“Situated at Yaquina, on the coast of Oregon, is an old, deserted lighthouse. Its weather beaten walls are wrapped in mystery. Of an afternoon when the fog comes drifting in, it is the loneliest place in the world.”
So begins a story that haunts the Yaquina Bay lighthouse in Newport to this day.
The tale, “The Haunted Lighthouse”, continues with a mysterious ship dropping anchor in Yaquina Bay in the late 1870’s, the skipper and a young girl disembarking. The skipper arranges to have the girl—his daughter, he says—stay in the care of a local woman until he can return for her in two weeks. The teenager, named Muriel, befriends some local vacationers and accompanies them on a visit to the deserted Yaquina Bay lighthouse. On the second floor of the crumbling building the young people discover a small iron door with a great bottomless shaft hidden behind it. As they leave the lighthouse Muriel announces that she must go back inside for her handkerchief, and she must go alone. Moments later the group hears her screaming and rushes in to find a blood soaked handkerchief on the stairs, but no Muriel. She has disappeared, along with the iron door and bottomless shaft. The townspeople anxiously wait for Muriel’s father to return, but the ship and her crew is never seen again.
“The Haunted Lighthouse” first appeared in an 1899 issue of Pacific Monthly. Written by Lischen Miller, sister-in-law to poet Joaquin Miller, it firmly set the reputation of the Yaquina Bay lighthouse as a site of ghostly haunts. To this day, some visitors believe the fictional tale to be true, and stories of strange happenings at the lighthouse continue to circulate. Even some Coast Guard personnel in the nearby watch tower claim to have seen unexplained lights around the building at night.
Yaquina Bay lighthouse has the added distinction of having the shortest life of any beacon on the Oregon Coast, being in service for only three years, between 1871 and 1874. By the time the two story structure was completed and the whale oil lamp lit, a more powerful lighthouse was being erected just four miles north at Yaquina Head.
In 1871, 36 acres of land on the north side of the entrance to Yaquina Bay were purchased from local homesteaders and construction began almost immediately. A local builder, Ben Simpson, built the clapboard home and metal expert Joseph Bien from San Francisco was called upon to create the lantern housing. The lighthouse was designed to be both a residence and beacon. It stood two stories high, fronted by a porch with decorative gables, and topped by dual chimneys. The light tower rose three stories from the back of the building. Inside the decagonal lantern room, a small Fifth Order lens illuminated by a whale oil lamp provided the fixed harbor signal. The builders worked quickly and the lighthouse was ready by October of 1871.
The first caretaker of the new lighthouse was Civil War veteran Captain Charles Pierce. He, his wife Sarah, and their nine children transferred from the isolated Cape Blanco lighthouse. They hoped to make the growing community of Newport their permanent home. It was a comfortable lighthouse well suited for a large family. There was a parlor, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and four bedrooms on the second floor. A small watch room was just across from the ladder leading up to the lantern room. Here the keeper could rest without being out of sight of the lantern.
In August 1873, the Yaquina Head lighthouse with its First-Order lens was completed and put into service. Whether intentional or due to some bureaucratic mixup, the two beacons now stood less than four miles apart. The more powerful Yaquina Head light rendered the Yaquina Bay beacon obsolete and it was scheduled to be closed. On October 1, 1874, Captain Pierce extinguished the light and moved back with his family to wind-swept Cape Blanco.
The lighthouse stood abandoned for fourteen years until the Army Corps of Engineers used it for housing while the north jetty was being constructed. It was abandoned again from 1896 to 1906, after which the Lifesaving Service used it as a lookout. During the years the winter storms and summer sand took their toll and the once-stately lighthouse began to crumble, although attempts were made to keep the roof and walls patched. The government attempted to sell the building a number of times, but no one seemed interested in refurbishing a lighthouse.
In 1946 the Oregon Highway Commission announced plans to demolish the building, citing safety concerns. Locals and lighthouse enthusiasts, including wealthy Ohio industrialist L.E. Warford, organized drives to save the historic structure. But the state was adamant: the lighthouse must come down.
In 1955, the state finally relented and turned over the care of Yaquina Bay lighthouse to the Lincoln County Historical Society, who used it as a county museum for 18 years. In 1974 the lighthouse was fully restored and furnished with period pieces on loan from the Oregon Historical Society. The light was officially relit in 1996 with a modern optic on loan from author and maritime historian Jim Gibbs. Tours are conducted daily by volunteers from the Yaquina Lights organization. Each year many visitors come to the lighthouse, some perhaps hoping to discover the hidden iron door or get a glimpse of Muriel’s ghost.
The Yaquina Bay lighthouse is part of Yaquina Bay State Park in Newport. Going north on Highway 101, take the first exit on the north side of the Yaquina Bay Bridge (Mile Marker 142), then double back under the bridge and take a left at the stop sign. Going south on 101 take right hand exit just before the bridge. The lighthouse is open for tours every day excluding major holidays, noon to 4pm, October through May, and 11am to 5pm, June through September.