|Umpqua River, OR|
Description: During the summer of 1849, the Coast Survey, headed by Alexander D. Bache, set out along the unmarked West Coast to determine the most beneficial locations for lighthouses. The Umpqua River mouth was selected as one of only six sites in the Oregon territory, which included the modern day states of Oregon and Washington.
Many thought the Umpqua River area would become a major shipping center due to its abundance of "green gold," the pristine timber rapidly being harvested. The turbulent force with which the river collided with the ocean created a great hazard for ships, and a beacon marking the spot was greatly needed.
Local Indians, who for centuries had used the area as a prime hunting and fishing ground, were none too pleased to watch the progress. Afraid of reprisal due to the neighboring Fort Umpqua, the Indians chose to agitate the workers by constantly stealing their tools. Being greatly outnumbered, the workers never retaliated. Then one day a worker noticed his stolen sledge hammer leaning against an Indian hut. As he grabbed the tool, he was jumped by a couple of Indians. Mayhem broke out among the workers and Indians. A foreman ran to the site and lit a stick of dynamite hoping to break up the rumble. The blast so frightened the Indians that they hastily retreated. Soon the long winter storms arrived and both sides hunkered down.
On October 10, 1857, Keeper Fayette Crosby lit the third-order Fresnel lens, the first light along the Oregon Coast. The lighthouse was similar to others built at the time, a large Cape Cod duplex with a tower rising to a height of ninety-two feet from the center of its gabled roof. Unfortunately, the survey crew never saw the site at flood stage, or they would have chosen a different location.
The lighthouse was built on the sandy shore near the mouth of the river. A coastal gale, on February 8, 1861, along with record mountain runoff, combined to blast away at the lighthouse's foundation. With its footings compromised, the house and tower developed a slight tilt. Another violent storm in October 1863 added even more to the damage. The keepers, living in constant fear that the entire structure would collapse with them in it, petitioned for the structure to be abandoned, and in late January 1864, permission was granted. A week later, the lens was removed, and while workers were in the process of dismantling the iron lantern room, the tower began to shake and sway. The men dropped their work and fled for their lives, and none too soon, as only minutes later, the tower came crashing down.
The Lighthouse Board replaced the lighthouse with a floating buoy and decided that the interests of commerce would be best served by establishing a new light at Cape Arago, twenty-five miles to the south, rather than rebuilding at Umpqua River. With no lighthouse, maritime traffic used alternative ports, and commerce did not develop as originally hoped. Locals constantly petitioned for the lighthouse to be replaced, but their cries were in vain for more than two decades. Meanwhile, the ruins of the lighthouse served as a daymark for the mouth of the river.
This time, with lesson learned, it was built further inland on a headland above the mouth of the river. The site is the furthest away from a river or ocean of all the lighthouses along the Oregon coast.
Separate bids were solicited for the metalwork, the erection of the tower, and the construction of the dwellings, barn, oil houses, and cisterns. After the bids were opened on April 21, 1891, a $5,020 contract was awarded to the lowest bidder for the metalwork, but as the sum of the lowest bids for the tower and other buildings exceeded the balance of the appropriation, these bids were rejected.
With the plans slightly modified, proposals for the work were again solicited, and new bids were opened on August 11, 1891. A bid of $12,000 for erecting the tower was accepted along with $17,879 bid for the dwellings and other structures.
The metalwork was completed on March 21, 1892, and the tower was finished on August 30, 1892. Things didn't go quite so smoothly with the other work. On February 16, 1892, the contractors for the dwellings announced they could not finish the project. Their bondsmen were were held responsible for the difference between the original contract and a $20,250 contract that was awarded to a new lower bidder on April 20, 1892. The head keeper's dwelling, a double dwelling for the two assistants, a barn, cisterns, and two oil houses were finally completed on January 14, 1893.
All that remained to be done now was to install the lens in the tower. When this was attempted, it was found that the stand for the lens was fifteen inches too short and another $200 would be needed. Money to complete the station was not provided until August 18, 1894, and the light was finally established on December 31, 1894.
