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 North Head, WA    
A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Overnight lodging available.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: From the main campground at Cape Disappointment State Park you can see Cape Disappointment Lighthouse to the southeast and North Head Lighthouse to the north. How did two lighthouses end up so close together?

After Cape Disappointment Lightstation was established in 1856 to mark the entrance to the Columbia River, mariners approaching the river from the north complained they could not see the light until they had nearly reached the river. Their cry for an additional lighthouse was supported by the many shipwrecks that occurred along the Long Beach Peninsula, just north of the cape.

North Head Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1889, the Lighthouse Board threw their support behind a new lighthouse at North Head.

The present light at Cape Disappointment is inadequate for the purposes of commerce and navigation. It is believed that if North Head is marked by a first-order light, and the proposed lightstations at Gray's Harbor and Destruction Island are completed, that the Pacific coast will be well supplied with lights of the first order from Cape Flattery to Tillamook Rock. Proper measures should be taken for the establishment of a first-order light at North Head. This, it is estimated, will cost $50,000. ...When this light is established, the first-order light at Cape Disappointment will no longer be necessary, and it is proposed to then reduce it to a light of the fourth-order. It will then be of sufficient power to benefit vessels close to the bar outside and vessels in the Columbia River.

A sum of $25,000 for North Head Lighthouse was appropriated by an act approved August 18, 1894, and an additional $25,000 was added on March 2, 1895. Bids for constructing a wagon road to the construction site from the target grounds at nearby Fort Canby were opened on July 15, 1895, but as the lowest bid greatly exceeded the estimate, the road was built by hired labor.

Separate contracts were awarded in September, 1896 for the tower's metalwork and for constructing the station's building. The metalwork was to be delivered to the wharf at Fort Canby by February 23, 1897, but it failed to arrive until August 15, 1897, 173 days late. As a penalty for the delay, the contractor was fined $4,325 or $160 more than the value of the contract.

The contractor responsible for the station's structures completed the dwellings, barn, and as much of the tower and oil houses as possible without the metalwork by the spring of 1897. After the metalwork arrived, the contractor finished the work on November 15, 1897.

North Head Lighthouse consists of brick masonry with a cement plaster overlay built atop a sandstone foundation. Sixty-nine steps lead to the lantern room, which is sixty-five feet from the ground and 194 feet above sea level. The first-order Fresnel lens, which came from Cape Disappointment, was lit for the first time on May 16, 1898.

Since North Head is only two miles north of Cape Disappointment, the two lights needed distinct signatures. A fixed-white characteristic was chosen for North Head, while Cape Disappointment displayed alternate red and white flashes.

Alexander K. Pesonen, who had been serving as head keeper at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, was transferred to North Head to be its first keeper. Keeper Pesonen was born in Finland in 1859, and immigrated to the United States in 1876. Pesonen was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for have the model station in the district in 1919.

Freed from the isolation of Tillamook Rock, Pesonen married Mary Watson in 1890, two years after arriving at North Head. In the spring of 1923, Keeper Pesonen took his wife to a doctor in Portland, Oregon, where she was diagnosed with "melancholia," a condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears. The couple returned to North Head on June 8, and the following morning, Mary arose early and went for a walk with her dog.

When Mary failed to return, Keeper Pesonen organized a search party. Led by Mary's dog, someone found Mary's coat on the ground and marks nearby of a slide down the cliff. Second Assistant Keeper Frank C. Hammond recovered the Mary's body at extreme personal risk before the tide could carry it out to sea. Mary Pesonen was buried in Ilwaco, and when Alexander passed away two years, not long after retiring, he was interred next to his wife.

On at least two occasions, keepers at North Head had to rescue people who got too close to the edge of the cliffs. On September 7, 1931, First Assistant Keeper C. R. Williams rescued a man who was hanging to a cliff south of the station and was in imminent danger of falling seventy-five feet to the sea below. Three years later, Keeper A. G. Siniluoto rescued a man who had survived a 100-foot fall from the cliffs to the rocks below.

North Head is one of the windiest places in the United States, with wind velocities in excess of 100 mph being frequently measured. On January 29, 1921, winds were clocked at 126 mph before the measuring instrument blew away.

