In 1775, Don Bruno Heceta, sailing for the Royal Spanish Navy, set out from San Blas, Mexico with forty-five men and sufficient provisions for a year-long mission to reach the Arctic Circle. Heceta made it as far as the Columbia River before turning back due to concern for his scurvy-stricken sailors, and during his shortened journey, he made note of the prominent headland that now bears his name.
In 1888, the Lighthouse Board recommended that first-order lighthouses be constructed at Heceta Head and Umpqua River to light the dark gap that existed in the ninety miles of coastline between the lighthouses at Cape Arago and Yaquina Head. The Board estimated Heceta Head Lighthouse would cost $80,000, and on March 2, 1889, Congress appropriated this sum for purchasing the site and constructing the lighthouse. The site was acquired from a private party along with a right-of-way for constructing a seven-mile-long wagon road to connect the lighthouse with the nearest public highway.
It’s hard to imagine, looking at the site today with its sweeping Northwest forests, that there was very little vegetation when the lighthouse was constructed. A forest fire had swept through the area a few years earlier, wiping everything out. The barren landscape of the time can be seen in the early historic photographs on this page.
Separate contracts were awarded for erecting the tower, providing the tower’s metalwork, and constructing the keeper’s dwellings, barn, and oil houses. The lowest received bids of $5,000 for the metalwork and $13,700 for the tower were accepted in November 1891, but as the lowest bidder for the dwellings was unable to secure a bondsman, this work had to be re-advertised. New bids were opened on February 11, 1892, and a $20,470 contract was awarded to the lowest bidder later that month. Heceta Head Lighthouse was built using the architectural plans drawn up for Umpqua River, but due to the remoteness and ruggedness of Heceta Head, the station there would cost significantly more than the one at Umpqua River.
Construction of the lighthouse and other structures at Heceta Head began in 1892. Lumber was procured from local mills, while masonry and cement came from San Francisco and the rock used in the base of the tower was quarried from the Clackamas River near Oregon City. Laborers were paid $2 for a ten-hour workday, while the highest-paid carpenter received $4 a day. Montgomery and Page, the contractors for the dwellings, barn, and oil houses, employed a force of sixty-four men and completed their work in January 1893. Due to a landslide at the site of the tower that required additional excavation, the lighthouse was not completed until the following August. The lens was landed at the station in October and set up over the next two months, but delays in receiving the lamps from the general lighthouse depot on Staten Island, New York postponed the first exhibition of the light until March 30, 1894.
The tower’s first-order Fresnel lens was manufactured in Birmingham, England by Chance Brothers. Most Fresnel lenses installed in U.S. lighthouses were produced in France, but besides Heceta Head, Chance Brothers lenses were also used at Point Cabrillo and Anacapa Island in California, and in Staten Island Lighthouse in New York. The Heceta Head lens has 640, two-inch-thick prisms, arranged in eight bull’s-eye panels, and revolves to produce brilliant white flashes.
The first head keeper responsible for the light was Andrew P.C. Hald, who began his lightkeeping career in 1888 as a third assistant at Cape Flattery and then spent four-and-a-half years as an assistant keeper at Cape Meares before being selected for Heceta Head. With a highway buzzing past the station today, it is hard to imagine the trouble Keeper Hald had in making the transfer from Cape Meares. He first had to walk eighteen miles to Astoria, where he caught a train to Newport by way of Portland. From Newport, Hald walked twenty-four miles down the beach to reach Heceta Head. Hald’s wife and household furniture took an even more circuitous route, sailing from Cape Meares to San Francisco, then back to Newport, and finally by tug down to Heceta Head. During Hald’s five years at isolated Heceta Head, his wife suffered a serious illness and his baby daughter died from lack of medical attention.
With three keepers and their families at Heceta Head, a small, one-room schoolhouse was built at the station to educate the children.
Olaf Hansen came to Heceta Head as first assistant keeper in 1896, after stints at Tillamook Rock and Cape Disappointment. While at Heceta Head, Keeper Hansen and his wife Annie filed a homestead claim at nearby Mercer Lake and started what would become a rather large family of one boy and five girls. Then, Olaf was promoted to head keeper of Washington’s Smith Island Lighthouse in 1903. Annie stayed behind at the homestead with her thirteen-year-old son from a previous marriage and two small children, and thankfully, Olaf was transferred back to Heceta Head as head keeper after a year.
One of the Hansen daughters later recalled an incident with Thomas E. Alexander, who was appointed second assistant in 1912:
There was one weirdo came in as an assistant here, Mr. Alexander. Mr. Alexander had a horse and one time he lassoed and threw that horse, tied his four legs together and sat on the hillside and threw rocks at that horse. We went and told our Dad, of course, what he had done. He reported it to headquarters, but he had to wait a week for the mail to go back and forth. Many times during that week, my dad and the other assistant would not go to the tower alone. They went up together because they were afraid of that man.Needless to say, Keeper Alexander didn’t remain long at Heceta Head or in the Lighthouse Service.
In 1895, a large landslide, which endangered the tower and oil house, was removed, and a more gradual slope was given to the bank behind the lighthouse to prevent further slippage. A point of rocks near the lighthouse was also cut down to provide an unobstructed view of the light from the north.
Life at Heceta Head became a little more modern and a little less isolated in the 1930s. In January 1931, Keeper Hermann noted, “[We are]virtually surrounded by road builders and the day for lonesomeness is passed.” Over the next fourteen months, a picturesque arched bridge was built to span Cape Creek and a lengthy tunnel was dug through the hill south of the lighthouse to complete the last portion of the Oregon Coast Highway.
