Ten miles west of the town of Tillamook on the Three Capes Scenic Loop stands the smallest lighthouse in Oregon, the “Little Iron Giant” of Cape Meares. For seventy years this short iron-clad tower provided guidance for coastal ships from its lofty perch on cliffs 200 feet above the Pacific.
Like Yaquina Head to the south, rumors that the beacon on Cape Meares was built in the wrong place have persisted. Originally named Cape Lookout by the explorer John =Meares in 1778, the name was mistakenly transferred to a cape ten miles south by the U.S. Coast Survey in the 1850’s. It was later decided that it would be easier to change the name of the original Cape Lookout to Cape Meares. The Lighthouse Board set aside land on both capes and began to survey them, settling on Cape Meares as the site of the new lighthouse.
Congress authorized $60,000 in funds for Cape Meares and President Grover Cleveland signed off on the project in 1887, but it wasn’t until 1889 that construction began. The 38-foot tall octagonal tower was built using bricks that were kilned on site. Large sheets of iron made in Portland were used to sheathe the exterior walls. A powerful eight-sided First Order fresnel lens was crafted by Henry LaPaute of Paris. The lens and housing, weighing in at nearly two tons, had to be shipped in pieces around the horn of South America and up the west coast to a precarious spot directly below the cape. From there, a hand-operated crane constructed from trees felled on the cape was used to carefully hoist the fragile cargo up the cliffs. The crates were unpacked and the crane was then used to lift the parts into place on top of the tower.
In January of 1890 the lighthouse was completed and the beacon lit. The light could be seen over 21 miles out to sea, its signature being 30 seconds of white light followed by five seconds of red. To achieve the red “flash”, panels of red glass were placed in front of the bullseye lenses. The first light source was a large bronze five-wick kerosene lamp. In the days before automation, the lens was turned by means of a clock mechanism, powered by a 200-pound weight that had to be rewound by the keepers every 2-1/2 hours. In 1895 a workroom with a stove was added to the east side of the tower, allowing keepers some comfort while on watch.
Two keeper’s residences and a barn were built inland from the lighthouse, connected by a thousand foot-long boardwalk. Large spring-fed gardens and pastureland kept the keepers and their families well-fed. Rowboat trips to Tillamook for supplies had to be planned with the high tides, otherwise a day could be spent slogging through the mud flats at low tide. The alternative was a seven hour trek over a bone-jarring wagon road that skirted the bay.
Gale force winds that frequently blew across the treeless cape sometimes forced keepers to crawl along the boardwalk between the lighthouse and residences. One of the lightkeeper’s children recalled being blown off the path during a storm and clinging to a wooden stake near the cliff’s edge until being rescued by her father. The trees eventually grew back on the cape and now provide cover from the fierce winds.
In 1963 a new automated beacon was installed on a squat block building a short distance from the tower. The Coast Guard removed the workroom, razed the keeper’s residences, and began to talk about dismantling the tower. Volunteers worked to save the historic structure from demolition and in 1980 the restored lighthouse was opened to the public. The workroom was rebuilt and now serves as an information center and gift shop run by the Friends of Cape Meares. The “Little Iron Giant” is now the main attraction of Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint.
The Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint is about ten miles west of Tillamook on the Three Capes Loop Scenic Drive. There are several ways to access the Scenic Drive, but the fastest way to the lighthouse is to turn at Third Street in Tillamook (Highway 101 Mile Marker 65), then follow the road skirting Tillamook Bay. At 7.3 miles take a left at Cape Meares Loop Road and continue for 2 miles. The Scenic Viewpoint sign is hard to miss; but just in case, it is 9.5 miles from Tillamook. The lighthouse is open daily April through October from 11am to 4pm.