by Steve Beckner
There are a few places along the rugged Pacific Coast where storms first make landfall, tearing at the earth and trees with hurricane-force winds and horizontal rain. Cape Blanco, nine miles north of Port Orford on Oregon’s South Coast, is one of those places.
During the winter, ferocious storms stream in from the Pacific, pounding the cape’s high cliffs with monstrous surf and winds that frequently reach over 100 miles per hour.
The 59-foot Cape Blanco lighthouse, lonely guardian of the most westerly point in Oregon, is perched here, 200 feet above the breaking waves. The oldest continually operating lighthouse in Oregon presides over one of the most dangerous sections of the coast. Surrounding Cape Blanco, sea stacks and offshore rocks—jagged remnants of an ancient shoreline—punctuate the dangers of straying too near. The hidden Blanco and Orford reefs have broken the backs of many ships, earning a healthy respect from mariners. In summer, fog can blanket the area for days at a time, blotting out the lighthouse beacon and making the waters below the cape all the more deadly.
The cape was named Cape Blanco de Aguilar by Spanish explorer Martin de Aguilar in 1603 because of the white appearance its cliffs. The rugged headland is bordered by the Sixes River to the north and the Elk River to the south. Once blanketed by dense forest, the cape is now rocky grassland, punctuated by waist-high gorse and salal. The remaining Sitka spruce hug the western slopes. In the evening light, the dramatic sea-facing cliffs of Cape Blanco take on a fiery glow, standing out from the rest of the coastal mountains when viewed from sea.
As Oregon opened up to settlement in the mid 1800’s and timber and dairy products began to flow south to a booming San Francisco, it became clear that a lighthouse was needed to warn ships away from the hazards lurking along the South Coast. The first attempt at an Oregon lighthouse, the ill-fated Umpqua River light, had collapsed in 1864, six years after being built on shifting sands.
After federal approval, construction on the Cape Blanco light began in 1868 and was completed in 1870, with most materials transported to the site by the lighthouse tender Shubrick and unloaded on the beach just south of the cape. 200,000 carefully selected, locally produced bricks were used in the construction of the lighthouse and attached workroom. A powerful fixed first-order Fresnel lens crafted by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris was installed in the large iron lantern house.
Even when the original lens was removed in 1936 and replaced with a smaller, rotating second-order lens, the white flash could be seen by ships over twenty miles out to sea. The light was automated in 1980, and is now lit by a 320,000 candlepower incandescent bulb and powered by an electric motor—rotating the large lens cage on ball bearings in a sealed bath of oil.
Cape Blanco’s first keeper was H.B. Burnap, who moved to Port Orford after his last assignment was rendered obsolete by the collapse of the Umpqua River Lighthouse. James Langlois, son of a local pioneer, became a prominent fixture at the lighthouse during his 42 years of service from 1875 to 1918. He and assistant James Hughes worked together for three decades before Langlois retired and Hughes became principal lightkeeper. James Hughes was the son of early pioneers Patrick and Jane Hughes, who ran a successful dairy farm and a not-so-successful gold mining operation near the mouth of the Sixes river. Their fully restored Queen Anne style home still sits in the shadow of Cape Blanco. Cape Blanco also recorded the first woman keeper in Oregon, Mabel Bretherton, wife of a keeper at the Coquille River Lighthouse. She assisted Langlois and Hughes for two years before being transferred to Washington’s North Head Lighthouse.
Even with the lighthouse in operation, many ships were lost in the waters below Cape Blanco. One of the area’s worst maritime disasters happened on a foggy winter day just before Christmas of 1919, when the oil tanker J. A. Chanslor drove into the rocks just north of the lighthouse. The relentless waves quickly split the ship’s steel hull in two, spilling 30,000 barrels of oil onto the beach, devastating the fish and bird population. Although the captain and two crewmen managed to make it to shore, the remaining 36 crew members were lost, trapped on the tanker as it slipped beneath the churning surf.
During World War II, the lighthouse was taken over by the US Army and used as a headquarters for coastal defense against possible invasion by Japanese forces.
Although the Japanese forces never actually set foot on American soil, they were able to launch two air attacks from an offshore submarine. Before dawn on September 9, 1942, Chief Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita’s seaplane was unleashed from the deck of the submarine I-25 and launched into the darkness. The aircraft carried two 170-pound incendiary bombs to be used to start a massive forest fire in Oregon in the hopes that the US would pull its naval forces closer in to the mainland.
Fujita used the light from the Cape Blanco lighthouse to guide his plane as he headed inland toward Mount Emily, 10 miles northeast of Brookings. He dropped one bomb, then another several miles further inland. Neither bomb produced the desired conflagration, so another attempt was made several weeks later. This, too, was unsuccessful. The submarine reverted to attacks on ships, sinking two tankers along the South Coast before heading home to Japan. In the 1960’s, Nubuo Fujita returned to Oregon, this time as a friend. He presented the city of Brookings with a 350-year old samurai sword and visited the places where he attempted to start the forest fires. After he died in 1997, a portion of his ashes were scattered on Mount Emily.
The low point for the Cape Blanco beacon came in the 1980’s, after it was automated and most of the historical outbuildings—including the keepers residence and barn—were torn down. The lighthouse reserve was placed off-limits to the public for most of the following decade. In 1992 two teenage boys managed to break into the lighthouse and inflict several thousand-dollars worth of damage to the Fresnel lens with a sledgehammer. Although it was repaired in 1994, the lens was not fully restored until last year.
2004 saw a complete renovation of the lighthouse—the results of a partnership between the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State Parks, Friends of Cape Blanco, and the Coquille and Siletz Tribes. More than $220,000 was collected and used to refurbish the lens, replace the lens room’s exterior glass, rebuild the copper roof, repair cracks, and repaint the lighthouse inside and out.
Now visitors can enjoy tours of the freshly-restored lighthouse and lantern room on Cape Blanco from May through October.
The turnoff to Cape Blanco State Park is located on Hwy 101 near milepost 297, approximately 4 miles north of Port Orford and 27 miles south of Bandon.
Lighthouse tours are available 10 AM to 3:30 PM, Thursdays through Mondays, from April through October . Cape Blanco is the only functioning lighthouse in Oregon in which visitors are allowed into the lantern room. To offset the costs of restoration and upkeep there is a small fee charged for tours. The campground on the cape is open year-round. The historic Hughes House is open for tours the same season and hours as the lighthouse. It is also open on select weekends during the Christmas season.