A prominent cape on the north side of the river’s mouth helps mark the entrance to the river. Named “Kah’eese” by the local Indians, and then Cape San Rogue by Bruno de 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 exert that no river San Rogue exists.” Out of frustration, Meares christened the cape, “Cape Disappointment.” Robert Gray applied the name Cape Hancock to the cape in 1792, but later changed the name to Disappointment, when he learned Meares had so named it earlier.
A white flag placed on top of the cape was originally used to mark the river entrance until three prominent spruce trees growing on the cape’s summit were topped to mark the point. A ship would align the three 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 started work on 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-two-man crew narrowly escaped with their lives, but both the vessel and all building supplies on board were lost. Construction finally got underway two years later, 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, manufactured in Paris by Louis Sautter & Co. The entire tower had to be dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt.
The brick tower at Cape Disappointment 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.
The first keeper of the lighthouse was John Boyd, a cripple who endured more than his share of hardships at Cape Disappointment before dying on duty on October 26, 1865. As the keepers found standing watch in the tower unpleasant in the cool fall weather, Boyd sent the following request to Hartman Bache, his boss in San Francisco: “As the winter advances we find it very damp, cold and uncomfortable watching with the light without a fire in the tower. As the dwelling is situated so far from the tower, those having the watch are obliged to sleep there. We require a small stove very much and shall suffer without one through long cold nights. One that we could heat oil and water on would be preferable.”
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. Keeper Boyd suggested that perhaps the lighthouse should be relocated, but received the following advice instead: “All windows in the light house buildings to be opened and all precautions taken if possible to prevent injury to the lens, lamp and other pieces of apparatus connected with the light house.”
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. What we ask is that you will fill up the cellar about 3 ½ feet, that being as high as the water rises since the ditch was made. Thus we would still have room to keep our vegetables from frost in the winter.To make matters worse, Keeper Boyd and his assistants failed to receive their salary for five quarters and were forced to live off credit. As a result, the assistants became careless and negligent in their duties. Even when the assistants were paid on time, they weren’t always cooperative. In May 1865, Keeper Boyd wrote the following report: “I dislike to make complaints about assistants, but I think you will not blame me under the circumstances. Mr. Wheeler, a carpenter, is here to commence building the addition to the dwelling, he wanted the assistants to dig the post holes to lay the foundation. C. Flores went to the work, but Henry Brown flatly refused. I told him to bring up the lumber which was landed yesterday and he said it was not his work. This was not his first refusal of duty and he has been very disrespectful since he came here….he says he is ready to leave at any time.” Boyd didn’t get to enjoy the new addition for long as he passed away that October.
Cape Disappointment Light Station 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, and 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.
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 Scranton was also one of the seven survivors of the Industry.
Through Munson’s efforts, a lifesaving station was established at Cape Disappointment in 1871, and his famous craft became part of the station’s initial equipment. The tradition of lifesaving continues today at the Coast Guard lifeboat station and training school located on the cape.
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.
James Anderson served as first assistant keeper at Cape Disappointment for several years before being promoted to head keeper at Willapa Bay Lighthouse. After four years there, Anderson returned to Cape Disappointment in 1877 to replace Munson as head keeper. During the next seventeen years Anderson spent at the station, he would have moments of great happiness and extreme sorrow as evidenced by the following entries in the station’s logbook:
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, manufactured in 1896. 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. The first-order lens is now on display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment State Park. Cape Disappointment’s distinctive black horizontal band was added around 1930 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, but the patriarch of Northwest lighthouses, still equipped with its fourth-order lens, remains active to this day.