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The Dark Side of Oregon's Coastal Lighthouses

 

Covering 180 miles of Oregon coast travel: Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Manzanita, Nehalem, Wheeler, Rockaway, Garibaldi, Tillamook, Oceanside, Pacific City, Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Waldport, Yachats & Florence.

10/21/07

Secrets of the Season

The Dark Side of Oregon's Coastal Lighthouses

A rather spooky tale surrounds the Heceta Head lighthouse near Florence

(Oregon Coast) - They fire up the imagination, evoke a sense of mystery and history, and they hearken back to humankind’s deepest spiritual yearning to be saved, or even for hope itself.

And they may or may not be haunted.

Four of the five lighthouses on the upper half of Oregon’s coast are some of the most legendary. Indeed, one – the Heceta Head Lighthouse, near Florence – is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world. The others are the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport, the lighthouse atop Cape Lookout (near Tillamook), and the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, a mile offshore from Seaside and Cannon Beach.

All but Cape Lookout’s light have some weird tales surrounding them, in various incarnations. And these tales intertwine tightly with the buildings’ histories, making for some lively discussions and research.

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There’s even a DVD out there now which delves even deeper into the history of these soaring beauties. Check out Oregon Lights to grab a copy - and keep on reading.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

This is one lighthouse that has never been accessible to the public and probably never will be. Thus, it sparks the imagination more than most, with its mysterious silhouette lying more than a mile away.

Indeed, the truth behind this lighthouse is weirder than fiction itself – or any of its ghost tales, for that matter.

It began in the 1880’s, when it was decided that too many ships were meeting their demise at Tillamook Head and this part of the north coast. It was eventually planned for the blob of basalt rock offshore rather than Tillamook Head itself, as fog or other blind spots on the headland would create visibility problems.

Things didn’t start well. The first man to step on the rock to do some surveying drowned, creating an immediate public outcry that perhaps this wasn’t a good idea.

Close up of the lighthouse, shot by Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium (aboard Aviation Adventures)

It took a lot of blasting to flatten the top of the rock enough to build the lighthouse. Then, construction crews had to endure insane conditions, living under soggy tents and enormous waves that constantly knocked at them.

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The crews lived in rotating shifts on the rock, and there were so many casualties in these conditions that men waiting onshore to work there were actually sequestered away from the public and from talk of what went on there. They were housed in a remote spot on the southern Washington coast and later on a ship just offshore.

Lightkeepers lived there in shifts too: four of them, usually a few months at a time. It was a brutal existence, and one keeper reportedly went mad from the solitude.

The winch used by the lighthouse in the old days

A giant winch was used to bring supplies and personnel from visiting ships to the rock, which was a dangerous and unwieldy endeavor under even the best conditions. They were put inside an object called a breeches buoy – which is essentially a giant pair of pants encircled by a floatation ring, attached to the cables overheard. Numerous men were lost doing this.

The place was ripe for ghost stories. It didn’t help that local tribes purportedly said it was inhabited by evil spirits. They tried to warn whitie that it was cursed, and for a while there it seemed they were right.

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There are rumors of ghost tales over the years, including the claims of voices heard over the din of storms from the lens area and other dark parts of the lighthouse. Sometimes, stories about ghost ships appearing in the fog and drifting past are associated with the place as well, but usually these have foundations in actual events involving near misses from real ships.

Indeed, a ship called the Lupatia nearly hit the lighthouse in dense fog, but was warned away just in time. However, it did soon after slam into Tillamook Head, killing all aboard except the ship’s dog.

One ghost tale is descended from this incident. It says that you can sometimes still hear the dog howl in the night near Tillamook Head.

Another almost spooky tale from the lighthouse comes from a keeper who felt something brush past his face in the dark while lying in bed. All of a sudden, he heard strange, irregular footsteps in the pitch black. After a time, he bolted towards the light switch, arms swinging wildly in an attempt to smack whatever being – or trespasser – was there. When he turned on the light, he found only an injured bird that had somehow made its way into his bedroom. The odd footsteps were its broken wing hitting the floor.

Sea lion resting place on the basalt rock (photo Boothe)

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957, with the last keeper, Oswald Allik, proclaiming “I return thee to the elements.”

In the 80’s, after numerous failed ownerships, a firm called Eternity at Sea bought the property, and it now serves as a columbarium – a place for ashes of the dead.

Rather comically, that firm ran ads in the early 90’s or so offering free satellite TV for life – if you reserved your resting place early. Presumably, they figured if you were making such arrangements you wouldn’t be around too long.

Yaquina Head Ligthouse

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Yaquina Head Lighthouse

A bevy of rumors and ghost stories have surrounded this beauty, the tallest on the Oregon coast. But none are as wild as the truth behind the place.

The big tale involves a lighthouse keeper named Herbert Higgins who supposedly got drunk, then fell and broke his neck on the spiral staircase. Another version has the man deathly ill and forced to work on the lens until he passed out and died, because of the negligence of a co-worker who didn’t attend to his duties because he was drunk. In any case, Higgins purportedly haunted the place thereafter, and his old coworker refused to go near the staircase at night for fear of running into the ectoplasmic Higgins.

One keeper there, who served the lighthouse from 1932 – 1954, purportedly told people he’d witnessed some unseen someone coming and going up and down the spiral staircase. But after World War II, he claimed it never happened again.