A combination garage and power plant was built in 1934 to electrify the station. A 500-watt bulb replaced the incandescent-oil-vapor lamp in the lighthouse, increasing the strength of the light more than fivefold, and an electric motor sped up the rotation of the lens, changing the light’s characteristic from a white flash every minute to a white flash every ten seconds. In the keeper’s dwellings, electric washing machines and irons were welcomed additions.
The station was originally equipped with a single dwelling for the head keeper and a duplex for the two assistants. Though the two apartments in the duplex were nearly identical, the light fixtures in the first assistant’s side had five bulbs, while those on the second assistant’s side had just four. According to the daughter of a former head keeper, the fixtures in the single dwelling had six bulbs, reflecting the even higher status of the principal keeper. Electricity reduced the keeper’s workload, and in the last 1930s, the position of second assistant keeper was eliminated. The remaining two keepers occupied the duplex, and the single dwelling was razed in 1940. Lumber salvaged from the structure was used to build the Alpha-Bit Café in Mapleton, Oregon, fourteen miles east of Florence.
During World War II, as many as seventy-five coastguardsmen were stationed at Heceta Head as part of a coastal patrol. The commanders lived in half of the duplex, while the enlisted men were housed in barracks erected on the site of the former keeper’s dwelling. Roughly a dozen dogs were kenneled at the station, and they accompanied the men on the patrols that operated twenty-four hours a day and covered the coast between Yachats and Heceta Beach.
Keeper Clifford Hermann, the station’s last civilian keeper, retried in 1950, after twenty-five years as head keeper at Heceta Head and forty-nine years in the Lighthouse Service. Hermann kept the station in tip-top condition during his tenure, earning an efficiency star from the inspector in 1930, 1931, and 1933. Upon his retirement, Hermann became the first civilian employee of the Coast Guard to receive the Albert Gallatin award.
Heceta Head’s light has only failed on one occasion. On February 12, 1961 a rock slide caused by heavy rains snapped the electric wires leading to the station. When the backup generator failed, Keeper Oswald Allick and two coast guard assistants employed an Aladdin lamp and turned the lens by hand, repeatedly walking around the interior of the lantern room. They diligently kept their monotonous vigil from midnight until 7:30 the next morning.
Oswald Allik transferred to Heceta Head Lighthouse in 1957, after having witnessed the automation and destaffing of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Six years later, he left Heceta Head Lighthouse when its era of being staffed by keepers was coming to an end. Keeper Allik had an official retirement ceremony in Newport, Oregon on July 31, 1963, and then retired to a home in Portland. Kenneth M. Steele was brought in as acting Office-in-Charge for the month of August to oversee the final steps of automation. Two 1,000-watt lightbulbs, mounted on each end of a spring device, were installed inside the Fresnel lens. If one bulb failed, the other was automatically raised into position and activated. If both bulbs went out, the failure of the lighthouse beam to strike a sensitized glass window would cause a red light to appear on the instrument panel at the Siuslaw River Lighthouse Boat Station in Florence, and someone would race to the lighthouse to address the issue.
Over time, the mechanism for revolving the lens wore out, and the lens developed a lean of nearly six inches. The Coast Guard proposed deactivating the historic Fresnel lens, but the resulting public outcry prompted the Coast Guard to repair it instead. The giant lens stopped its countless revolutions in June 2000 and was carefully removed from the tower. It was only the second time in the 106-year history of the lighthouse that the lens had stopped. After a team worked on restoring the lens and drive mechanism for nearly a year, the light was reactivated on March 15, 2001.
After the lighthouse was automated in 1963, the remaining duplex, known as “Heceta House,” was leased by Lane Community College to provide classes with at a coastal “field trip” site. Since 1995, the dwelling has served as a renowned Bed and Breakfast, which serves an incredible seven-course gourmet breakfast.
Though the lighthouse tower is not haunted, stories have abounded for years of strange, unexplained occurrences at Heceta House, leading to it being called one of the ten most-haunted houses in the United States. Nearly all the residents of the duplex since the 1950s have reported unusual incidents, but if you plan on staying there, don’t be spooked. “Rue” can be quite pleasant and is known for sweeping up glass and exchanging a silk stocking for rat poison. To this day, guests report friendly encounters with Rue, and no one seems to mind her at all.
After the Coast Guard agreed to repair the lens, continued maintenance of the lighthouse was turned over to the state’s parks department. Devil’s Elbow State Park, which encompassed the cove south of the lighthouse, was enlarged to include the lighthouse and was christened Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint. The renaming was appropriate, as the place is just too heavenly to have the devil associated with it.
In 2009, the Fresnel lens was deactivated for three months as some of the eight brass carriage wheels that rotate the lens were not touching the bed on which they ride. Experts thought the lens was at risk of tipping over so Florida-based Lighthouse Lamping was contracted at a cost of $22,000 to rectify the situation. The lens was reactivated on May 20th, in time to delight the expected summertime visitors.
In May 2011, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department announced that a $1.3 million makeover, funded by $1.1 million from the federal transportation department and about $217,000 from the state, would commence on Heceta Head Lighthouse on August 1. “This project is a top-to-bottom restoration, inside and out,” said Sue Licht, Oregon Parks and Recreation preservation architect. “It will involve restoring all the metalwork, all the masonry, all the interior finishes, including the windows and doors. The windows are going to go back in, and then the workroom will be restored on the interior as well.” The entire site was closed for the first two months of work, and then the trails, parking lot, and oil house reopened to the public. The lighthouse itself was closed until June 8, 2013, when the restored tower was officially unveiled.
In the park, the tides ebb and flow. Seabirds cackle, and the wind whistles through the trees. There are peaceful sunrises, glorious sunsets, and an occasional spectacular storm. Through it all, Heceta Head Lighthouse faithfully casts its eight glistening beams of light out to sea. It truly is a magical place.