On April 19, 1932, a wild duck went crashing through the storm panes in the lantern room and caused slight damage to the lens. Wire nets had been placed around lantern rooms at other stations to prevent such occurrences.

The original lens was replaced by a fourth-order lens in 1935, when electricity came to the station. Seven years later, on June 22, 1942 at 12:35 a.m. the keeper was ordered to turn off the light. Fort Stevens, Oregon had just been fired upon by a Japanese submarine, and as part of a strategy to keep the location of Fort Stevens and Fort Canby hidden, the surrounding lighthouses were darkened until the danger was over.

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In the 1950s, the fourth-order lens was replaced by two aero beacons. The light was automated in 1961 with a modern optic mounted on the tower's gallery, and the last keeper left on July 1, 1961.

With the keepers gone, the lighthouse began to deteriorate. Fortunately, the Coast Guard restored the lighthouse in 1984, allowing the tower to be opened to the public under the direction of Cape Disappointment State Park. The keepers' dwellings, located about a ½ mile into the woods from the tower have also been restored, and both the keepers' duplex and the single-family dwelling are available for overnight stays.

Two of the Fresnel lenses used at North Head Lighthouse have been preserved. The first-order lens can be seen at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, inside Cape Disappointment State Park, and the fourth-order lens is housed at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. The two aero beacons remained in the lantern room during the 1990s, but they were replaced around 1998 by a modern beacon lit by a twelve-volt bulb that is on a six-bulb appliance that rotates in a new bulb when one burns out.

Congress approved the transfer of North Head Lighthouse to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in 1983, but the area around the tower was known to be contaminated due to the use of lead-based paint, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) requires that “any federal agency transferring real property out of federal ownership must certify that all remedial action necessary to protect human health and the environment has been taken.” As cleaning up the property was not a high priority for the Coast Guard, the transfer was postponed.

On October 17, 2011, White Shield, Inc., under a contract with the Coast Guard, initiated the cleanup of the contaminated soil surrounding the lighthouse. Title to the lighthouse was transferred in October 2012 to Washington State Parks, who in conjunction with the Keepers of North Head Lighthouse will begin some of the roughly $2 million in repairs the lighthouse requires. The Keepers of North Head Lighthouse have raised some funds through tours and merchandise sales, but plan to apply for Lighthouse Environmental Programs funds, which are raised through lighthouse license plate sales in the State of Washington. A celebration marking the transfer of the lighthouse was held in June 2013.

Head Keepers: Alexander K. Pesonen (1898 – 1924), Andres G. Siniluoto (at least 1930 – at least 1936), Leonard W. Gabriel (at least 1940).

References

  1. Umbrella Guide to Washington Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1998.
  2. Lighthouses of the Pacific, Jim Gibbs, 1986.
  3. "Ghost of a Suicide at Haunted North Head Lighthouse," Rosemary Ellen Guiley, visionaryliving.com.
  4. "Lighthouse anniversary tempered by uncertainty," Chinook Observer, May 10, 2011.
  5. "North Head toxic cleanup begins," Amanda Frink, Chinook Observer, October 11, 2011.

Location: Located just over two miles north of the mouth of the Columbia River, southwest of Ilwaco.
Latitude: 46.29891
Longitude: -124.07808

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


Travel Instructions: From Ilwaco, take Highway 100 south towards Cape Disappointment State Park. After about 1.5 miles, turn right onto Robert Gray Drive and follow it for less than a mile to North Head Lighthouse Drive. The lighthouse is located at the end of North Head Lighthouse Drive.

North Head Lighthouse is open to visitors. Call the park office at (360) 642-3029 for hours and tour information. To reserve an overnight stay at the keeper's dwellings call (360) 902-8844.

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

Find the closest hotels to North Head Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The fog can really hang heavy along this section of the coast. I learned on this trip that there are two common types of fog: radiation and advection. The fog seen in the middle picture is advection fog, caused by warm air from the land moving over the cooler waters offshore. The pine trees that line part of the trail to the lighthouse are quite adept at gathering the moisture out of the fog, and providing a free shower to lighthouse visitors. I guess you could call it the North Head Rain Forest.

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