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Letter from Elk City: Lighthouses a signature of Oregon coast

July 7, 2009
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer

ELK CITY, Ore. - No visit to the Oregon coast would be complete without a visit to at least one of the lighthouses that dot the seashore.

While some of the lighthouses have been decommissioned, others remain active, sending beacons 17-22 miles seaward. Each lighthouse sends a unique beacon - a specifically colored light with a particularly timed pattern that allows ships to find their bearings on their charts.

I had the chance to visit two of Oregon's lighthouses, Heceta Head and Umpqua River. Each had its unique aspects that made for a memorable experience.

Article Photos

Yours truly at Heceta Head lighthouse.
EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

Heceta Head, perched on a high cliff about midway between Florence and Yachats along Highway 101, was named for the explorer Bruno Heceta who passed this way in 1775.

Heceta Head lighthouse is probably the sort of lighthouse you would envision when you think of the term "lighthouses." Its white tower capped with a red dome matches the attached lighthouse keeper's quarters. There is also an historic residence of the same colors on the hill leading up to the lighthouse.

Heceta Head still has the original Fresnel (pronounced FREYNEL) lens with 640 prisms. It was built with 245,000 bricks brought from San Francisco. The 5-foot walls taper to a thinner depth as they reach toward the top.

According to Micki Kane, volunteer who guided a tour at Heceta Head the day I was there, there were three lighthouse keepers who shared duties at the lighthouse.

While working as a lighthouse keeper might seem incredibly romantic today, it was a lonely job. To cure boredom, every few weeks a wooden box of books would arrive to keep the lighthouse keepers and their families occupied.

Like clockwork, one hour before dusk the light would go on. First lit by fuel, electricity came to Heceta Head in 1934 which offered a brighter, cleaner light. Today, there is no longer need for a resident keeper since the lighthouse is automated. It still serves faithfully, though, sending its beacon 21 miles out to sea.

Molly Fisher, volunteer at the Umpqua River lighthouse off Highway 101 south of Winchester, said the first lighthouse built there in 1857 was the most used in Oregon in its time.

Unfortunately, the original lighthouse was built on an unstable cliff and fell into the Umpqua River in 1864.

The current Umpqua River lighthouse is 65 feet in height and is a sister lighthouse to Heceta reaching 56 feet. Umpqua, named for a Native American tribe that once frequented the area, casts a beacon visible 19-21 miles out to sea.

Fisher said Umpqua actually went without a lighthouse for 30 years until the current lighthouse was completed, wisely, further back from the river bank.

The Umpqua River lighthouse was built with 241,000 bricks at a cost of $50,000. A 1,000-watt bulb, costing a hefty $350 to replace, shines through the 616 prisms that have a white-white-red pattern.

You'll find other lighthouses along the Oregon coast, and whether they're still in operation or not, one thing is certain. They still stand as symbols of safety and hope for the mariners who still pass by on the Pacific.



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