Many thought the Umpqua River area would become a major shipping center due to its abundance of “green gold,” the vast stands of timber that were rapidly being harvested. The turbulent force with which the river collided with the ocean created a hazard for ships, and a beacon marking the spot was greatly needed.
In the fall of 1856, the officer in charge of lighthouses on the Pacific Coast was instructed “to lose no time in commencing the erection of the lighthouse at Umpqua, in Oregon Territory,” as the lantern room and illuminating apparatus had been received in July.
Local Indians had used the Umpqua River area as prime hunting and fishing grounds for centuries and were none too pleased to watch the progress being made on the lighthouse. Rather than confront the workers and risk an attack from nearby Fort Umpqua, the Indians attempted to delay the work by stealing critical tools. Being greatly outnumbered, the construction crew never retaliated, but then one day, a worker noticed his stolen sledge hammer leaning against an Indian hut. While recovering the hammer, the worker was jumped by a couple of Indians, and mayhem soon broke out among the workers and Indians. A quick thinking foreman ran to the site and lit a stick of dynamite that frightened the Indians into a hasty retreat. The Indian threat was mostly over, but long winter storms slowed progress until the spring of 1857.
Umpqua River Lighthouse consisted of a large Cape Cod duplex with a tower rising to a height of ninety-two feet from the center of its gabled roof and was similar to the structures being built at Cape Flattery and on Dungeness Spit. With the work complete, Keeper Fayette Crosby lit the lamp inside the tower’s third-order Fresnel lens on October 10, 1857, making Umpqua River the first light along the Oregon Coast.
Unfortunately, the survey crew that selected the sandy shore on the north side of the river mouth as the site for the lighthouse, never saw the river at flood stage. On February 8, 1861, a coastal gale combined with record mountain runoff to blast away at the lighthouse’s foundation. With its footings compromised, the house and tower developed a slight tilt, and another violent storm in October 1863 made the situation even more precarious.
Living in constant fear that the entire structure would collapse with them in it, the keepers petitioned for the lighthouse to be abandoned, and in late January 1864, permission was granted. A week later, the lens was removed, and while workers were in the process of dismantling the iron lantern room, the tower began to shake and sway. The men dropped their work, fled for their lives, and watched from a safe distance as the tower came crashing down.
Eventually, the Lighthouse Board desired the coast to be lit so that a ship would come into the light of one beacon as it passed out of the rays of another. Lighthouses at Heceta Head and Umpqua River would close the unlighted gap between Yaquina Head and Cape Arago, and on October 2, 1888, $50,000 was appropriated for the construction of a second Umpqua River Lighthouse.
This time, with lesson learned, the lighthouse was built further inland on a headland above the mouth of the river, where it is the farthest away from a river or ocean of all the lighthouses along the Oregon Coast.
Separate bids were solicited for the metalwork, the erection of the tower, and the construction of the dwellings, barn, oil houses, and cisterns. After the bids were opened on April 21, 1891, a $5,020 contract was awarded to the lowest bidder for the metalwork, but as the sum of the lowest bids for the tower and other buildings exceeded the balance of the appropriation, these bids were rejected.
With the plans slightly modified, proposals for the work were again solicited, and new bids were opened on August 11, 1891. A bid of $12,000 for erecting the tower was accepted along with a $17,879 bid for the dwellings and other structures.
The metalwork was completed on March 21, 1892, and the tower was finished on August 30, 1892. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly with the other work. On February 16, 1892, the contractors for the dwellings announced they could not finish the project. Their bondsmen were held responsible for the difference between the original contract and a $20,250 contract that was awarded to a new lower bidder on April 20, 1892. The head keeper’s dwelling, a double-dwelling for the two assistants, a barn, cisterns, and two oil houses were finally completed on January 14, 1893.
The new lighthouse, a sibling to the one at Heceta Head, stands sixty-five-feet tall and has a focal plane of 165 feet above sea level. The tower, consisting of brick overlaid with cement plaster, is five feet thick at the base and tapers to twenty-one inches at the parapet.
The tower’s first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in 1890 by Barbier & Cie of Paris, is a thing of beauty and was originally illuminated by a Funck mineral oil lamp. The lens has twenty-four bull’s-eye panels and completes a revolution every two minutes, producing a signature of two white flashes followed by a red flash. Every seventy minutes the keepers would have to wind up the weight that revolved the lens.
