U.S. Lighthouse Society
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is one of 750 that once guarded the shores of the U.S., but which now serve relatively little purpose in an age of satellite-guided navigation. Cape D Light’s dwindling mission is reflected in its peeling exterior paint and rarely seen interior.
One of the West Coast’s first eight lighthouses and the oldest still operating in the Pacific Northwest, Cape D Light is accessible via a forest trail that starts at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Cape Disappointment State Park.
The lighthouse was the setting of President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Oct. 15, 1880 visit to Pacific County.
“The Presidential party, with all the ladies, visited the light house and all expressed themselves greatly pleased with the condition of every thing appertaining to the light station and they all complemented us very highly with the good condition of the station,” the station keeper reported.
Unlike North Head Lighthouse, which was completed in 1898 to guide mariners traveling down the coast from the north, Cape D Light isn’t owned and maintained by Washington State Parks. Its interior plaster is believed to contain asbestos — once a common insulating material but now a known cancer-causing agent if it becomes airborne. This factor — along with lead-based paint and other environmental considerations — have stymied volunteer restoration offers and left the historic structure in limbo.
As early as 1848 a government survey had recommended a lighthouse for Cape D. Things finally got rolling in 1853, but the ship Oriole, with lighthouse construction materials and supplies stashed in its hold, sank two miles off shore. A few items were salvaged from the Pacific, but the bulk of the shipment was lost.
As problems continued to plague the project, it was later learned that a lantern for the lighthouse had never been ordered. A Fresnel (fray-nel) lens, ground and constructed back in 1841 in Paris, was eventually shipped from the East Coast.
The lens, utilizing no fewer than 18 wicks, consumed five gallons of oil each night. This same lens is now on display inside the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Construction of the 53-foot masonry lighthouse was finally completed in 1856 and, for the first time in history, a strong beam stretched out across the Columbia bar from the heights of Cape D.
In 1939 both Cape D and North Head lighthouses were taken under the wing of the U.S. Coast Guard as part of its jurisdiction. Both lights later were automated.
Searchlights eventually replaced the huge lenses, and even they were superseded a quarter-century ago — though Cape D’s remains in its lamp room. On Sept. 28, 1992, the searchlights were switched off and marine lanterns were installed outside on top of the lighthouse railings.
In the early 1990s Cape D underwent significant renovation. Both lighthouses were dressed in fresh coats of paint — Cape D in black and white stripes with a dark green top, and North Head in white with a red cap. North Head currently is in the midst of thorough renovations. Cape D awaits.