Despite the Columbia River's breadth where it spills into the Pacific Ocean, early European and American explorers often missed it. Later mariners struggling to find the river mouth sometimes wrecked in the treacherous waters. Lighthouses on Cape Disappointment have assisted seafarers in navigating those waters.
The Columbia's outflow, reaching one million cubic feet per second, deposits at its mouth the sand, silt, and debris of a 259,000-square-mile drainage area. There, too, the river's force encounters the Pacific Ocean's currents and tides. Where the river meets the ocean is a maelstrom of shifting channels, high winds, and violent seas. To aid ships seeking to enter the river, the federal government constructed first one and then another lighthouse on the river's north bank, atop Cape Disappointment.
A Beacon of Burning Trees
Prior to construction of the first lighthouse, navigators used that 700-foot-high cape as a landfall and took bearings on distinctively trimmed trees atop the cliff. Hudson's Bay Company employees, attempting to aid the company ship Beaver in entering the Columbia, erected the earliest recorded beacon on Cape Disappointment in 1812. They hoisted a white flag and then set trees on fire "to serve in lieu of a lighthouse" (Nelson and Nelson).
Increasing ocean traffic along the Pacific Northwest coast in the early 1800s led to provision for construction of two lighthouses in the 1848 Act of Congress establishing Oregon Territory. In 1850, the U.S. Coast Survey examined the coastline of the newly created territory. Its officers recommended establishing lighthouses at Cape Disappointment marking the entrance to the Columbia River, and at Cape Flattery marking the entrance to Puget Sound. Lieutenant William P. McArthur commanding the U.S. Surveying Schooner Ewing stressed the importance of the Columbia River light, noting "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" (Bache).
Writing from a temporary U.S. Coast Survey Station, Cape Hancock (another name for Cape Disappointment), on November 29, 1850, Coast Survey Sub-Assistant A. M. Harrison recommended locating the Columbia River light near the southern edge of Cape Disappointment. Visibility from seaward, economy in choosing a location that would not require expensive tree felling, and feasibility of transporting construction materials figured in choice of a location.
Harrison proposed a lighthouse site on Cape Disappointment 250-feet above the high water mark. Visibility around three-fourths of the horizon could be obtained without cutting down any of the gigantic pines growing to the north. Any new facility needed to be low enough on the cape to avoid the frequent fog banks that covered its peak.
The lighthouse itself, he wrote, should have a 16-foot base with the lantern room deck, 40-feet above the base. Fireproof construction was required in view of the dense forests on the cape. With a first-order lantern, the contemplated beacon should be visible for a distance of at least 28 miles. Supplies could come ashore at Baker's Bay, approximately 1,000 yards south of and below the construction site. An existing trail connected the landing and top of the cape, but moving supplies to the top would require a new road.
The First Lighthouse
In 1853, the bark Oriole arrived off Cape Disappointment for lighthouse construction but went aground and broke up in the shoals at the foot of the cape. In 1854, a second shipment of materials arrived and building followed. The result was a 53-foot cone-shaped masonry tower, five-feet-thick at the base and two-and-one-half-feet thick at the top. A one-and-one-half keeper's house took shape several minutes walk downhill from the lighthouse tower.
Two years passed before installation of a first-order Fresnel lens made the lighthouse operational. The lens, built in France in 1822, had operated in a New England lighthouse before shipment to the West Coast. Fresnel lenses, then the latest in light technology, consisted of more than 1,000 glass prisms held in place by brass frames. The prisms directed lamplight to a central reflector "from which it emerges as a single concentrated shaft of light traveling in one direction" (Noble, 1997). An assembled first-order lens weighed more than six tons and was more than eight feet high.
Construction of the Cape Disappointment Light Station cost $38,500. The keeper lit the multiple wicks illuminating the lens for the first time on October 15, 1856. The beacon displayed a fixed white light. This provided an adequate beacon for mariners while avoiding the necessity for one of the clockwork mechanisms used to rotate lenses in the pre-electrical service era. Although a fixed light eliminated the need for frequent trips to the tower to wind a clockwork mechanism, keepers still had to carry the 170 gallons of oil used daily up to the lantern room.
The Fog Bell
Its builders anticipated that frequent fog and thick weather would obscure the Cape Disappointment Light, so they provided a 1,600-pound fog bell for an audible warning when seafarers could not see the light. The bell hung outside a frame building housing its striking mechanism. In foggy weather, the bell struck nine consecutive times every minute.
In 1871, artillery practice at Fort Canby (established during the Civil War and surrounding the lighthouse) shattered the original fog bell. One of the fort's huge coastal defense cannon sat right next to the bell at the foot of the lighthouse. After the Lighthouse Board installed a replacement bell, mariners complained that they could not hear it. Eventually the board relocated the bell to Warrior Rock Light on the Columbia River near Portland.
More lights, built at Point Adams Lighthouse on the Oregon side of the Columbia River mouth, went into operation in 1875, but lasted only a few years. Turn-of-the-century jetty construction at the mouth of the river left it far from the river. Decommissioned and then demolished, the Point Adams Light quickly became only a memory.
Difficulties and Wrecks
In addition to not being able to hear the Cape Disappointment fog bell, captains of ships traversing the Washington coasts also complained about other things. When approaching from the north, they often could not see the Cape Disappointment Light. In support of their argument, they cited wrecks of such ships as the Whistler (1883) and Grace Roberts (1887) on beaches north of the cape.
Responding to such complaints, the Lighthouse Board in 1893 dispatched a lightship -- a floating lighthouse -- to the mouth of the Columbia. Lightship No. 50, built at San Francisco's Union Works for $61,150 in 1892, took station four miles southwest of Cape Disappointment that same year. The 120-foot sail-powered vessel served until 1909 when replaced by steam-powered Lightship No. 88, which remained at the mouth of the Columbia for 30 years.
In 1893, the Lighthouse Board also asked Congress for $50,000 to build a first-order light on Cape Disappointment's North Head, two miles north of the original lighthouse. Five years later, a 65-foot high tower of brick reached completion. Because the board received only half of the requested construction costs, it chose to move the first-order lens from Cape Disappointment to North Head, installing a fourth-order lens at Disappointment. Fourth-order lenses, weighing between 240 and 265 pounds, and standing about two-feet high, typically marked river channels and small islands.
Installed in their new locations, the first-order lens went into service on May 16, 1898, displaying a fixed white light, while the Cape Disappointment lens displayed an alternating red and white light. The North Head lantern was 194-feet above the ocean, making the lighthouse base 129-feet above high water mark. After electricity came to North Head in 1935, the Lighthouse Service replaced the first-order lens with a fourth-order. The first-order lens eventually came to rest at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at what is now Cape Disappointment State Park (old Fort Canby).
In the 1950s, two revolving searchlights replaced the fourth-order lens at North Head, now on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. In 1968, the Coast Guard (which had absorbed the Lighthouse Service in 1939) automated North Head Light. In 1999, a VRB-25 electronic revolving beacon replaced the 1950s searchlights.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, both Cape Disappointment and North Head lights remain operational, guiding ships into the Columbia River. Although during the preceding three centuries more than 200 ships have perished in the waters outside the river mouth, the beacons at Cape Disappointment and North Head have reduced potentially much higher losses.