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Heceta Head Lighthouse, Florence, Oregon

Heceta Head in July 2017; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

If you've spent any time looking up the coolest lighthouses in the States, then you've probably seen photos of Heceta Head Light. It's one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country, and is undoubtedly the most photographed and visited lighthouse along the Oregon coast. It's situated high on the bluffs about 13 miles from Florence on Heceta Head, named for Don Bruno de Heceta (or Hezeta), who surveyed the Oregon coast for the Spanish Navy in 1775. He plotted the 1,000-foot high, rocky headland on his voyage up the coast.

A century later, locals requested a lighthouse on the bluff, but they knew it would be no easy task. The US Lighthouse Board approved the construction of a lighthouse and appropriated the funds in 1888. A crew of 56 men began construction in 1892. The workers averaged about 10 hours of work a day and were paid $2 per hour. Construction materials had to be brought in along a single lane wagon road or pushed ashore on rafts at Cape Cove. The 7-mile wagon road didn't exist prior to this and had to be built before any construction began. The sandstone foundation stones were quarried from just southeast of Portland and the bricks were brought in from San Francisco. Later that year in 1892, Congress placed an order for a First Order Fresnel lens from Chance Brothers in England. This is significant because all other Oregon lighthouses, and indeed most of the lighthouses in the US, have French made Fresnel lenses.

Construction at Heceta Head in the summer of 1892. The keepers' duplex had been started, but the light and second house had not. Courtesy of US Forest Service.

Because of the size of the light and location, it was determined that multiple keepers would be needed to keep the lighthouse functioning; hence, the dual dwellings. They were built next to each other south of the light on the bluff, facing out to sea for a head keeper and 2 assistant keepers and their families. The house closest to the lighthouse was for the head keeper and the other was divided as a duplex, for the two assistant keepers.

Keeper's cottages; undated; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the lighthouse and other structures were completed in August 1893, construction had cost $80,000 to build the lighthouse, head keeper's house, assistant keepers' duplex, a barn, and 2 oil storage buildings. The Fresnel lens, which arrived that October, accounted for about $10,000 of the $80,000. The completed lighthouse stood at 56 feet tall, atop a 205 feet high bluff overlooking the Cape Cove and the open ocean.

The barn and chicken coop behind the keepers' houses, undated; Courtesy of US Forest Service

The First Order Fresnel Lens, which is still in use today, is comprised of 8 panels of 640 prisms that are each 2 inches thick. A First Order Lens is so classified because of it's size. The focal length of the lens, or the distance from the center of the lamp/bulb to the inside surface of the lens, is 36 inches.

Lighthouse orders, created by HAER; Courtesy of Library of Congress

If you can imagine, the lens can easily fit a number of people inside of its 6-foot interior diameter. This large lens reflects light 21 miles offshore. It could actually be seen from farther than that if it wasn't for the curvature of the earth. The original 5-wick oil lamp equaled 800,000 candle power and was rotated by a 200-pound weight that slowly dropped down a 35-foot cable. It had to be cranked back up every 4 hours by a keeper.

Side elevation, undated; Courtesy of US Forest Service

Heceta Head Lighthouse is actually not the only one of its kind. It has a sister lighthouse, Umpqua River Lighthouse, located 40 miles south, that was built using the same plans. They were both approved by Congress in 1888 and started in 1892, however Umpqua was not completed until 1897. The plans were originally designed for Umpqua and duplicated for Heceta Head.

Undated: Courtesy of US Forest Service

The beacon was first lit on March 30, 1894, with a characteristic of 1 white flash every minute. The early years were very difficult for the 3 lightkeeper families. They were a long journey away from the nearest town and isolation was a real concern. It took 5 to 7 hours to reach Florence. Olaf Hansen, assistant and later head keeper, spent more than 15 years there working to develop a sustainable community. He built vegetable gardens, a school house, small post office, and other common structures. Hansen's 6 children were all raised at the small community. Unfortunately, turnover was still high among the assistant keepers.

