The Cape Arago lighthouse stands as a monument to the ongoing battle between man and sea.
by Steve Beckner
The entrance to Coos Bay marks a dramatic change in the Central Oregon coastline. To the north stretch the seemingly endless sands of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. To the south, eroding sandstone cliffs, crumbling rocks, and razor-toothed offshore reefs dot the coast. These dramatic formations are remnants of Eocene ocean and river deposits—the sandstone bent and folded, then pushed up at sharp angles to their present positions, only to be broken apart by the wind and waves. The original inhabitants called this place Bal’diyaka—place where the south wind blows.
The Cape Arago lighthouse stands on a tiny island surrounded by sandstone wavebreaks, two and a half miles north of Cape Arago and just south of the entrance to Coos Bay. The island was known to the Coos tribes as Chief Island. They had fished and gathered shellfish here for centuries, with villages both on the mainland and the island. The point of land across the rock-filled channel from the island was sacred to them—a place of ceremony and burial.
After Oregon’s first beacon, the Umpqua River Lighthouse, collapsed in 1861, the Lighthouse Board chose to not to rebuild there. Coos Bay, to the south, was overtaking the Umpqua River as a major shipping port, and there was an immediate need for a beacon to guide ships into the bay as well as to warn coastal ship traffic away from the reefs surrounding Cape Arago. $15,000 was authorized to build a modest second-class lighthouse just offshore of what was then known as Cape Gregory.
The 25-foot high lighthouse and the keepers’ duplex were completed in 1866. The beacon, little more than an iron skeleton with a small lantern room on top, stood at the extreme end of a narrow finger of land on the north side of the island. From the beginning this posed a hazard to the keepers who had to reach the lighthouse by navigating the strip of land. A thousand-foot long wooden walkway with a handrail was built to connect the keeper’s dwelling with the lighthouse, but even this proved inadequate in the high winds and driving rain.
The early keepers of the Cape Arago light had their hands full. Winter storms would eat away at the lighthouse and outbuildings, creating the need for constant repairs. In 1880 what was logged as a tornado tore across the island, damaging every building and ripping much of the just-repaired roof off the keeper’s residence. But the keepers took it all in stride, patching the buildings up as quickly as they could.
To get supplies, keepers would have to cross the channel by small boat at low tide. Then they would have a choice between a day-long frustrating march through a tangle of brush and boat ride from the South Slough to Empire City, or a more dangerous trip up the coast and through the channel into the bay. In 1881 Thomas Brown was returning to the island by rowboat when he encountered a storm. For three days he fought the winds and high waves, surviving on a can of oysters, a beet, and a sack of onions. He finally made landfall 90 miles north of his intended destination. Assistant keeper William Walker and a friend weren’t so lucky. They drowned when the new station boat they were bringing from Empire City capsized in rough waters near the lighthouse.
By 1876, the keepers had grown tired rowing across the channel and a low footbridge was built. This was carried away—along with the boathouse and tramway—by a storm in 1878, and a temporary bridge accessible only during low tide was constructed. A replacement was sought for the low bridge that had once again washed away, but the bids for a taller, more robust bridge were too high for the Lighthouse Service. Instead, a cable tramway was erected. Two wooden towers, one on the mainland and one on the island, supported a 400-foot long cable. Below this dangled a small cage that carried passengers and supplies to the lighthouse.
Keepers continued to push for a bridge and finally got their way in 1898. But completion of the new bridge came too late for keeper Thomas Wyman, who was being winched across the channel with his daughter and two others when the cable snapped, sending the cage and its passengers down to the rocks and surf below. Wyman’s legs were crushed and one had to be amputated. One month later the high bridge was completed.
The first lighthouse was upgraded several times, including encasing the tower in brick and stucco and the addition of a Daboll fog trumpet in 1896. But its location on a crumbling peninsula was beginning to worry lighthouse engineers. In 1908 a new lighthouse was commissioned, this one placed well back from the eroding cliffs and much closer to the keepers’ residence. It was an elegant wood structure built from the same plans used for the Ediz Hook lighthouse near Port Angeles in Washington. The new tower placed the focal plane 100 feet above the waves—25 feet higher than the first lighthouse. A new fourth-order bullseye lens crafted by Barbier, Bernard and Turenne of Paris was installed and when lit could be seen sixteen miles out at sea.
Even this lighthouse did not last long. Because of concerns over further erosion, the second lighthouse was moved and a third lighthouse was erected in its place in 1934. This sturdy 44-foot high concrete lighthouse took its plans from the Point Robinson light in Washington’s southern Puget Sound. After the tower section was removed and the lens transferred to the new lighthouse, the second lighthouse served as an office for the keepers. Amazingly, the first lighthouse that was thought to be on the verge of collapse continued to stand on the north end of the island. Too many visitors were crossing the dangerous peninsula for a closer look, so it was dynamited in 1937. Today, the peninsula that keepers once crossed every day is nearly gone—a victim of the relentless wind and waves.
The last keeper left the island in 1966 as the lighthouse succumbed to automation. All of the historic buildings are now gone—including the keepers’ duplex—demolished over concerns for safety. The island and its mainland reservation is now maintained by the Coast Guard. The fourth-order fresnel lens was removed in the 90’s and is now on display at the Coast Guard administrative offices in North Bend. Aids to Navigation team members frequently cross the hundred-year old footbridge to check the solar panels and the modern optic that replaced the fresnel lens. Through a partnership with the Coast Guard, the Confederated Tribes once again have access to the mainland across from the island. Special ceremonies and burials are still conducted on the land they consider sacred.
As each year’s storms continue to wash away parts of the island, the future of the Cape Arago Lighthouse remains uncertain. But for now it still stands, a monument to the ongoing battle between man and sea.
The Cape Arago lighthouse is actually over two miles northeast of the actual cape. The island on which it sits and the mainland reservation are off-limits to the public. However, good views can be had from the pullout west of Sunset Bay State Park. There are a number of overgrown paths across the bluffs on both sides of Sunset Bay which lead to closer views. But be advised that there are dangerous clay and sandstone cliffs here that can give way at any time. Also be careful not to stray onto private property or onto the Coast Guard reservation.
For those visiting the area for the first time, a visit to Cape Arago State Park and Shore Acres is a must. At Shore Acres, watch enormous waves break against the sandstone cliffs, then take a tour of the botanical gardens and the new visitor center. At Cape Arago, observe hundreds of seals and sea lions basking in the sun on Shell Island. Sunset Bay State Park offers a home base during your exploration of the area, with full-hookup campsites and a sheltered beach.