Three miles north of the entrance to Yaquina Bay at Newport, a narrow finger of land juts out into the ocean. Standing 162 feet above the crashing surf on this treeless peninsula is the Yaquina Head lighthouse, the tallest tower on the Oregon Coast.
Perhaps no other lighthouse on the Oregon Coast has more rumor woven into its history than the beacon at Yaquina Head. From the moment it was approved, suspicion that it was built at the wrong place took hold and is still debated to this day. Stories of sealed-up bodies, vengeful ghosts, and frightened lightkeepers have also become part of the lore of Yaquina Head.
Although the real Cape Foulweather, named by Captain Cook in 1778, stands nearly ten miles north of Newport at Otter Crest, early locals began referring to Yaquina Head as “Cape Foulweather” and the name made its way onto some nautical charts. So when the lighthouse service bought 19 acres and began construction of a tower at “Cape Foulweather”, rumors spread that the government was building the lighthouse in the wrong place. This belief was likely due in part to the close proximity of the just-completed Yaquina Bay lighthouse. Although engineers and planners knew exactly where they were placing the lighthouse, there might have been some confusion back in Washington.
Plans were adapted from California’s Pigeon Point lighthouse and construction began in fall of 1871, just as a ferocious storm season began. The bad weather caused many delays, pushing the timetable for completion back nearly a year. Several boats capsized in the small cove south of the tower while attempting to deliver building materials to the beach. Even when the materials were successfully landed, they still had to be hoisted up the cliff in wind and driving rain, many valuable parts damaged in the process. Ships from San Francisco delivering the 370,000 bricks used for the double-walled tower avoided the hazardous beach landing by off-loading in Yaquina Bay and transporting the bricks slowly up a muddy wagon road to the building site.
A story began to circulate around the time of construction that a worker on the tower scaffolding had fallen into the opening between the double walls and died. Reportedly it was too difficult to extract him, so he was sealed up in the brick walls. In fact, no worker was ever reported missing, but to this day there are whispers that his ghost can be heard ascending the 114 steps of the tower’s iron staircase late at night.
The lighthouse was completed in August of 1873 and its oil lamp was lit for the first time by keeper Fayette Crosby. The tower stood 93 feet tall, with an attached workroom and an ornate circular iron staircase rising from the center of a marble rotunda. Inside the lantern room a brilliant French First-Order lens with six prismatic panels sent its beam nineteen miles out to sea. Nearby, a two and a half story residence held the head light keeper, his two assistants, and their families.
Living on Yaquina Head was not easy. The buildings were frequently buffeted by strong winds, enveloped in fog, and frequently the targets of lightning strikes. The families tried to be self-sufficient by growing their own food in a large garden and raising cattle and chickens. But keeping up with the destruction that the blowing sand and saltwater caused was a full time job for everyone. Fences were blown down and needed to be rebuilt, windows were smashed by flying rocks and wayward birds, and everything that the salty air touched would corrode.
Perhaps Yaquina Head’s most famous “ghost” story is that of Herbert Higgins, Frank Story and his protector bulldog. This story was may have originated with the grandchildren of William Smith, principle light keeper from 1918 to 1929. According to the tale, Keeper Smith and his family had to travel to Newport and planned on spending the night there. First Assistant Herbert Higgins was in bed sick, so assistant Frank Storey volunteered to light the lamps. When evening came, keeper Smith was alarmed when he saw no lights at Yaquina Head. He rushed his family back to the lighthouse and found a drunk Frank Storey still in his room. Herbert Higgins was found dead on the landing in the tower. Apparently he had died while attempting to reach the unlit beacon. Thereafter, Frank Storey was racked with guilt, never entering the tower unless he had his bulldog with him, to protect him from Higgins’ vengeful ghost.
It makes for a great story. Unfortunately, recent research has found that not only were Storey and Higgins not stationed at the lighthouse at the same time, but Higgins didn’t die at Yaquina Head. He retired from the service in 1922 and took a job running a ferry across the Willamette in Portland. There was an unexplained death in the tower in 1921. Second Assistant Jacob Erickson had just transferred from Cape Meares the month before when he was found dead on the floor of the lantern room near the lens. Perhaps this incident was the beginning of the Higgins myth.
In the 1930’s electricity came to Yaquina Head and the signal changed from a fixed light to flashing. In 1939 the Coast Guard took over operations from the Lighthouse Service. They tore down the keeper’s house and outbuildings and built two smaller bungalows for Coast Guard personnel. When the light was automated in 1966 the bungalows were abandoned, eventually being demolished. Only the tower and attached workroom remain today. The Coast Guard restored the exterior of the tower in 1993 and turned it over to the Bureau of Land Management.
Today, the Yaquina Head lighthouse is part of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. There are hiking trails, whale viewing platforms, and a quarry that has been converted into a wheelchair-accessible tidepool basin. A modern interpretive center provides an audiovisual overview of the area’s history and natural features. Nearly half a million visitors each year come to see the lighthouse as well as the wildlife and flowers that blanket the headlands. Whales are sometimes observed circling close to the lighthouse, and birds nest on the headland and rocks just offshore. The classic tower in its starkly beautiful setting, has been a star of television and movies—featured most recently in the horror film The Ring.
From a ghostly past to breathtaking vistas, Yaquina Head is one lighthouse that has it all.
The Yaquina Head lighthouse is part of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The turnoff from Highway 101 is approximately four miles north of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport. There is a $5 per car day use fee, good for three days. The lighthouse is open to self-guided tours 12-4 in winter and 9-4 in spring and summer. Ranger-led tours are available during some weekends. Call 541-574-3100 for specific times.