Inside the Yaquina Head lighthouse

Another story claims a construction worker fell to his death in between the layers of a wall while the building was being built. His corpse could not be retrieved, so the building was supposedly finished with his body still inside.

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Those stories were eventually ghost-busted. The Bureau of Land Management, which now runs the lighthouse, told BeachConnection.net they received a letter from a descendant of Mr. Higgins who said he did not die in the lighthouse. He moved to Portland, became a dockworker, and eventually died of natural causes there in the 30’s.

The lighthouse underwent some repainting and refurbishing in recent years

There is also a tale of a head lighthouse keeper who died in a storm while trying to cross a creek close to the ocean, getting washed in by a large wave. The story has his daughter so bereaved she shot herself. It’s said sometimes you see her spirit wandering the beaches between Agate Beach and Nye Beach, looking for dear old Dad.

Some version of this legend has the lighthouse keeper ghost showing up in local bars as well.

There actually is a cemetery in the hills atop the headland, set a ways behind the trails atop Salaal Hill and the old quarry.

Rumors about the lighthouse seem to abound with reckless abandon. The big one says it was mistakenly built here instead of at Cape Foulweather, just to the north and much higher than the headland. This is not true, say historians.

The rocks here are - ironically - magnetized in such a way as to disturb compasses

One strange and little known fact about Yaquina Head is that it contains a big vein of magnetized iron ore, which – ironically – could make old-fashioned compasses go a bit bonkers when old-style ships sailed too near. The reefs are especially dangerous here as well.

But the compass-disorientation is probably just a rumor, say coastal geologists. While it is true that deposits of ore do this, you usually have to be within 20 feet or so of the iron. However, since some of the headlands run beneath the water a ways, it is possible for passing ships to have noticed something wacky - but not much.

Fact: According to one historical group that researches lighthouses, lightning struck this one in October of 1920. Keeper Wilson Ald was in a room just below the lantern room as it happened, and luckily not near the metal railings. The vast amount of current sent through the railings burned the paint off it.

This lighthouse is one of two in Newport, but only functioned for three years

Yaquina Bay Lighthouse

Newport is lucky to be blessed with actually two lighthouses: one at the headland, and this smaller one, which serves as a bit of living history now. It was started in the late 1800’s, but was shut down after only three years. The place started to decay fairly quickly, and really fell into serious, even creepy, disrepair by the early part of the century.

Somewhere in there, a tale got started about the ghost of a teenaged girl named Muriel, who had fallen to her death while being chased by pirates, or something like that. One version involves a secret passageway into a hidden cavern beneath the lighthouse, where she fell.

Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in a more ghostly mood

This tale has her wandering the beaches in her restless afterlife, appearing out of the fog.

However, it turns out this one was only a fictional short story written by an imaginative local around the turn of the century. What is interesting to note, however, is that until local historians found the original short story in the 80’s, it had somehow weaved itself into local lore as a real ghost story.

Even book authors took the tale seriously as late as the 90’s.

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Heceta Head Lighthouse

Heceta Head is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world

The lighthouse here is one of the only ones on the coast to still have its keeper’s quarters. They’ve been turned into a charming little B&B, in fact, and it’s on the national historic registry.

It’s notorious for being haunted, however. Indeed, Coastal Living Magazine last year named it one of the top ten haunted lighthouses in the nation.

It’s said to be inhabited by someone nicknamed the “Gray Lady,” or “Rue,” often appearing as either an elderly woman or a grayish, smoke-like figure of a woman that quickly dissipates. One version of the tale has it she is the mother of a baby whose grave sits hidden somewhere on the grounds. The other says she is the person in this secret grave.

oregon coast lighthouses on dvd

In any case, this one has more witnesses and coherency than any other ghost story on the coast. The family that runs the B&B claims she’s just a member of the family now.

Some of the earliest tales involve workmen who’ve encountered the otherworldly lady and ran off in fear. One man actually refused to finish working inside one room, and would only continue working on a window from the outside – even after he broke it. He wouldn’t even venture in to clean it up.

In the middle of the night, the family living there heard sweeping noises somewhere upstairs. The next day, they discovered the mess had been swept into a neat little pile.

Two of the more credible witnesses of this ghost are famed Oregon scenic photographers Steve Terrill and Larry Geddis. Terrill spoke to BeachConnection.net in 2001 and told how the pair were staying at the B&B while shooting photos of the area. At one point, they spotted what looked like the figure of a woman in the window of Geddis’ room, if only briefly. When they later discovered there was absolutely no one in the building at the time, Terrill said Geddis was visibly disturbed.

Later, Terrill said, they discovered some small objects in Geddis’ room had been moved.

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Condo-hotel that offers the amenities of a fine hotel, but also includes ownership of a vacation home on the north Oregon coast. It is a unique opportunity, as condo owners have an opportunity to share in the revenues of their unit. All have either spectacular, nearly aerial views of the ocean and city, or they gaze out at the lush forests of the coast range mountains. There are private balconies in all rooms, which come as studios or units with one bedroom or two - as large as 850 square feet. Each is fully furnished. $189,000 to $449,000, (with most in the $300,000 range.) When owners are not using their units, they may be rented out as hotel rooms, and owners may share in those revenues.

 

 

 

 

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