by Steve Beckner
The point at which the Pacific Ocean meets the Coquille River on the South Coast is a place of unmatched beauty—with dramatic spires, sea stacks, and gorgeous sunsets. Visitors and residents are drawn to the town of Bandon by the mild climate and the ocean and river vistas. But the beauty of the place belies one of the most treacherous river entrances on the Oregon Coast. In the 19th century, only the mouth of the Columbia River claimed more ships.
When settlers first navigated the Coquille River in the 1850’s, they found vast stands of timber and lush grasses perfect for livestock. The California Gold Rush had created a great need for timber, coal, and dairy products, so the industrious Coquille Valley farmers began to fill that need as they shipped their products south.
Poised at the entrance to the Coquille, Bandon quickly became the hub of river commerce. A forest of wooden masts filled the harbor as schooners loaded and unloaded goods. Lumber mills and ship-building firms provided finished products from the bountiful raw materials, and canneries and dairies provided food for export. There was even a mill to spin wool from local sheep.
But the constantly shifting shoals at the river entrance posed a problem to large ships and many ran aground. At low tides there could be as little as three feet of water above the unstable sand bar. In 1887 a jetty was built along the south side of the river and a shipping channel was dredged, but as ships continued to run aground it became clear that more was needed.
In 1891 Congress approved $50,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on the north side of the river. Most of these funds were diverted to Cape Arago to shore up the crumbling lighthouse there and rebuild the keepers’ dwelling. Only $15,500 of the funds remained for the Coquille River lighthouse. In 1893 the Lighthouse Service bought 51 acres of shore land along the north side of the Coquille River for $1,200. The lighthouse was built on a small river island known as Rackleff Rock, connected to a keeper’s duplex on the mainland by a long wooden footbridge.
The little lighthouse, last one to be built on the Oregon Coast, was constructed of brick and covered in stucco. The unusual design, with a small conical tower rising from the octagonal oil/signal house, is reminiscent of High Victorian Italianate style. The interior was spare, the building’s function to house the fog signal equipment and provide a working space for the keepers. Inside the 47-foot high tower, a narrow iron spiral staircase led up to the lantern room. Here, a fourth order Fresnel lens lit by a Funck Heap oil lamp provided a fixed white signal that was 28 seconds on, two seconds off. The light was visible to ships more than twelve miles out to sea. A large Daboll fog trumpet protruding from the signal house wall provided a five-second blast twice a minute.
The fourth order light was illuminated for the first time on February 29, 1896. For the next four decades keepers and their families kept constant vigil over the small but vital beacon. Every family member had to know how to light and maintain the lamp in case of emergency. The Coquille River lighthouse was one of a few along the coast not to be isolated, the Bandon docks only a short boat ride away. Keepers’ children made the crossing twice a day while school was in session.
Even with the beacon in place, many ships came to ruin trying to cross the dangerous bar at the entrance to the river, some nearly plowing through the diminutive lighthouse. The closest call came in the winter of 1904 when the lumber schooner C.A. Klose drove itself into the jetty next to the lighthouse. The keepers anxiously watched as the tugboat Triumph struggled to pull the schooner free of the rocks and the ship edged closer to the small lighthouse. The C.A. Klose was eventually pulled free, only to wreck at the mouth of the Columbia River several months later.
In 1936 a devastating fire swept into town, fed by the dry scotch broom and oily gorse that had invaded so much of the coast after being imported from Ireland. Residents fled their homes as the flames jumped from house to house. Many headed for the beach or boats moored on the river. Some even sought shelter in the concrete safety of the lighthouse, watching in horror as the fire spread into the business district. Docked in the river, the lighthouse tender Rose became a makeshift communications center, her captain relaying information to statewide emergency services.
Throughout the night citizens and volunteers from outlying towns desperately battled the raging fire. But the town’s water mains were constructed of wood and soon caught fire, leaving flaming trenches crisscrossing the streets. The firefighters could only watch as the fire ate its way through the entire town. When the fire was finally extinguished, only 16 of the estimated 500 buildings remained. The lighthouse and keepers’ residence escaped the flames, but a considerable amount of ash required several days of cleanup.
The bankrupt town of Bandon never fully recovered from the disaster, and many businesses chose not to rebuild. The decrease in ship traffic after the fire contributed to the Coast Guard’s decision to shut down the lighthouse in 1939, replacing it with an automated beacon on the south jetty. The keepers’ duplex and most outbuildings were torn down and the lighthouse sat, abandoned, for twenty-four years.
When Bullards Beach State Park was formed in 1964 it included the lighthouse property. But years of neglect and vandalism had taken its toll and the lighthouse needed major restoration. From 1976 to 1979, Oregon State Parks teamed up with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore the roof, replace bricks and stucco, and make the interior safe for public tours. Because each winter storm take its toll on the small lighthouse, restoration and maintenance are an ongoing process, requiring donations and dedicated volunteers. Future plans include a new fourth order lens and a replica Daboll foghorn.
Visitors to the lighthouse can also enjoy the stretch of beach north of the jetty, where agates and the occassional glass fishing float await the sharp-eyed. The lighthouse has great views of Old Town Bandon and the river, as well as the offshore spires of the Seven Devils to the north. Those lucky enough to be present during a full moon can watch its dramatic rise over the silhouette of the lighthouse.
The picturesque lighthouse at the entrance to the Coquille River is a favorite subject for artists and photographers, and thanks to the dedication of many Bandon residents, it will remain a prominent landmark for the future.
The Coquille River Lighthouse is located across from Bandon, on the north side of the river, at Bullards Beach State Park. Follow the road past the campground and boat launch approximately three miles to the beach and lighthouse. The gift shop inside the lighthouse is open from May through October 10 to 4. All proceeds go to lighthouse projects.
If the beach parking lot is closed due to high surf, park at gate and walk in. What remains of the light keepers’ house—bricks from the foundation and an outbuilding—is visible on the hill just north of the parking spaces before the gate.