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Tales of the End of a South Oregon Coast Lighthouse: Chief's Island and Arago Light

Published 10/28/22 at 5:33 PM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Tales of the End of a South Oregon Coast Lighthouse: Chief's Island and Arago Light

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(Charleston, Oregon) - On August 3, 2013, there was an important moment in Oregon coast history that now lies quite a bit below the radar. It was when local tribes got back something precious that was stolen from them some 150 years before. Cape Arago's lighthouse - near Coos Bay – originally known as Chief's Island, was signed over to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Sisulaw. In a ceremony led by Captain Mark Reynolds, Commander of Coast Guard Sector North Bend, the headland that housed a lighthouse since the 1860s and even a Coast Guard station for awhile went back into the right hands. (Cape Arago Lighthouse near Coos Bay, courtesy Manuela Durson - see Manuela Durson Fine Arts for more)

European history around this south Oregon coast landmark goes back to 1778, when Captain Robert Cook sailed past and named this spot Gregory Point. Regional tribes go back much farther here. According to carbon dating, Chief's Island had humans on it for 1,500 to as much as 2,100 years ago.

Chief's Island / Gregory Point has a variety of tales to tell.

Tales of the End of a South Oregon Coast Lighthouse: Chief's Island and Arago Light
Above: lighthouse glow, photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection

The area was named Chief's Island by local tribes because it was traditionally where the chief had his dwelling. Yet there are plenty of signs of it being a village on and off over those 1,000 or more years. It's a known archaeological site, part of why it's deemed so important.

Going back even farther, the island is made of a kind of sandstone and geologically unstable. Some predictions see the area with the lighthouse caving in over the next decade or so.

Cape Arago Lighthouse is definitely not the only story on this little south Oregon coast island. But it's a big one. You can see the full history of Cape Arago lighthouse here, Surprise History: There Were Three Cape Arago Lighthouses on S. Oregon Coast .

Photo courtesy Oregon's Adventure Coast

The last days of the island in U.S. hands illustrate this fragility well. According to a 2005 article by the Statesman Journal, one local had seen a new hole in the area emerge. A storm in February of that year caused her to notice it. Waves started coming right through from the other side, and all of a sudden you could see right through the little island.

Back then, the Bureau of Land Management said you could throw millions of dollars at the thing and it would still fall away.

Nearby, on the cliffs overlooking Lighthouse Beach, one elderly woman had firsthand witness to how unstable that area was. The cliffs are made of the same stuff as Chief's Island.

Irene Quick had purchased oceanfront land at this spot in the '40s, starting with building a cabin there. Running water didn't arrive until the '70s, so for thirty years they had an outhouse with what was called a “million-dollar view” of the lighthouse. A full house eventually was built, but in the meantime the cliffs kept eroding away. 35 feet disappeared over the decades, even taking the outhouse with it.

The lighthouse itself was victim to this crumbling. At least one of the rebuilds of the structure had to do with the area eroding, causing Oregon coast officials to build the next one back a ways.

Quick was 90 when the Statesman Journal talked to her. She also told another tantalizing tidbit: Chief's Island was occasionally still accessible on foot during extreme low tide events.

The bridge across to Cape Arago Light, many decades ago

In the mid 2000s, she was given a chance to be one of the last people to walk over the rickety bridge to see the lighthouse. By this time, it had been closed off for years. Much of that was due to the archaeological significance of the place, the fact it was sacred to local tribes because so many ancestors were there, and safety concerns. In those final years of the bridge, however, it was dangerous, shaky and slippery. Even local tribes had to get permits to go across for ceremonies or visits with their forebears.

One group in November 2003 were one of the last forays across, and according to accounts the Coast Guard only let two or three at a time walk over that unstable bridge.

For a time charter boats used to get closer for a better look, but not allowed to make landfall.

While the Cape Arago Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, its days as a viewable attraction were numbered. Even then, the process was slowly brewing to bring it back to tribes and cut off all access. In the early 2000s, that process began moving forward in earnest, slowly working its way through Washington, D.C.

The light was deactivated in 2006.

By 2012, a year before the signing ceremony, the bridge was finally dismantled. Just before that, Coast Guard engineering officer Lt. Jennifer Lopez was interviewed by the Associated Press saying the lighthouse was getting patched up and readied for retirement. Walls were getting fixed, sealed and repainted to better its condition and make it water-tight.

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