I am perched 200 feet above the ocean on the steep flanks of Heceta Head. The sun is nearing the western horizon and I am waiting for the perfect shot. To the south, the cliffs above Sea Lion Caves frame the sands of the Oregon Dunes stretching to the Siuslaw River. The barking of Sea Lions can be heard in the calm between the thunder of waves breaking against the offshore rocks. To my west, the twinkling lights of fishing boats dot the Pacific. And below me, the massive lens of the lighthouse slowly rotates, its prisms reflecting the fire of the setting sun. If there is the perfect place to experience what the Oregon Coast is all about, this is it.
It is easy to see from my vantage point why Heceta Head is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country. Perhaps no other landmark is more associated with the Oregon Coast. Rising from a dramatic setting on wave-battered volcanic rock eleven miles north of Florence, the lighthouse and its surroundings are a perfect blend of design and natural environment.
While much of the Oregon Coast had been illuminated by the 1870s, the stretch between the Umpqua and Alsea Rivers remained dark. As the coastal towns of Florence and Waldport grew and ship and river traffic increased, it became clear that the area needed a beacon. In 1889 the Lighthouse Board approved plans for a new first-order light at Heceta Head as well as a second light at Umpqua to replace the one that had collapsed decades before. Land on the headland was purchased from homesteaders Dolly and Welcome Warren and construction of a road to haul supplies from Florence to the site began. Some materials deemed too valuable or delicate to make the rough journey over the road were floated in to the beach at Cape Creek from an anchored vessel.
When completed, the Heceta Head tower stood at 56 feet in height, putting its first-order light 205 feet above the surf. The lens was unique because, while most lenses at the time were manufactured in France, this one was made in England by the Chance Brothers. The 640-prism, eight-panel lens rotated on brass chariot wheels, turned by a clockwork powered by weights that would slowly descend the center of the tower before being rewound by the vigilant lightkeepers. A five-wick kerosene lamp cast a beam twenty miles to sea.
In addition to the tower, two oil houses, a barn, and two Queen Anne-style keepers’ residences were constructed. The homes were placed a short distance inland from the tower, overlooking the Cape Cove beach. The first keeper to move in to the main house was Andrew Hald, who transferred from the Cape Meares lighthouse near Tillamook. Assistant keepers Eugene Walters and John Cowan and their families moved in to the duplex.
Heceta Head quickly became its own community, with a post office and a school for the keepers’ children as well as those of the local homesteaders. Gardens supplied much of the food for the lightstation, and fish and game were plentiful in the area. Although only 13 miles north of Florence, the rough, sometimes impassible wagon road over Sea Lion Point kept the residents isolated. They looked forward to “boat day”, when the lighthouse tender boat would bring supplies and mail. The completion of the Cape Creek Tunnel and Bridge in the 1932 ended the years of isolation for the lightkeepers. Now they played hosts to visitors from as far away as Portland.
In 1963 the beacon was automated and the last lightkeeper retired. The lighthouse now sends out a 2.5 million candlepower beam reaching 21 miles, making it the most powerful light on the coast. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the light, but the surrounding headlands, lightkeepers’ residences, and cove are now part of Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint.
Of the two lightkeepers’ residences, only the assistant keepers’ home, known as Heceta House, still stands. The duplex had been neglected over the intervening years and a major restoration project was undertaken in the late 70’s. It is now a bed & breakfast boasting six unique rooms and a seven-course gourmet breakfast. Careful attention to historical details has made Heceta House a popular destination.
As with many historic inns, rumors of ghosts haunting the residence abound. Several alleged sightings of an ethereal woman in Victorian dress named “Rue” occurred during restoration. One construction worker was so frightened by his alleged encounter with the ghost that he fled the house and couldn’t be coaxed back to work for several days. Whether visitors encounter a ghost or not, a visit to the Heceta Head lighthouse and Heceta House is memorable.
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The sun has disappeared from view and the sky is darkening. A mist rises, catching the great beams of light as they radiate out from Heceta’s powerful lantern. As I make my way back down the path to the beach, I watch the beams move past the bridge and trees and out across the Pacific, where the fishing boat lights still twinkle.
The Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint is 11 miles north of Florence. The turnoff for the parking area and beach at Devils Elbow is just past the Cape Creek Tunnel and bridge. A trail from the beach and picnic area winds its way up to the lighthouse, passing Heceta House. The offshore rocks of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge provide visitors with views of puffins, cormorants, and sea lions. Guided tours of the lighthouse are available daily from 11-5, May through September. There are also night tours on select weekends. For more information, call 541-547-3416. For information on staying at the Bed & Breakfast call toll-free 1-866-547-3696.