Long-ago the coastline of the Pacific Northwest gained a notorious reputation among sailors as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Fierce weather conditions, rocky shores, and ever-shifting sandbars create the perfect conditions for ship wrecks, and if you peel back the waters you’ll find over a hundred years of maritime traffic that did not make it through this dangerous barrier at the mouth of the Columbia River. Two lighthouses stand watch over these treacherous waters, and the story they tell is also one of survival.
The construction of a lighthouse on Cape Disappointment was first proposed in response to the growing commerce taking place throughout the area. It was to be 53’ feet tall, have a fourteen foot base and taper to a lantern room housing a first-order Fresnel lens, but from its conception Cape Disappointment Lighthouse lived up to its unfortunate name.
Building contractors faced delays when the ship carrying essential supplies, the Orion, foundered on a sandbar directly below the cape. No lives were lost but the ship and its cargo were destroyed. A second attempt to build began two years later but was again delayed due to a miscalculation in the design of the lantern room, which was found to be too small for the four-ton light. Brick by brick, the tower was dismantled and rebuilt to the appropriate size and ever since October 15, 1856 the light from Cape Disappointment Lighthouse has marked the entrance to the Columbia River.
North Head Lighthouse
After the light was turned on at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse it was quickly discovered that in order to safely guide ships coming down the coast from the north another lighthouse was needed. Plans for North Head Lighthouse were drawn up and a site located high on a rocky cliff two miles north of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was selected for construction.
The work began slowly, with a six month delay in the delivery of the metalwork for the tower, but by November 15, 1897 the 194 foot tower was completed, with its first-order Fresnel lens lit for the first time on May 16, 1898.
The US Coast Guard continues to man both the Cape Disappointment and North Head Lighthouses, although the original Fresnel lenses have been decommissioned in favor of automated lights. Visitors to Cape Disappointment State Park can visit these lighthouses and their interpretative center throughout the year. To get a closer look at a working Fresnel lens you can visit the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. Hiking trails through the park lead to beautiful overlooks, old-growth forests, and private coves where you can watch the maritime traffic that continues to take on the treacherous waters of the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”