Those who witness the Umpqua River lighthouse on a foggy night never forget the sight. Alternating beams of red and white light pierce the swirling mist, radiating out of a shimmering jewel-like lens that silently rotates. The beacon, second to guard over the entrance to the mighty Umpqua River, stands on a forested bluff overlooking the dunes and ocean near Winchester Bay on Oregon’s Central Coast.
The Umpqua River is one of Oregon’s largest rivers, with an expansive watershed that stretches 111 miles to the western slopes of the Cascades. The Umpqua was a major port in the 1850’s, when Oregon was still part of the Oregon Territory. The town of Scottsburg, 30 miles upriver, became the center of activity as abundant timber was harvested and shipped south to provide building material for booming San Francisco. But a treacherous entrance to the river became the ruin of many ships and there were cries for a beacon. In 1851 Congress authorized $15,000 to acquire 33 acres and begin construction of Oregon’s first lighthouse. Numerous delays, including building supplies lost in a storm off Cape Disappointment and clashes with the local tribes, pushed the completion date to the end of 1856.
The design of the first Umpqua River lighthouse was similar to many East Coast lighthouses, with a 92-foot tower rising from the center of the Cape Cod-style quarters. Unfortunately, the lighthouse was placed on unstable sand too close to the river. In 1861 and 1863 the storm-swollen river began to undermine the foundation. Soon the tower had a noticeable tilt. It became so unsafe that the keepers abandoned the living quarters and raced to dismantle the light. In January 1864, as the keepers were removing the lantern house, the tower began to sway. Workmen scattered as the tower buckled and came crashing down.
Three decades passed before another lighthouse guarded over the Umpqua River, and shipping traffic shifted south to Coos Bay. The stretch of coastline beyond reach of Cape Arago’s light to the south and Yaquina Head’s light to the north was known by mariners as the Dark Coast. Plans for new lighthouses at Heceta Head and Umpqua River would close that unlit gap.
Plans for the second Umpqua River lighthouse wisely placed the structure well back from the ocean and river. Construction began in 1891 using plans that would also be used for the Heceta Head lighthouse to the north. The project came to an abrupt halt in 1892 when the dwelling contractor abandoned the site and declared bankruptcy. The Lighthouse Board scrambled to find another contractor and work resumed. Just as the tower was being readied for the new lens it was discovered that the lens base had been built fifteen inches too short. So once again the Board had to find additional funds and hire another contractor to fix the housing and install the lens. On the last day of 1894 the beacon finally illuminated the Central Coast.
The second lighthouse is constructed of two layers of brick with a cement overlay. The tower walls are five feet thick at the base, tapering to 21” at the top. The Umpqua Lighthouse stands 61 feet high, its focal plane hovering 165 feet above the ocean. The light’s unique signature is two white flashes and one red flash every fifteen seconds, visible twenty miles out to sea. The large two-ton French First-Order Fresnel lens was crafted by Barbier & Cie of Paris in 1890. It consists of 8 lower panels, 24 middle panels, and 8 upper panels. A thousand hand-ground clear and red prisms shimmer inside the 72” diameter lens, dazzling visitors with a kaleidoscope-like display inside the lantern room. Nights outside the lighthouse are equally impressive, as rays of red and white play across the surrounding forest.
The lens originally rotated using a clockwork mechanism with a weight that would drop 34 feet down the center of the tower before having to be rewound by the lighthouse keepers. It is now automated, turned by an electric motor and illuminated by a 1,000 watt quartz iodine lamp. When the brass chariot wheels rotating the lens failed in 1983, the Coast Guard considered removing the lens and replacing it with a modern beacon. But locals and lighthouse enthusiasts demanded that the lens stay put and the Coast Guard relented. The chariot wheels were refurbished by a Reedsport firm and placed back into service in 1985. Guided tours now allow visitors to climb the spiral staircase to the lantern room and peer up into the impressive lens.
With its unique lens and signature red and white beams, the Umpqua River Lighthouse continues to stand watch above the sand dunes of Oregon’s Central Coast.
The Umpqua River lighthouse is located five miles south of Reedsport, near Winchester Bay. Follow the lighthouse signs on Highway 101 at Mileposts 215.5 and 217. The lighthouse is part of a Coast Guard residential compound and public access is limited to tours, May through October. The museum is located in an old Coast Guard building just north of the lighthouse and is open 10-4 every day. Be sure to check out the blueprint plans and scale model of the original 1856 lighthouse.
Umpqua Lighthouse State Park is a short walk from the lighthouse. It has a full-service campground with hookups and deluxe yurts as well as a small lake for swimming and fishing.