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A Visit to the Umpqua River Lighthouse

by Jim Flynn on May 22, 2015

A visit to the Umpqua River Lighthouse on the South Central Oregon coast is unforgettable to visiting tourists and campers.  When organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or Tourist Information promote the local lighthouse, visitors always feel a restless curiosity and need to visit.  While learning the key points of the history surrounding the lighthouse, they seem to sense the spirit of so many sailors, lumbermen, and indigenous people, especially those who helped implement the innovative technology that led to the growth of the nation.

Lumber was destined for the new State of CaliforniaA year round favorite lighthouse is at the location of the very first one established in the Oregon territory.  Back in 1855 the United States Coast Survey determined that a lighthouse should be placed at the mouth of each of the five rivers that ran from the eastern part of the territory, now Washington and Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean.  Umpqua River area lumber mills were supplying the material needed for the expansion of cities within the new State of California.  The U.S. Coast Survey decided to put the very first lighthouse at the mouth of the Umpqua River.  Well-tested engineering methods employed for construction of a structure on sand were used.  The most important part, a Class ll Fresnel lens was mounted on a 60-foot tower.  New England style twin houses were built for the families of the Light Keepers from the newly formed United States Lighthouse Service.

No one stopped to ask the Indigenous People how they felt about it. The construction was taking place at the critical junction of their ocean fishing and hunting economy.  The Indians did not want to start a fight with the construction crew, considering Fort Umpqua was in close proximity to the construction site.  Instead, they secretly removed the tools from the construction site that were most important to the construction project.

The next day a construction worker noticed his hammer leaning against the hut of one of the Indigenous People. The skirmish occurred when the framer tried to take his hammer back. Several Indian men jumped into the fray. Things were getting ugly but matters quickly quieted down when the foreman of the construction crew lit a stick of dynamite.  No one remembered any conversation, but the crowd quickly dispersed and everyone went back to work.

The lighthouse was placed in operation. It was the first Light House in Oregon territory.  The light structure marked the treacherous little bar at the mouth of the Umpqua River.

However, the construction technology did not take into consideration the cyclic flooding Cape Argo Lightand storm conditions. After only a few years the lighthouse started to lean to one side.  After only seven years it finally gave way and collapsed. The newly formed US Lighthouse Service decided not to replace the light.  Instead, the new first lighthouse was relocated to Cape Arago 25 miles to the south. It  marked the entrance to Coos Bay where lumbermen were getting a bigger share of the lumber market. 

At the time the Umpqua Lighthouse collapsed, there was a ship being built in Baltimore MD that was part of the Western expansion plan of the Lincoln Administration.  Capt. J White was the project overseer and took command of the vessel, Revenue Cutter Lincoln.  The Cutter was dispatched to the West coast in 1865.  One of the roles of the cutter was to chart the navigable waters of the West Coast.  They were sent to Port Angeles, WA in anticipation of the finalization of the Alaska purchase in 1867.  The charts they constructed were in use by the US Navy until the end of WW ll.

U.S> Revenue Cutter LincolnFollowing the recommendations of Capt. White, the lighthouse service decided to build a new lighthouse every 20 miles along the west coast of the territory. Every lighthouse has its own unique characteristics.  One of that type of aid to navigation cannot be mistaken for any other lighthouse.  Imagine the comfort a lighthouse provided the mariners on vessels navigating the coast on a stormy night, battling following seas with high winds, and getting more stressed as each wave passes beneath the ship. Any sailor piloting the coast would always have a lighthouse as a reference.

In 1894, thirty years after the collapse of the original beacon, construction of the new light structure was completed. Even at its new birth, with the base one hundred feet above sea level and more than one-half mile inland, Umpqua lighthouse didn’t get the respect it deserved.  While every lighthouse is unique in its design, Umpqua River lighthouse was built using the same plans that were being used in the construction of Hecate Head lighthouse, 20 miles to the north.  However, the new Umpqua was the most technologically advanced of all the lighthouses at the time.  The Class 1 Fresnel lens was on a rotating clockwork design driven by a fractional horsepower motor.  Since 1932, an  incandescent bulb provided the light source. The rotating lens focused the light beam both horizontally and vertically.   

For the next ninety years, without ever missing a beat, an observer at sea, miles from the coastline, would see the flashing luminary.  The special light characteristic, white, white, red at two-second intervals, during the night and during periods of low visibility, made it unique from any other lighthouse in the world.  All lighthouses used as an aid to navigation have their own light characteristic.

The clockwork mechanics of the lighthouse gave out in 1985. The Coast Guard, amalgamated with the Lighthouse Service since 1932, considered a simpler drive mechanism to replace the delicate clockwork in use since the original construction. The people of Douglas County Oregon, where the structure is located, were outraged.  The entire community insisted on rebuilding the original.  The CG relented.

Adjacent to Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, Umpqua River Lighthouse, is unforgettable as a recreation and maritime treasure.  The structure is presently listed under the Douglas County Parks inventory.  The County took over operation and pays the Coast Guard for use of the lighthouse.  It is still operational with new LED light source that is visible for twenty miles. 


Please click on the YouTube tab at the bottom of the page.  A great project by some fantastic Oregon youth. 










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Article Summary:

A visit to the Umpqua River Lighthouse on the South Central Oregon coast is unforgettable to visiting tourists and campers.  When organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or Tourist Information promote the local lighthouse, visitors always feel a restless curiosity and need to visit. 

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Jim Flynn

Jim Flynn

Jim Flynn, a US Coast Guard vet, is a retired Tradesman. He is the sole proprietor of Seaport E, a B2B service offering Content Management, Value Seach Engine Submission and Optimization, and SeaportDomains.Com, providing Top Level Domain Search and Registration . Jim is actively involved in grass roots, community and legislative action.  Mr. Flynn provides content to publishers upon request.






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