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[UPDATE] This Week: South Oregon Coast History Made with First Lighting of Cape Blanco Lighthouse

Published 12/21/23 at 5:45 p.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Port Orford) - [Updated with new discovery on who lit the lighthouse first] This week in 1870, Oregon coast history was made.

On December 13, 1870, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the following notice:

"The Light-house Board gives notice that a fixed white light of the first order of the system of Fresnel, will be exhibited for the first time on the evening of December 20, 1870, and on every evening thereafter, from sunset to sunrise, from the tower recently erected on Cape Blanco, Oregon." (Photo above ODOT)

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And so south Oregon coast history was made: the light at Cape Blanco Lighthouse was lit for the first time on December 20, 1870, just as the newspaper announced. No delays, no postponements: it happened as planned. Likely, it was indeed the light station's first hire, Harvey B. Burnap, who lit the lamp that historic moment.

The Cape Blanco Heritage Society's Rebecca Malamud-Evans tells Oregon Coast Beach Connection the information comes from lighthousekeeper.com and local historians T.B.Hewitt and Michael Hewitt.

"H.B. Burnap, first keeper of the light assumed his responsibilities by lighting the lamp for the first time," she said. "According to original documents the focal plane was 256 feet above the mean level of the sea, and the light could be seen from the deck of a ship 22 2/3 nautical miles (25.697 land miles). Burnap had two assistants: Nathan Cook and Joel Bond."

Having just finished construction a week or so before, building it took a mere three years, considering all the hurdles of getting materials to the spot. There were no real roads then, and getting supplies largely meant meeting a ship parked offshore every few months. At one point early on, it was decided to make the bricks right on the spot, as that would be cheaper than having them brought in.

Planning for the lighthouse actually goes back to the 1850s, when Port Orford was established and some quickly began worrying about the safety of mariners coming to the area.


Courtesy Cape Blanco Heritage Society

Early photographs show some of the felled trees still lying near the site of the Cape Blanco Lighthouse. Reportedly, this was one of the hardest and most complex aspects of its construction, as it took leveling a massive layer of trees to make the light visible from all areas.

The tower stands 58 feet high off the ground – not quite the highest on this shoreline. The keepers quarters was a duplex set about 150 feet away.

How Cape Blanco is a Dividing Line in South Oregon Coast Weather

The Oregon coast itself was newly named: it had only been a state for 11 years. The state's first lighthouse happened a couple decades earlier up near Reedsport, but it crumbled in 1864. Burnap came from that lighthouse (which wasn't rebuilt until 1894).

Only eight years after being lit, lighthouse keepers at Cape Blanco had to deal with something similar as their roof was heavily damaged in a storm. Then it happened a second time in 1878, this time tearing the roof off.


Photo Courtesy Manuela Durson Fine Arts

Cape Blanco itself is the westernmost point in Oregon and the second westernmost spot along the west coast, jutting out about a mile and a half from Highway 101. Back then, that meant insane winds and other elements batted the structure and the keepers quarters around.

By the 1890s, the lighthouse had its two longest-running employees: James Langlois and James Hughes. These two stuck through it for about 40 years, long enough to have families so large they outgrew the keepers quarters duplex.

Langlois is a name you'll recognize quickly: the southern Oregon coast burgh between Port Orford and Bandon is named after him. Indeed, James spawned a bit of a family dynasty in the lightkeeping biz. His son, Oscar, went on to become an integral part of the Coquille Lighthouse at Bandon later on as its lightkeeper.

See Historic Adventures of a Lighthouse on South Oregon Coast: Coquille River Light at Bandon.

What's often overlooked with Langlois is that he was also a Civil War veteran. When he died in 1936, the regional papers honored him for much of his life's work “Langlois, for 42 years had been in charge of the Cape Blanco Lighthouse which is located further west than any other lighthouse in the U.S. During the Civil War he served with Captain John M. McCall's company 'A' Oregon Cavalry regiment from which he was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant at Fort Vancouver, July 26, 1866.”


Courtesy Cape Blanco Heritage Society

Hughes is the son of Patrick and Jane Hughes, who created the famed Hughes mansion on the Cape Blanco State Park grounds. Along with the lighthouse, they're run by the Cape Blanco Heritage Society as open attractions.

In 1903, Cape Blanco Lighthouse made history again by signing on the first woman lighthouse keeper in the U.S., Mabel E. Bretherton.

In 1925, the lighthouse began to go modern as a radiobeacon was established for mariners.

Later, during World War II, it was the Blanco light that gave a Japanese submarine a sense of direction when it launched a plane to drop bombs in a forest outside of Brookings.

Over the decades, it was used less and less, and finally in 1980 it was decommissioned and fully-automated. Not long after that, two teens broke in and did considerable damage, only getting completely repaired in 1994. Two years after that the lighthouse was opened again to the public, but has since undergone a few more major construction periods.

Major shipwrecks are also a big part of Cape Blanco Lighthouse history, with numerous occurring right in front of the light. See 1919 Wreck of J.A. Chanslor on South Oregon Coast Left 36 Dead Near Cape Blanco - or Oregon Coast Shipwrecks: List of Those You Can See - and Cannot

http://www.capeblancoheritagesociety.com/ 91816 Cape Blanco Rd, Port Orford, Oregon. 541-332-0248

Also see S. Oregon Coast's Cape Blanco Light Fundraising for 'Dire' Need of Repairs

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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