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Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon

lighthouse at the end of a path
2017; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

The Yaquina River (technically a stream) originates in Corvallis, Oregon about 85 miles south of Portland. It is one of the most important streams in the Central Oregon Coast watershed. The mouth of the "river" widens to create an estuary, Yaquina Bay, which meets the Pacific Ocean in the city of Newport. This "river" has been historically important to Oregon for its use transporting lumber and other raw materials in the 19th and 20th centuries. Newport still retains remnants of this historically important economic role.

But you're probably not here to learn about a river that's not actually a river. The unassuming Yaquina Bay Lighthouse sits atop a bluff overlooking the bay. There are a few things about it that make it a unique lighthouse. For one, it was only in use for 3 years (from 1871 to 1874) before it was decommissioned. Don't quote me on it, but that's the shortest term lighthouse that I'm aware of! Yaquina Bay Lighthouse also has the distinction of being the only extant wood lighthouse in Oregon, the oldest building in Newport, AND it's the only lighthouse in Oregon that still retains its attached living quarters. That's quite a claim to fame for only being operational for 3 years.

map showing yaquina bay and the coast
Yaquina Bay is located very near the market for Government Wharf, 1898 13th Lighthouse District Map; Courtesy New York Public Library

Before we go into detail about all of that, let's start at the beginning. In the mid-19th century, Newport was one of the busiest harbors between Seattle and San Francisco, due in large part to the Yaquina River. The State of Oregon formally requested the US government to build a navigational aid in 1869. The US Lighthouse Board agreed that a lighthouse was necessary, but could not agree on where it should be built.

Some felt that the lighthouse should be be built in the Bay to guide vessels in and out of the river, while others felt it should be at Yaquina Head to aid larger vessels out at sea. In the end, the Board decided that a lighthouse in the bay would better serve the needs of Newport. Funds were appropriated, land was purchased, and construction began in 1871. Ben Simpson, a local Newporter, built the tower and attached dwelling, while Joseph Bien of San Francisco constructed the lantern.

construction plan for lighthouse detail
Detail plans of the lantern pinnacle, 1871; Courtesy of National Archives

Work was complete and the Fifth Order Fresnel lens was first lit on November 3, 1871. The first (and only) keeper was Charles H. Pierce, a Civil War veteran. Pierce's 9th child was born in the Keeper's House at Yaquina Bay.

In 1874, the US Lighthouse Board decided that another lighthouse was indeed needed at Yaquina Head due north of the Bay. The new light was 93 feet tall, the tallest in Oregon, and essentially made its smaller older sister obsolete. Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was lit for the last time on October 1, 1874. The Board tried to recoup some of its money by selling the light station; however, none of the offers were appealing enough so the Board decided to keep the light. It was boarded up in 1878.

historic image of people on a beach with a lighthouse in the background
c.1900; Public Domain

Some life was breathed back into the station from 1888 to 1896, when the house was used as quarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers when the north jetty was built. Then in 1906, it was again used as housing, this time for the US Lifesaving Service. Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was transferred to the control of the US Coast Guard in 1915, after the service branch was founded in January of that year. The lighthouse was used as crew quarters until 1933, when it was effectively abandoned.

map of river and coast
1924 nautical chart showing Yaquina Bay Light at the mouth of the bay and Yaquina Head Light less than 5 miles north; Courtesy NOAA

This interesting history has given the lighthouse was level of notoriety. Some even say it's haunted. Lischen M. Miller wrote in 1899 that the lighthouse is "the loneliest place in the world" in The Haunted Lighthouse fictional tale. In the 70s, a hitchhiker who slept there for the night claimed to have seen the ghost of a woman.

historic picture of run down lighthouse
c.1910; Public Domain

Over 30 acres and the lighthouse were transferred to the control of the Oregon State Highway Commission in 1934, when they began work on the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Extra land was to be converted into a public park. The Commission slated the lighthouse for demolition in 1946.

bridge over water
Yaquina Bay Bridge looking north, the lighthouse is visible on the bluff, c.1936; Courtesy Lincoln County Historical Society

Locals and the Lincoln County Historical Society rallied to try to save the building and pay for restoration, but their efforts weren't enough. They failed to raise the necessary funds 5 times. In 1951, industrialist L. E. Warford took on the cause and tried to get the lighthouse nationally recognized. Finally, in 1955 the lighthouse was formally leased into the care of the Lincoln County Historical Society. It was subsequently used as a county museum for the next 18 years.

lighthouse and coast guard tower
Lighthouse with Coast Guard tower, 1939; Forest Service, Public Domain

By the 1970s, things began to shift again at the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. The Oregon State Parks & Recreation Department (OPRD) were managing the lighthouse and they determined that the light could at last be fully restored through the Historical Restoration Program. The lighthouse was completely restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

nautical chart map
1973 nautical chart showing the abandoned lighthouse and Coast Guard tower; Courtesy NOAA

After it's brief 3-year operation, Yaquina Bay Lighthouse became more of a boarding house than lighthouse and sat unused for much of its life. In the mid-1990s it was restored again as a private aid to navigation by OPRD, Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses, and other community groups. The light was relit in a joint ceremony with the Coast Guard in December of 1996. Today, the light provides a steady white beam visible 161 feet above sea level. You can visit the light, now part of the Yaquina Bay State Park, and enjoy the numerous walking trails overlooking the beautiful bay. The lighthouse is seasonally closed from December through February every year.

looking over roof line at the beach and ocean
View from 2nd floor overlooking Yaquina Bay, 2017; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron


Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, Oregon Historical Society

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