet four inches at its base to ten feet six inches at the lantern room. The station was also supplied with a 1,600-pound fog bell, but it was found to have little value due to the roar of the surf and the distance at which mariners needed to hear it.

Fortifications were added to Cape Disappointment during the Civil War to protect the mouth of the Columbia River. When a fifteen-inch gun was discharged in 1865, the concussion broke eleven panes of glass in the tower's lantern room.

The first keeper of the lighthouse was John Boyle, who was crippled and endured more than his share of hardships at Cape Disappointment before dying on duty on October 26, 1865. One of the biggest annoyances was the dwelling, located down the hill from the lighthouse. In 1858, Keeper Boyle wrote to his superior concerning the keepers' quarters.

I wish to make a request with regards to our dwelling. There is about a foot of water in the cellar, making the house as you doubtlessly already know very damp and uncomfortable and it is not only disagreeable but unhealthy during the winter. I have made no complaint before, but have borne the inconveniences year after year hoping that something would be done to make our dwelling more comfortable, and supposed that the cellar would have been cemented last summer.
In addition, Keeper Boyle and his assistants failed to receive their salary for five quarters. As a result, the assistants became careless and negligent in their duties.

On October 25, 1858, Second Assistant Keeper Harrington was crossing over the river to Astoria in the station's boat, when it capsized. A man on the far shore saw the assistant climb onto the bottom of the upset boat and sent three Indians in a canoe to rescue him, but before they could reach him, the boat drifted into the breakers, and Harrington was never seen again.

Cape Disappointment Lightstation was tended by the revered Captain J. W. "Joel" Munson from 1865 to 1877. On March 15, 1865, the bark Industry wrecked near the cape. Of the twenty-four people on board, only seven survived. Munson was greatly disturbed that more people could have been saved if a lifesaving craft had been available for the keepers at the cape. After finding a battered longboat on the beach, Munson decided to rebuild it for use as a lifesaving boat. Munson was an accomplished fiddler and organized two dances in Astoria, charging $2.50 per person, to raise over $200 for fixing up the boat. An old sailor helped Munson fit the boat with cork-filled fenders, and the keepers built a boathouse at the station for it.

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On May 5, 1866, the W. B. Scranton, loaded with eight hundred tons of freight from San Francisco, was driven into the middle sands of the bar. Keeper Munson launched his craft with a few other men and was able to rescue the entire crew. Ironically, Captain Paul Corno of the W. B. Scranton was also one of the seven survivors of the Industry.

Through Munson's efforts, a life saving station was established at Cape Disappointment in 1871, and his famous craft was part of the station's initial equipment. The tradition of lifesaving continues today at the Coast Guard lifeboat station and training school located at "Cape D."

A new double dwelling for Cape Disappointment's keepers was built in 1871 at a location 1,300 feet north of the lighthouse. Each side of the duplex contained eleven rooms. The principal keeper occupied one side, and the two assistants shared the other. A new bell house had to also be built that year, after a gun blast from a nearby battery shattered the old one. The station's fog bell was discontinued in 1881 and transferred to West Point Lighthouse on Puget Sound.

In 1898, the first-order lens was moved to the newly constructed North Head Lighthouse and replaced with a fourth-order, Barbier & Benard Fresnel lens. The smaller lens had six flash panels, three of which were fitted with ruby shields, and revolved to produce alternate red and white flashes spaced by fifteen seconds, a signature it retains to this day. The first-order lens, which was used in at least three lighthouses, is now on display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment State Park. Cape Disappointment's distinctive black horizontal stripe was added to distinguish it from North Head Lighthouse, located just two miles to the north.

A class C radiobeacon was established at Cape Disappointment in 1936, and the following year the light was electrified. The Coast Guard planned to discontinue the light in 1965, claiming that the Columbia River Lightship and entrance range lights were sufficient to mark the river, but protests by the Columbia River Bar Pilots kept the light in service. The light was automated in 1973, and the patriarch of Northwest lighthouses remains active to this day.

Head Keepers: John Boyd (1854 1865), Joel Wilson Munson (1865 1877), James Anderson (1877 1894), Adam J. Harman (1894 1898), Isaac L. Smith (1898 1909), Lars Hansen (1909 at least 1921), George J. Smith (at least 1930).


  1. Oregon's Seacoast Lighthouses, Jim Gibbs, 2000.
  2. Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1998.
  3. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
  4. "Cape Disappointment Light Station," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Spring, 2005.

Location: Located at the mouth of the Columbia River in Fort Canby State Park near Ilwaco.
Latitude: 46.2758
Longitude: -124.05216

For a larger map of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.

Travel Instructions: From Ilwaco, follow Highway 100 south into Fort Canby State Park. Parking is available near the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, from which a trail leads up a high bluff to the lighthouse. The interior of the lighthouse is not open to the public. You can get good distant views from the interpretive center.

The first-order Fresnel lens formerly used in the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is on display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Good views of this lighthouse can be had from many locations. A 3/4-mile hike will take you from the nearest parking lot to the lighthouse itself, or you can get a good photograph from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Especially on stormy days, when waves are crashing against the headland, good pictures can be had from the spit which extends west from the camping area just north of the interpretive center.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Russell Barber, used by permission.