Cape Disappointment is Washington’s Oldest Lighthouse
There was a small ceremony this winter at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse that marked its 150 years of service to mariners. Cape D was the first light on the entire west coast, and all the other major lights in Washington shining their beacon to mariners for well over 100 years. Together, they represent the last active remnant of the age of sail. Even the government agency that built and ran the nation’s lights, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, disappeared long ago, but the lights have become a treasured part of our heritage. Another agency, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, manned the shore stations that were equipped with seaworthy rowing boats. The first life-saving station was built at Willapa Bay in 1877, followed by Neah Bay in 1878.
All of the early lighthouses were built to the same basic design: a Cape Cod house with the tower rising through the center. The design was simple, but delivering the materials to the site was often a challenge since they were perched on cliff tops with no access roads. In the case of Cape Disappointment, the first load of materials arrived on the bark Oriole in September 1853, but the ship wrecked directly below the cape on and the entire cargo, including the precious Fresnel lens was lost. Two years passed before another ship arrived with the materials after weathering Cape Horn. A road was cleared to allow ox teams to pull wagons up the hill and construction began. The final cost was $38,500–a huge sum at that time.
Exposed to the worst of the weather, all these old light structures are showing their age, and the Coast Guard has found itself burdened with the task of historical preservation. However, this has begun to change recently, as they have been transferring ownership of all the lighthouses to the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission or local bodies. This has the benefit of allowing the lights to be open to the public for tours, which are already available at the North Head Light, two miles north of Cape Disappointment. Even during the coldest winter, I find a visit to either of these lighthouses reminds me why I can’t wait for spring and the chance to see the light from the water.
The tip of SW Washington is unique in having two major lights so close together. After the Cape Disappointment light was built in 1856, the entrance to the Columbia River was much safer, but captains of ships sailing south from Puget Sound to the Columbia complained that they could not see the light unless they stood far out to sea. In support of their argument, they cited wrecks of such ships as the Whistler (1883) and Grace Roberts (1887) on beaches north of the cape. In response, the Lighthouse Board in 1893 dispatched a lightship to the mouth of the Columbia. Lightship No. 50, built at San Francisco’s Union Works, took station four miles southwest of Cape Disappointment that same year. The 120-foot sail-powered vessel served until 1909 when replaced by steam-powered Lightship No. 88, which remained at the mouth of the Columbia for 30 years.
In the same year, the board also asked Congress for $50,000 to build a first-order light on Cape Disappointment’s North Head. Five years later, a 65-foot high tower of brick was completed. To distinguish the two towers in daylight, a distinctive black band was applied to Cape D in the early 1900s, reminding us that visual identification is still important. The first aids to navigation were only effective in daylight: a white flag on top of a hill or perhaps prominent trees with their branches trimmed and tops cut off.
Other lighthouses in Washington are also changing hands: the Westport Lighthouse with its elegant 107’ tower has been maintained by the local maritime museum since 2000. The West Point Lighthouse SW of Shilshole Marina, also known as the Discovery Park Lighthouse, was turned over to Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation in October of 2004. West Point opened in 1881 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. It was the first manned light station on Puget Sound and cost $25,000 to build. It was illuminated with a kerosene lamp until 1925, when it was connected to Seattle’s electric grid.
The Point Wilson Light, marking the western entrance to Admiralty Inlet, was built in 1913, replacing a wooden light tower built in 1879. At a height of 51 feet, the beacon is the tallest on the sound. It is located in Fort Worden State Park near Port Townsend and is scheduled to become parks property later this year.
The tradition and legends of gallant light-house keepers stem from the original wick lighting system. It consisted of five 18″ wicks in a circle burning first sperm whale oil then kerosene, requiring five gallons of fuel a day to be carried up the steps. It was necessary to have a man on watch at all times to ensure the wicks were adjusted correctly to keep the flame at the right height, clean soot off the glass, and wind the clockwork mechanism that rotated the lenses.
To create the flash pattern, the circular Fresnel lens was polygonal, the number of sides corresponding to the number of flashes. The entire assembly, weighing several tons, was mounted on wheels on a circular track or floated in container of mercury, reducing rotational friction to a minimum so that it could be moved with the touch of a finger. It was rotated at a precise rate by a clockwork drive, wound by hand as often as every 4 hours, which meant the keeper had to make the trip to the lantern room several times each night. Automation gradually improved the lighthouse keeper’s lot in the form of a mechanical striking mechanism to sound the fog bell and a descending weight that slowly traveled the interior height of the tower, thus rotating the light. Seaman traditionally being conservative, these archaic methods continued until the 1930s, when all the lights were electrified.
Today, most Fresnel lenses have been replaced by rotating beacons similar to those found at airports. These beacons generally consist of a high-powered light source, with a reflecting mirror on one side of the light source and a condensing lens on the other. The standard optic in US lighthouses is the Vega VRB-25, which is manufactured in New Zealand. It is a small drum-like plastic version of the Fresnel design.
The VRB-25 provides a range of up to 21 nautical miles with a 12-volt 100-Watt lamp. It was designed to meet a United States specification for an accurate and reliable replacement beacon.
This beacon can operate in remote, solar-powered locations, on unattended sites, without a lighthouse for protection, and requires maintenance no more than once a year. More than 400 of these lanterns are in service around the world, with over 300 in North America. The lenses are moulded from optical-grade acrylic resin. Red and green coloured lenses are available, and the beacon is available in 6-panel and 8-panel versions. Vega also produces an LED lighthouse lamp consisting of stackable discs lights that can provide more than 10 miles of range. As with the lighthouses themselves, beauty has been replaced with pure function and ease of maintenance.