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 Cape Arago, OR    
Description: Long before white settlers arrived in 1853, the Coos Indians lived in villages near the bay, which now bears their name. Just south of Coos Bay and 2.5 miles north of Cape Arago (originally known as Cape Gregory), is a small, detached piece of land with sheer cliffs called Chief's Island by the Indians. The shape of the island has been aptly described as a bony left-hand fist, with an extended index finger pointing northward. It was near the tip of this finger-like extension that the first Cape Arago Lighthouse would be erected in 1866.

Original Cape Arago Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
After the arrival of white settlers, Coos Bay soon became one of the more important harbors along the Oregon Coast. As the shipments of lumber and coal from the bay grew, so too did the need for a navigational aid to guide vessels to the bay.

Oregon's first lighthouse was built in 1855-1856 near the mouth of the Umpqua River, twenty-five miles north of Coos Bay. However, in 1861 the overflowing river undermined the brick tower, causing it to topple. By this time, the Coos Bay area had surpassed the Umpqua River region in commercial importance, and it was decided that the interests of commerce would be better served by a new light at Cape Arago, rather than reconstructing the light at Umpqua River. The sum of $15,000 was appropriated by Congress on July 2, 1864, and the first Cape Arago Lighthouse was illuminated on November 1, 1866.

The upper portion of the octagonal, skeletal tower was enclosed with sheet iron to form a watchroom, and above this was a lantern room housing a fourth-order Fresnel lens. Located at the northern end of the island, the twenty-five-foot tower was linked via a 1,300-foot-long wooden walkway to a one-and-a-half-story wooden keeper's dwelling, constructed near the southern end of the island. A panel, revolving around the outside of the fixed lens, punctuated the fixed light with a flash every two minutes.

Rowboats were initially used to access the island, until a low bridge was constructed in 1876 to link the island with the mainland. High seas during a heavy gale cut short the bridge's life after just two years and washed away the station's boathouse. Rowboats were a necessity once again until a new bridge was built.

In 1878, a lifesaving station was established on the island. Three years later, the keeper of the station, Thomas Brown, was returning to the island from Empire City on Coos Bay, when he was caught in a storm and blown northward. The lifesaving keeper was now ironically in need of his own station's service. After a three-day battle, Brown was finally able to land his craft roughly ninety miles north of his intended destination. The lifesaving station was moved to the mainland in 1891, where it would be more accessible.

After the low bridge to the island was repeatedly washed away, bids were solicited in 1889 for the construction of a more robust high bridge to link the island to the mainland. All of the submitted bids were deemed exorbitant, and a cable tramway was built instead in 1891. Two frame towers, one on the island and one on the mainland, supported a 400-foot-long cable, and the ends of the cable were anchored in concrete. This new means of accessing the island proved to be perilous. Just over a month before a high bridge was finally completed in July of 1898, keeper Thomas Wyman, his daughter, and two other individuals were being winched across the inlet in the cage suspended below the tramway's cable, when disaster struck. The cable snapped, plunging the passengers onto the rocky surf some sixty feet below. Wyman's legs were severely injured, and one of them was subsequently amputated.

Cape Arago Light Station in the 1930s
Photograph courtesy Claude Duke
In 1896, Cape Arago Light Station received several improvements. The existing light tower was encased in bricks and covered with stucco. A brick fog building housing a Daboll trumpet was constructed adjacent to the tower, and a new duplex was built for the keepers.

When the fog signal had been in operation for just over ten years, erosion on the point endangered the lighthouse and fog signal building. As a replacement, a wood-frame fog signal building with an attached octagonal tower was built near the keeper's duplex, using a $20,000 appropriation made on March 4, 1907. The new light and fog signal began operation on July 1, 1909. A fourth-order, Fresnel lens, manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne, revolved once every twenty seconds, producing three white flashes, separated by four seconds, followed by twenty seconds of darkness. The fog-signal plant consisted of two eighteen-horsepower oil engines and air compressors that powered a six-inch, automatic siren.

Ira Albee started serving as keeper of the inside and entrance range lights at Coos Bay in 1907. On January 20, 1912, eighteen-year-old Wyman Albee was out lighting the lights for his father, when he saw the North Star steamer drift over the bar and capsize. Ira Albee was one of six passengers that perished in the accident, and his body was never recovered. Five days after the tragedy, the Marshfield Chamber of Commerce and the Coos Bay Port Commission united in requesting that the Lighthouse Service appoint Wyman Albee to fill his father's position.

Wyman served as keeper of the range lights at Coos Bay until 1915, when he was transferred, along with his recent bride, to Destruction Island. After three years on the island, the couple were assigned to Point Robinson Lighthouse, before Wyman Albee returned to Coos Bay in 1920 as head keeper of Cape Arago Lighthouse.

After Keeper Albee recommend improvements to the station's lighthouse in 1932, the old wooden lighthouse was moved a short distance to serve as the keeper's office in 1934, and Cape Arago's third lighthouse was constructed where the second lighthouse had stood. Perhaps seeking a more durable structure, the new lighthouse was constructed of concrete, using the plans from Washington's Point Robinson Lighthouse.