Marinus Stream from Astoria Oregon, the first head keeper of the new lighthouse, tragically drowned two years after arriving at the station. Despite the early tragedy, Umpqua River Lighthouse became a desired assignment for lightkeepers, perhaps because the station did not have a fog signal.
The longest serving head keeper at Umpqua Lighthouse was Captain Andrew P.C. Hald, who was in charge of the station from 1899 until 1921. At the tender age of fourteen, Hald left his native Denmark and served as a cabin boy aboard a full-rigged sailing ship. After years at sea, Hald enlisted in the Lighthouse Service and accepted an assignment as third assistant keeper of Cape Flattery Lighthouse in 1888. Hald rose to first assistant in less than a year, but this gain was offset by the loss of his nine-year-old son, who drowned at the island station. Shortly after this tragedy, Hald was transferred to Cape Meares, where he served for four-and-a-half years before being placed in charge of the newly completed Heceta Head Lighthouse.
Following five years at Heceta Head Lighthouse, Hald moved south to that tower’s sister lighthouse at Umpqua River. Keeper Hald was never once reprimanded during his thirty-three years of lighthouse service. Rather, his work was often lauded, as evidenced by this report from W.P. Day, Commander of lighthouse inspectors: “The excellent condition of the station in all its details, shows that you have a thorough appreciation of your responsibilities and are zealous and faithful in the performance of your duties. For this the board commends you and will note the fact on its records as part of your official history.”
As Keeper Hald retired in August 1921, he had this sage advice for anyone contemplating a lightkeeping career:
Unless a man has a large stock of patience and a cheerful disposition which is able to withstand solitude; unless he is prepared to perform his duties conscientiously each day, unless he can withstand the allurement of the various forms of jazz and worldly pleasures of which social life of today is generally composed, he would better relinquish any idea of entering in the lighthouse service. If, however, he is able to cultivate these general characteristics and plans to adopt the lighthouse service permanently – his efforts will be rewarded by the United States government. The officials and inspectors are quick to recognize real service. In addition to a fair salary, very comfortable quarters are furnished and after 30 years of faithful service, retirement with pension is a further reward.
In April 1931, a severe wind and dust storm struck Oregon and Washington. For three days, a strong east wind with a velocity approaching fifty miles per hour carried a dense cloud of dust from the eastern part of the states to the coast. Vessels arriving in Portland reported encountering clouds of dust, as thick as fog, sixty miles off the Oregon Coast. Keeper Kinyon reported that at Umpqua Lighthouse trees were uprooted, the sun was obscured, and the dust settled so thickly in the lantern room that it was necessary to clean the chariot wheels and track used to revolve the lens before the lens would operate properly.
Over time, the chariot wheels wore out, and in November 1983, a temporary rotating beacon was installed on the tower to replace the lens. When the Coast Guard talked of discontinuing the Fresnel lens for good, the community rose in outrage. Hundreds of names were gathered from the surrounding communities of Gardiner, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay, and the help of congressmen and senators was enlisted to repair the lens. The Coast Guard eventually relented, and the lens went back in operation on January 14, 1985.
The lighthouse is located adjacent to Umpqua Lighthouse State Park and is managed by Douglas County, whose Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum is located 100 yards north of the lighthouse in the historic former U.S. Coast Guard Station Umpqua River. In 2007, Senator Gordon Smith introduced a provision as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would facilitate alternative housing arrangements for Coast Guard personnel allowing the area surrounding Umpqua River Lighthouse to be converted into a county park.
In a letter dated April 28, 2009, the Coast Guard notified Douglas County that Umpqua River Lighthouse was “no longer a critical component for safe navigation,” and then gave the following explanation of its intentions. “In situations such as this … we allow [the light] to be operated as a Private Aid to Navigation (PATON) by a local government agency, nonprofit corporation or community development organization. Our intentions are to identify an entity that is willing to assume PATON responsibility for the light by May 15, 2009. If an entity isn’t identified by that date we will do one of two things: 1) Remove the classical lens and replace it with a modern optic or, 2) Decommission the light and remove the classical lens.”
Douglas County took ownership of the lighthouse in early 2010 and leased the Fresnel lens so that its cherished icon will continue to operate as is. During a ceremony on April 14, 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard officially gave Douglas County control of the operation and maintenance of Umpqua Lighthouse and its coveted Fresnel lens. The first-order lens remains active, one of just a few in the country, and is even more unique on account of its red and white beams.