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Surprise History: There Were Three Cape Arago Lighthouses on S. Oregon Coast

Published 07/12/21 at 5:45 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Surprise History: There Were Three Cape Arago Lighthouses on S. Oregon Coast

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(Coos Bay, Oregon) – On the southern Oregon coast, there's a lighthouse just as aloof and almost as distant as the north coast's mysterious Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. These days, Cape Arago's lighthouse sits on an unobtainable chunk of island just offshore from the magnificent state park, another place from the past that no longer shines its light nor allows visitors.

And that's a good thing. After all, it sits on stolen land – and sacred native land, to boot. The lighthouse and the land were given back to regional tribes in 2006, originally called Chief's Island by the original people here. As far back as the 1930s, it was documented that natives claimed it was a tribal burial ground, and even newspapers at the time admitted skeletons were found buried there.

Oregon coast history is full of surprises, and that's not the only one about this lighthouse. There were actually three lighthouses atop Cape Arago – and other names for it as well.

It was apparently Captain Robert Cook who named the entire area Cape Gregory, a moniker that stuck around until the 1870s.

Fast forward to 1852, it was a small ship called the Cynosure, commanded by a Captain Whippy, that was trying to enter the Umpqua River by Reedsport but found his way into Coos Bay instead. It was partially that incident which inspired the building of the lighthouse some 14 years later, in 1866 – according to the Coos Bay Times in a March, 1931 edition. Another factor was the first lighthouse at Bandon had fallen apart by the 1860s.

This original sentinel was 25 feet high and featured an octagonal tower with a lantern for the light with the keeper's quarters not too far away. In 1878, a small family lighthouse dynasty began, with Thomas C. Wyman as assistant keeper. His lineage served the lighthouse for two more generations after that, until the late ‘30s. In fact, in a weird tragic twist, his son died in a shipwreck nearby in 1912 as the then-18-year-old grandson (Thomas Wyman-Albee) watched. Albee went on to be assistant lightkeeper and then head lightkeeper.

A Lighthouse Bridge Too Far

The original lighthouse in the 1880s (courtesy Friends of Cape Arago Lighthouse)

Meanwhile, getting to and from the island was a nightmare, and the first bridge only lasted a year. For a time, travel was accomplished by boat, and then by a winch (basically like a zipline you hung onto). The elder Albee fell off this contraption and lost his leg; another keeper drowned. Other bridges washed out, but eventually a taller one was built – dismantled in 2006 when the land changed hands.

Lighthouse 2.0 - 3.0

In the 1890s, a new Cape Arago lighthouse was begun and a sizable fog horn was added. Construction hit a few snags, which included a schooner containing building supplies that sunk just offshore from the south Oregon coast landmark. This one went into operation in 1896 with the old one still sitting not far, actually moved at one point to become the keeper's quarters. The old one was enclosed by sheet metal; the new one made of wood.

A mere ten years later, a newer fog horn was added and a new Fresnel lens built. It was Cape Arago 2.1.

Also around the turn-of-the-century, the Cape Arago Lighthouse witnessed the ship General Butler burn 75 miles offshore, with three lifeboats put into the water but only one making it to the lighthouse. There were six survivors.

In 1925, Albee had returned to the lighthouse after leaving for a few years and had by this time become head keeper. In the early ‘30s, he recommended a host of changes, which resulted in a new lighthouse being built: Cape Arago Light 3.0. The old wooden lighthouse was again moved and the third lighthouse built of concrete, going into action in 1934.

It was that structure that survives on the south Oregon coast today.

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Courtesy US Coast Guard

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