The historic photograph at right, likely taken between 1934 and 1937 and provided by Claude Duke, shows, from right to left, the 1896 keepers' duplex, the 1866 tower, the 1934 lighthouse, and what might be the 1908 lighthouse without its tower. From 1945 to 1946, Claude Duke was stationed at Cape Arago Lighthouse, where he worked with the radio station, picking up distress calls from ships at sea. This aerial shot of the station was taken by one of his buddies.

Fresnel lens used in Cape Arago Lighthouse
The only surviving structures on the island today are the third lighthouse. The original lighthouse was blown up with dynamite, some time after the third lighthouse was completed. The keeper's duplex was razed in 1957, and the second lighthouse met the same fate in the 1960s. A nondescript, cinder block, single-story fourplex, which had been built on the mainland opposite the lighthouse, was home to Coast Guard personnel who cared for the lighthouse until it was automated in 1966. The Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from the tower in 1993, and placed it on display at Coast Guard Air Station North Bend. George Collins, a historian at the Yaquina Head and Yaquina Bay Lighthouses, pointed out that a plaque at the station indicates the lens was the one used in the 1866 tower, but since the lens was manufactured by Barbier, Benard, and Turenne, which wasn't formed until 1901, this couldn't be the case. Turns out the lens was manufactured in 1908 and was the original equipment in the 1909 Cape Arago Lighthouse.

Knowing that many of their ancestors had lived and were buried there, the Coos Indians continued to have a strong connection to Chief's Island and the nearby mainland, even after it had been reserved for nearly a century as a light station. Following the drowning of tribesman Henry M. Brainard near the lighthouse in 1948, his widow sought permission to place a marker on the station grounds. Only after securing the assistance of Senator Wayne Morse, was she successful in overcoming years of resistance to her proposal.

Twenty-five years after the placing of that marker in 1950, the Confederate Tribes, consisting of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indian Tribes, obtained an Indian Burial Ground Easement on the mainland opposite the present lighthouse. Today, several markers are found there. In partnership with the Coast Guard and Bureau of Land Management, the Confederate Tribes hope to establish a major interpretive center on the point. Such a center would provide visitors an opportunity to explore the rich history of this small parcel of the Oregon Coast.

In mid-October of 2005, a notice was sent out to mariners by the Coast Guard stating that the Cape Arago Lighthouse would be deactivated. Chief Dale Dempsy, who is in charge of the aids to navigation team in Charleston, Oregon, said "no comments to speak of" were received, so he turned off the light on January 1, 2006. Of course, others besides mariners are interested in keeping the light active, and the deactivation has sparked a debate that some hoped would lead not only to reactivating the light but also to making the lighthouse accessible to the public.

In 2007, Senator Gordon Smith submitted a provision as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would transfer Cape Arago Lighthouse to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. This bill was not approved, but in 2008 Representative Peter DeFazio sponsored a bill covering just the transfer of Cape Arago, and this was passed by the House and Senate in September, and signed by President Bush on October 8, 2008. According to the legislation, the tribes must make the Light Station available to the general public for educational, park, recreational, cultural, or historic preservation purposes at times and under conditions determined to be reasonable by the Secretary of the Interior.

In preparation for turning the lighthouse over to the Confederated Tribes in 2013, the Coast Guard patched damaged concrete walls, removed mold and corroded metal, and painted the structure, both inside and out, in November 2012. In addition, the high bridge leading to the lighthouse was removed in order to prevent unauthorized access to the island and to return the shoreline to a more natural condition. During a ceremony held on August 3, 2013, Captain Mark Reynolds, Commander of Coast Guard Sector North Bend, signed over approximately twenty-four acres of land including Gregory Point and Chief’s Island where the lighthouse stands to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians.

Head Keepers: Leonard C. Hall (1866 – 1867), David Morse, Sr. (1867 – 1870), William S. Roberts (1870 – 1874), Stephen Davis (1874 – 1875), Fayette S. Crosby (1875 – 1880), Chandler F. Smart (1880 – 1886), William E. Gregory (1886), William Savage (1886 – 1889), Frank Carlson (1889 – 1892), George H. Stilwell (1892 – 1893), Charles W. Sheldon (1893 – 1899), Hans P. Score (1899 – 1905), Lars F. Amundson (1905 – 1909), William S. Denning (1909 – 1912), Joseph Dunson (1913 – at least 1920), Thomas Wyman Albee (1925 – 1935), Joseph Albert Harris (1935 – at least 1942).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7


  1. "Cape Arago Lighthouse," Stephen Beckham, The Keeper's Log, Fall 1993.
  2. Umbrella Guide to Oregon Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1994.
  3. "Lighthouse readies for new owners," Thomas Moriarty, The World, December 1, 2012.

Location: Located on Chief's Island just off a section of the Oregon coast roughly 10 miles southwest of Coos Bay.
Latitude: 43.34123
Longitude: -124.37543

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

Travel Instructions: From Highway 101 in Coos Bay, take Newmark Street west. Newmark Street will become Cape Arago Highway. Follow Cape Arago Highway to Sunset Bay State Park. Shortly after you pass the entrance to the camping area and before you reach Shore Acres, there will be a pullout area on your right from which you can get a distant view of the Cape Arago Lighthouse.

You can hike through some rugged terrain to get a closer view, however, the island is closed to the public as is the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Cape Arago Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
While you are near Cape Arago Lighthouse a worthwhile side trip is a stop at Shore Acres. In the summer, the gardens are spectacular, and if you are there around Christmas, you will be treated to a fantastic display of lights.

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