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Cape Meares Lighthouse History and Its Future on Oregon Coast

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By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Cape Meares Lighthouse History and Its Future on Oregon Coast

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(Oceanside, Oregon) – It’s either the Oregon coast’s shortest lighthouse or the tallest. It all depends how you think of it, in this rather unusual dual existence. The Cape Meares Lighthouse near Oceanside is only 38 feet high, but it sits on a cliff a little over 200 feet high. And its existence has had quite an interesting, even dramatic path: one of engineering feats, vandalism, recovery and an odd sight or two.

Beyond the rather striking history of the Cape Meares Lighthouse, this guiding light stalwart has implemented a few changes that are noteworthy and thus some nods to the future.

The “pre-history” of the lighthouse goes all the way back to around the 1780s, when Captain John Meares charted the headland and it later took his name. He was the first to sail into Tillamook Bay, naming it Quick Sand Bay for all the mud flats. Unlike his ship, that name never stuck. In 1886, Captain Powell, of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, was the first to scout out the plot for the lighthouse.

Construction was begun around 1887 or just a little bit later, involving a rigorous and difficult set of steps to get equipment up to the top of Cape Meares. This was a time of no roads and only rough, extremely primitive trails meandering their way up. A boat had to bring the gear into Tillamook Bay, and from there all was hauled by oxen and men to the top.

The lighthouse lens itself was constructed in Paris and was shipped through Cape Horn from Europe to the Oregon coast. In a truly remarkable feat, a wooden crane hoisted the lens up the cliff from its boat in the water below.

Cape Meares Lighthouse went into service in 1890. The lighthouse itself was decommissioned in 1963 as the modern navigation light replaced it, and somewhere along the line the keepers quarters was removed. It sat vacant and unused until the late ‘70s, getting beaten up rather badly by vandals.

By the ‘80s it was a thriving tourist attraction and went through a small number of changes over time. Its biggest and most eye-popping was in 2003 when it became the lighthouse version of the “boy in a bubble.” All wrapped up in white bubble-like material, Cape Meares Lighthouse went under the knife for a few months, getting repainted and refurbished. It was a somewhat surreal sight. Within a few years, Newport’s Yaquina Head Lighthouse got the same treatment, however.

In the wee hours of one night in January 2010 the lighthouse went through its most shocking change. A pair of local men in their 20s drove their truck through a blocked maintenance road to the lighthouse viewing area, doing “cookies” and other damage to the lawn with their rig. Worse yet, they took a shotgun to the lighthouse itself, plugging it full of holes and damaging 15 window panes and some of the priceless Fresnel lens made in Paris over 100 years before.

Above: damage done to the lighthouse in 2010 (photos OPRD)

Damage at the time was estimated at around half a million dollars.

Over the following years, a Florida group called the Lighthouse Lamp Shop was brought in to fix the lens, using all manner of careful, painstaking methods. They had to recover each of the salvageable pieces of glass and catalog them, then they reinforced loose or hanging pieces still attached to the metal frame. That was just the initial phase, not including all the final work of reconstruction. After all, this was a lens constructed by a means that was no longer in practice in the modern world.

It took more than two years but the light eventually opened back up to tours.

Now, with the gift shop thriving and the Friends of Cape Meares Lighthouse reporting visitors from more than 100 different countries most years, the light is moving forward into the future.

The lighthouse got a new paint job in 2018, and the parking lot restrooms now feature ADA accessibility. Nature signs were improved as well, and in recent years the main interpretive sign in the middle of the parking lot was expanded into something bigger, bolder and more beautiful.

The Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint not only features the lighthouse but a myriad of trails, the famed and freaky Octopus Tree, and extraordinary views of Three Arch Rocks from a different vantage point. Hotels in Oceanside - Where to eat - Oceanside Maps and Virtual Tours - More photos below:


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