Schoolhouse built around 1897; undated; Courtesy of US Forest Service

Life at Heceta Head changed with the construction of Highway 101 (also called the Roosevelt Coast Military Highway and Oregon Coast Highway) in 1932. The 1930s brought motorists along the highway visiting the beach, park land, and the nearby Sea Lion Caves. This ended the long period of isolation for the Heceta Head community.

When electricity arrived at the lighthouse in 1934, the oil lamp was replaced with a 500 watt bulb, and the light's characteristic was changed from 1 white flash every minute to a flash every 10 seconds. Electrification also meant the lighthouse duty's diminished slightly, and the tower only required one head keeper and one assistant, instead of two.

Undated, Courtesy of US Forest Service

The 1930s is also when the US Lighthouse Service was decommissioned and the US Coast Guard stepped in. Unfortunately, the USCG decided the head keeper's house (the one closest to the light) was excess and sold the building for $10 in 1940. The lumber was salvaged and taken to town to become another building.

1938, Courtesy of National Archives

This house would have come in handy during the Second World War, when Heceta Head was identified as a strategic point along the coast and was stationed with 75 men and a dozen or so guard dogs. They patrolled the beaches and lived in 2 wooden barracks hastily constructed on the site of the old house. The keeper at the time, Clifford Hermann, was the only civilian allowed on the grounds during the war.

USCG barracks, c. 1945; Courtesy of US Forest Service

When the war ended, Heceta Head became home to two families again. By 1963, the lighthouse was automated and Oswald Allick stepped down as last head keeper and retired. The remaining Queen Anne cottage was turned over to the US Forest Service.

Aerial view of Heceta Head, 1953, Courtesy of National Archives

The Forest Service wasn't quite sure what to do with the house. Thankfully they opted not to sell or demolish it, but instead leased it to the Lane Community College. Some renovations were done to divide more of the lower floor rooms into classrooms.

In 1978, the structures on site were listed on the National Register and the Forest Service decided they needed to be more accessible to the public. The keeper's house was converted into a bed & breakfast, which it still functions as today. In 1998, the government deeded the land to the Oregon Parks System and a state park was established, opening the site to the public for the first time. This was strategically done since south of Heceta Head, the Devil's Elbow State Park had already established in 1987. The two areas were combined and rechristened Heceta Head Lighthouse State Park Scenic Viewpoint.

The USCG maintained ownership of the light until 2001, when it was turned over to the Oregon State Parks Department. Before turning it over, the USCG undertook a year-long restoration of the Fresnel lens, which was off its axis by 6 inches. A much larger restoration project was undertaken by the state from 2011 to 2013. The $1.6 million project restored all the metalwork, masonry, interior finishes, windows and doors, the lens rotating mechanism, and almost every original component on-site. The project took a team of more than 100 subcontractors and craftsmen, and the grounds were closed to the public for 2 years.

Restoration work 2011-2013; Courtesy of Pioneer Waterproofing

The Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast celebrated the light station's 125th birthday on March 30, 2019, and today, the lighthouse that was once 800,000 candle power is now powered by a 1,000 watt quartz bulb that equals 2.5 million candle power through the Fresnel Lens. More than 24,000 people visit the lighthouse and keeper's house every year. Of the 6 original buildings from the 1890s, only the head keeper's house and barn have been lost. Visitors can enjoy the 7-mile trail network on 549 acres, the beach, and visit the B&B gift shop. The park and surrounding area are part of the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve, the largest marine reserve in Oregon.

Head Keepers:

Andrew P. C. Hald (1894-1899)

Edward Durgan (1899-1900)

Joseph Dunsen (1900-1904)

Olaf L. Hansen (1904-1920)

Frank DeRoy (1920-1925)

Clifford B. Hermann (1925-1950)

S. H. Elder (1950-1952)

John A. Boyer (1952)

various USCG keepers

Oswald Allick (1957-1963)


Heceta Lighthouse B&B

Society of Architectural Historians Archipedia

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