Journalists who traveled out west wrote stories that found their way to newspapers back home. One piece in The New York Tribune of August 1855 featured observations about our part of the world:
“…Astoria, where I write, has not progressed much since old John Jacob opened his speculations here, and Washington Irving immortalized the undertaking in his classic narrative. I fancy I knew just now Astoria looked before I saw it. Not at the mouth, but five or six miles above, on the south side — less than a hundred houses — and overhung by a dark forest of pine and spruce; the land rising as it recedes from the river. On getting ashore here I find it a lazy, listless-looking place, with a slight, spasmodic bustle at the time of the arrival or departure of a steamer.
“The houses are all built of wood, and the only sign of manufactures is a large saw-mill, propelled by steam. A few garden patches, two or three stores, a small strip of grazing land for cattle, and a place of some twenty houses half a mile further on, called ‘Upper Astoria,’ and you have the city and its resources before you. It may someday be a great city — so may Spuyten Duyvel Creek [a short waterway separating Manhattan from the Bronx] float the whole British Navy at some future time, but not just yet.
“The Columbia River is very large; it appears to me larger than the Mississippi. At the mouth it is four or five miles wide; here, at Astoria, nearly three, I should think; and a hundred miles up more than a mile in width. Its depth, too, is enormous — the last hundred miles of its course … from fifteen to thirty fathoms. Oregon could supply lumber for the world. …
“The Columbia Bar, so formidable to navigators, still stretches its sandy course across the mouth of the river. As our little steamer — drawing only seven feet of water — passed in, I saw the ribs of the old war-sloop Peacock, that was wrecked here in the time of Wilkes’s Exploring Expedition.
“One would suppose that Government, ere this, had done all that good light-houses and buoys could accomplish to make the navigation safe. Well, they have positively built a light-house on Cape Disappointment, north of the mouth of the river. There it stands, no doubt a very good light-house; it is a light-house, but it has no light. … It has been so nearly two years. There could be a light, but it has no lantern. … You may think there are no lanterns! Mistaken again; there is a good lantern, adapted to the Fresnel light … safely stowed away in a warehouse in San Francisco.
“The Lighthouse Inspector was ordered by the Treasury Department to set [send] up the lanterns in a revenue cutter; but it was found that no revenue cutter here could take then. The Steamship Company offered to take them up and land them safely at just the cost of shipment as they were much needed. But no; there were no orders for going to that expense. But there is an expense of the Government has gone to. That is the expense of warehousing the lanterns for some 18 months, and that has been more than it would have cost to have sent them to their destination in the first place by steamer.
“As yet nothing has been done; and there appears no prospect that there will be. Here are some twenty million dollars’ worth of shipping on the Pacific Coast, and, except three light-houses on the coast of California, there is not the glimmer of a taper on a single projection of the rock-bound shore from South America to Behring Straits, nor has been since the creation of the world. …”
A revolution in lighthouse lighting
So, the first lighthouse on the Territory of Oregon was up and ready for a lamp and lens, but an 1853 shipwreck and a cataclysm of technological reasons were interfering with the lighting.
It was not that the U.S. did not know about establishing lighthouses: by 1852, on the Atlantic Coast there were approximately 170 lighthouses; on the Great Lakes, almost 60; and on the Gulf Coast, almost 20. But these lights were lit by an inferior illumination system, and the producers — suppliers — of that system were protected by a fiscally conscientious federal bureaucrat who could not imagine that an expensive new technology could improve the system he oversaw.
In France, a young mathematical and optical genius named Augustin-John Fresnel had devised a system of glass lenses ground to particular angles and held together in precise brass cage which surrounded the light source (candles or an oil lamp) and reflected the light beams outward in a parallel pattern so they could be seen much farther at sea than ever any lamp had before been seen.
The Industrial Revolution, in its expression of steam engines, made possible the exact grinding of that lead crystal glass to those particular angles which precisely threw that light outward.
Fresnel’s lenses had been installed in Europe and England, everywhere it seemed but the U.S., where the status quo was being challenged by engineers and sailors who had seen the light produced by Fresnel’s new lamps, and realized it would save many, many lives. Who cared that the lenses were more expensive if they worked so much better? And it came to be seen that the cost of the oil to cast the light would be materially lessened because the lenses were so powerful.