The new lighthouse, a sibling to the one at Heceta Head, stands sixty-five-feet tall and has a focal plane of 165 feet above sea level. The tower, consisting of brick overlaid with cement plaster, is five feet thick at the base and tapers to twenty-one inches at the parapet.
Marinus Stream from Astoria Oregon, the first headkeeper, tragically drowned two years after arriving at the station. Despite the early tragedy, the Umpqua River Light became a desired assignment for lightkeepers, perhaps because the station did not have a fog signal.
The light was automated in the 1960s and several of the outbuildings were torn down. Before automation, the light was active from one hour before sunset until one hour after sunrise, and curtains were drawn around the lantern room during the day to protect the lens from the sun. After the light was automated, it was left on twenty-four hours a day. Over time, the chariot wheels, on which the lens turned, wore out. When the Coast Guard talked of discontinuing the Fresnel lens and installing a modern optic, the community rose in outrage. Hundreds of names were gathered from the surrounding communities of Gardiner, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay, and the help of congressmen and senators was enlisted to keep the Fresnel lens shining. The Coast Guard eventually relented, and the chariot wheels were fixed in 1985.
The lighthouse is located adjacent to Umpqua Lighthouse State Park and is managed by Douglas County, whose Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum is located 100 yards north of the lighthouse in the historic former U.S. Coast Guard Station Umpqua River. The museum conducts guided tours of the lighthouse from March through December. In 2007, Senator Gordon Smith introduced a provision as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would facilitate alternative housing arrangements for Coast Guard personnel allowing the area surrounding the Umpqua River Lighthouse to be converted into a county park.
In a letter dated April 28, 2009, the Coast Guard notified Douglas County that the Umpqua River Lighthouse was “no longer a critical component for safe navigation,” and then gave the following explanation of its intentions. “In situations such as this … we allow (the light) to be operated as a Private Aid to Navigation (PATON) by a local government agency, nonprofit corporation or community development organization. Our intentions are to identify an entity that is willing to assume PATON responsibility for the light by May 15, 2009. If an entity isn’t identified by that date we will do one of two things: 1) Remove the classical lens and replace it with a modern optic or, 2) Decommission the light and remove the classical lens.” Douglas County took ownership of the lighthouse in early 2010 and leased the Fresnel lens so that its cherished icon will continue to operate as is. During a ceremony on April 14, 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard officially gave Douglas County control of the operation and maintenance of Umpqua Lighthouse and its coveted Fresnel lens. The first-order lens remains active, one of just a few in the country, and is even more unique on account of its red and white beams.
Head Keepers: Fayette S. Crosby (1857 – 1860), William E. Lewis (1860 – 1863), Harvey B. Burnap (1863), Marinus A. Stream (1894 – 1896), Isaac L. Smith (1896 – 1898), Adam J. Hartman (1898 – 1899), Edward Durgan (1899), Andrew P. C. Hald (1899 – 1921), W. Oscar Wiren (1921 – 1928), David O. Kinyon (1928 - 1939), Thomas Wyman Albee (1939).
Located on a slope overlooking the entrance to the Umpqua River and
surrounded by Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. The lighthouse is owned by Douglas County. Grounds/tower open during tours.
The lighthouse is owned by Douglas County. Grounds/tower open during tours.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Two trips to the lighthouse are necessary to get the full Umpqua experience. First, you should stop at the museum in the large Coast Guard building, 200 yards south of the tower, to view the historic material available on the Umpqua Lighthouse and other lighthouses in the area. The building is also the departure point for the lighthouse tours, where you get a chance to climb the tower and poke your head up into the Fresnel lens. Second, you should return at night to witness the lighthouse in action. The rotating lens, consisting of 24 bulls-eyes set in a pattern of two white followed by a red, makes for an impressive site as the multi-colored beams sweep through the trees behind the tower and then race out to sea. It is unfortunate that the modern Coast Guard housing encroaches so on the lighthouse, making a good photograph quite challenging, but the lighthouse is still well worth an extended visit.
See our List of Lighthouses in Oregon
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Russell Barber, used by permission.