Lighting the way for 150 years: Yaquina Head Lighthouse prepares for sesquicentennial

By Tom Banse (Northwest News Network)
Jan. 1, 2023 2 p.m.

The stewards of Oregon’s tallest lighthouse are sprucing up the popular landmark on Oregon’s central coast for its 150th anniversary in 2023.

Yaquina Head acting site manager Chris Papen and acting chief ranger Katherine Fuller.

Yaquina Head acting site manager Chris Papen and acting chief ranger Katherine Fuller.

Tom Banse / NW News Network

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The 93-foot tall Yaquina Head Lighthouse was completed in 1872, but the lamp on top wasn’t lit until the following year because of a 19th-century version of, get this, supply chain problems.

“It took a while to get all the parts to the lens room here,” explained acting chief ranger, Katherine Fuller.

Fuller said the sesquicentennial celebration will build up to August 20, the day in 1873 when the Yaquina Head Lighthouse finally entered service. Leading up to that date will be a variety of events and ongoing restoration.

The lighthouse is a major attraction on the Oregon Coast by Newport. The landmark stands at the end of a point that juts nearly a mile out into the Pacific Ocean within the Bureau of Land Management-administered Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The 100-acre park's trails, sweeping views, bird life and visitor center attract upwards of 500,000 people every year.

People in the Newport community immediately noticed one change that has already happened. It's the switch out of the lighthouse beacon from a 1,000-watt halogen bulb to a new energy-saving, long-lasting LED stack.

"We got some complaints from neighbors for a while,” Fuller said. “You can see in photos, this (old one) was kind of a yellow light. You know those LEDs are quite different. They come on quickly, like 'boom.'"

Unknown when visitors will again be able to climb to the top

Until 2020, visitors could ascend to the top of the lighthouse on guided tours. Then the historic landmark closed during the pandemic. Limited “quick look” tours resumed late this past summer, but they only go around the bottom floor for now. BLM acting site manager Chris Papen said restoration of public access to the top depends on getting back to full staffing and a higher “comfort level” with structure and COVID safety.

Papen said he couldn't make promises about when pre-pandemic tours will return, but said his agency was building up to that goal. The BLM staff on site is currently down about 20%-30% from full strength.

As of December 2022, the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse was still blocked by a "closed for renovations" sign.

As of December 2022, the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse was still blocked by a "closed for renovations" sign.

Tom Banse / NW News Network

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"The outside is looking great," observed Fuller. On the inside of the brick lighthouse, restoration and maintenance continues room by room. “There's always more to do. If you've ever lived in an old house, you know those repairs just don't stop."

Overall, Papen said the historic lighthouse seems to be structurally sound.

“I’m not quite 150, but I would tell you if I looked in this great of shape at 150, I’d be pretty happy with myself,” Papen quipped.

Other recent improvements you may notice or appreciate since your last visit include a new concrete patio and view deck on the seaward side of the lighthouse base. It replaced a wooden deck that was perpetually sprinkled with traffic cones to mark weak spots.

During the pandemic shutdown, restorers were able to tackle the lighthouse's work room at its base. They rebuilt a fireplace and reopened a chimney. Papen said restoration of the oil room across the hall ranks high on the to-do list next, but that may be a project that lasts past the sesquicentennial.

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse is the second oldest continuously-operating lighthouse on the Oregon coast. Cape Blanco Lighthouse in Curry County is Oregon's oldest standing lighthouse. It was first lit in 1870. Back then, a lighthouse keeper had to light wicks in lard oil to fire up the lantern. Electricity arrived at Yaquina Head in the early 1930s.

Haunted by a ghost or just tall tales?

Lurking ghosts are a recurrent theme in the Yaquina Head Lighthouse's history. A lighthouse enthusiast website maintained by Kraig Anderson traced the first ghost story back to construction of the double-walled brick tower in 1872. A workman supposedly fell from scaffolding into the hollow space between the walls and his body could not be retrieved.

“A fine story, and perhaps an explanation for the station’s purported ghost, but records show no workers were killed during construction,” Anderson wrote. “Strong winds did blow one worker off the bluffs near the construction site, but amazingly, his oilskins acted somewhat like a parachute and he only received minor injuries.”

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse celebrates its 150th birthday in 2023.

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse celebrates its 150th birthday in 2023.

Tom Banse / NW News Network

The ghost thread resurfaced many more times including in 1983 when the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was used in the filming of "Hysterical," a comedic horror movie spoof in which the setting is rechristened as Hellview, Oregon.

“The main character, Frederic Lansing (Bill Hudson), a writer from New York City, tries to escape to the remote lighthouse to write a great novel, but his plans are interrupted by a resident ghost,” Anderson noted about the movie’s plot. “The two keeper's dwellings appear in the movie, but were torn down a year or so after the filming.”

The calendar of events and anniversary commemorations for the lighthouse have not yet been finalized, but will likely involve the BLM, city of Newport, the nonprofit Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses and other partners.

The director of the Friends group, Amy Anderson, said her organization is fundraising to support restoration of the oil room in the lighthouse as well as to bring back for 2023 some successful interpretive programs from the past. Those include an artist-in-residence program and a summer student guide employment project.

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