(Fresnel’s career was short if remarkable: he died at the age of 39 of tuberculosis, and had probably been ill for some time while he worked.)
Lighthouse rebuilt for the lens
“There could be a light, but it has no lantern …” The first ship with lighthouse supplies, the Oriole from the East, wrecked on the Bar and sank — pilot George Flavel saved the crew. The loss of those supplies was not all that serious, because they were the old system, the parabolic reflectors that cast a dim, short-range light.
By the time the vessel with the new supplies arrived, engineers had been put in charge of the Lighthouse Board and had convinced Congress that the more expensive but vastly superior Fresnel lighting would save lives and, perhaps more importantly — some may have thought to themselves, greatly reduce the economic loss of shipwrecks.
By the time the new supplies arrived, featuring a first order Fresnel lens (a structure, when assembled, weighing almost 13,000 pounds and standing almost nine feet tall), the building itself was too small for it. The masonry lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt, and on Oct. 15, 1856, the light at Cape Disappointment was lit.
“It may be seen in good weather about 25 miles distant. There is also a fog bell weighing 1600 lbs. placed on the point in front of the light house. We trust these improvements will hereafter prevent the loss of many vessels entering the Columbia river.” — Democratic Standard as quoted by the Pioneer and Democrat.
A beautiful object, but not a perfect solution
The wrecks, of course, did not stop.
However, some fortunate vessels would live as a result of what became Washington state’s first lighthouse.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment west of Ilwaco displays that enormous lens; it is an engineering enigma, and a beautiful thing.
To see another gorgeous first order Fesnel lens lighted and operating, visit the Westport, Washington, Maritime Museum.
A keeper’s life and risks
In 1889, the Morning Astorian reported, “[The] Life of a Keeper a Hundred Feet Above the Waves.
“The duty of a keeper of one of these great beacon lights is not arduous, but sometimes it is attended with considerable danger. Owing to the great height of the tower and the peculiarly exposed condition, there is always the chance of its being destroyed by a fierce hurricane of wind and rain.
“During a dark, stormy night in April, 1851, the Minot’s Ledge lighthouse, near Boston, was thus destroyed by the combined action of wind, rain and the heavy sea. The lighthouse was a skeleton iron structure, situated on a ledge of rock which at low water is entirely bare, but at high tide several feet of water covers it. At an unknown hour of the night the iron posts snapped in two and the lighthouse [and its two keepers] toppled over into the sea. On such a night as last Saturday the position of light keeper for such a light as that … on Cape Hancock [Cape Disappointment] is no easy billet. …
“To keep the lamp in good condition for performing its proper work requires cleaning every day. The keeper, in addition to trimming the wicks and replenishing the vessel with oil each morning, has to oil the revolving apparatus, and see that the glass globe and reflector are clean and clear of smoke. Before darkness settles over the land the lamps must then be lighted and the machinery set in operation.
“If it is an exceptionally stormy night the great illuminating apparatus must be constantly watched lest some accident should extinguish the light. The glass globe is, of course, very thick, and strengthened by heavy brass braces but even with this precaution many incidents are known where the glass panels have been blown in by the force of the wind and hail, and the light extinguished at once.
“The experiences of a keeper on a dark and stormy night are not always agreeable. The wind blowing up from some rough quarter of the globe, sweeps across the sea with alarming rapidity, lashing the water into light foam, and moaning fitfully about the tall tower. At a height of 100 feet from the surface of the sea it attains a speed equal to that of a small hurricane, and when it strikes the glass globe of the lighthouse, it whistles in and out among the iron braces as though it would tear them from their sockets. If the wind is accompanied by rain and hail the wildness of the scene is increased.
“The glass is thick and strong enough usually to resist the force of the drops of water, but the noise made by the constant pattering of the descending hail on it is louder than if it were falling upon some hard metal or stone. At such a time it would be a dangerous risk to venture out on the platform surrounding the big light, even though clinging to the stout iron railing for support. As the lighthouses are arranged at the present day, there is no need of the keeper attempting such a feat, as the lamp and all pertaining to it can be reached from the inside.” —The Morning Astorian