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Tallest and Most Storied on Oregon Coast: Newport's Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Published 06/07/21 at 5:40 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Tallest and Most Storied on Oregon Coast: Newport's Yaquina Head Lighthouse

(Newport, Oregon) – She's the tallest on the Oregon coast, soaring upwards at 93 feet above Newport's Yaquina Head. She's also the oldest lighthouse that's still operating, making the Yaquina Head Lighthouse a rather remarkable example of sentinels the world over.

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There's also a few tales to tell about her that are equally as tall.

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse first sparked to life in 1873, and the keeper's quarters was built that year as well. Those were demolished in 1984, but the Bureau of Land Management – which manages Yaquina Head – allows you to amble up the 114 steps to the top and take a peek at the wowing vistas from the point of view of the lens.

There has been considerable debate over the last 100 years or so whether Yaquina Head's lighthouse was accidentally built in the wrong place. Supposedly, the theory goes that due to some typographical error in the plans, it was built there instead of towering Cape Foulweather, about 10 miles north.

Not so, says Scott Gibson, producer of the documentary “Oregon Lights.”

“Basically, there's no reason a lighthouse as tall as Yaquina Head would need to be placed high atop Cape Foulweather where it would be in the fog line much of the time,” Gibson said.

The lighthouse underwent a major renovation from 2005 to 2007. It was closed to the public for about seven months during that period.

The exterior and the oil house at the top were repainted, and parts of the iron at the top were replaced and refurbished. The glass surrounding the lens room was replaced, and the tower roof and roofs of other buildings were repainted as well. The colors of the lighthouse were returned to its original black during the remodel.

For much of the two years, the lighthouse was covered up in giant sheets of plastic, and looked a bit like a missile silo or a massive quarantine effort.

A Wee Lighthouse Scandal

In 1910, the steamer J. Marhoffer wrecked near Depoe Bay (the boiler gave Boiler Bay its name), and the crew had an adventurous night or two in this area, including getting aid from those at the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. A mere two years before that, one crew of a wrecked ship filed an official complaint with the lighthouse keepers for doing nothing at all.

According to newspaper reports at the time, such as The Morning Oregonian and The World (Coos Bay), the steam schooner Minnie E. Kelton wrecked offshore somewhere just north of Newport. A big storm smacked it numerous times around May 3, with eleven men drowned while trying to launch the lifeboat. Another three drowned on another boat; a fourth survived with a broken leg. A group of nine remaining crew were rescued off the ship by boats from Newport.

Within days, the crew charged the keepers of the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse with not assisting on time. They had sent out distress signals and they claim the keepers ignored them, even though crew could see them moving about the lighthouse grounds.

An investigation into the conduct of head keeper H.E. Wilson ensued, and the keepers admitted they had not seen the disabled Kelton in as timely manner as they should have. There did not seem to be a record of what came of the investigation.

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