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Cape Despair?

Rare visit offers seldom-seen details of historic lighthouse’s interior

Observer staff report

Published on March 31, 2017 1:38PM

Last changed on March 31, 2017 2:03PM

These women toured Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the 19th century, possibly as part of President Rutherford Hayes’ party of visitors in 1880. The gun pictured and others defended the mouth of the Columbia. The concussion when a 15-inch gun was first discharged blew out several of the lighthouse’s windows.

U.S. Lighthouse Society

These women toured Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the 19th century, possibly as part of President Rutherford Hayes’ party of visitors in 1880. The gun pictured and others defended the mouth of the Columbia. The concussion when a 15-inch gun was first discharged blew out several of the lighthouse’s windows.

The exterior of the Cape D lighthouse shows the overwhelming evidence of years of Pacific Northwest storms.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The exterior of the Cape D lighthouse shows the overwhelming evidence of years of Pacific Northwest storms.

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The Cape D lighthouse has been closed to the public due to the prevalence of lead-based paint that has been chipping off its interior for some time. Restoration and long-term ownership issues also are stymied by the likely presence of asbestos in the structure’s plaster.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The Cape D lighthouse has been closed to the public due to the prevalence of lead-based paint that has been chipping off its interior for some time. Restoration and long-term ownership issues also are stymied by the likely presence of asbestos in the structure’s plaster.

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The view looking down from the top of the Cape D lighthouse stairwell.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The view looking down from the top of the Cape D lighthouse stairwell.

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Cape D lighthouse’s second lamp, built in 1896 in Paris, remains in the lamp room, though it has since been replaced. The lighthouse’s remarkable original Fresnel lens — made in France in 1841 — is on display in the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

Cape D lighthouse’s second lamp, built in 1896 in Paris, remains in the lamp room, though it has since been replaced. The lighthouse’s remarkable original Fresnel lens — made in France in 1841 — is on display in the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

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A look inside the discontinued Cape D lighthouse lamp, which was superseded a quarter-century ago by an exterior-mounted beacon.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

A look inside the discontinued Cape D lighthouse lamp, which was superseded a quarter-century ago by an exterior-mounted beacon.

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The view looking up the stairway of the Cape D lighthouse.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The view looking up the stairway of the Cape D lighthouse.

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The second floor deck of the Cape D lighthouse has a spectacular view of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The second floor deck of the Cape D lighthouse has a spectacular view of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

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A view from out a hatch door on the second floor of the Cape D lighthouse.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

A view from out a hatch door on the second floor of the Cape D lighthouse.

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The walls near the entry of the Cape D lighthouse are colored pink and green from various algae species growing on the walls.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

The walls near the entry of the Cape D lighthouse are colored pink and green from various algae species growing on the walls.

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Light peaks through the ceiling below the lamp room of the Cape D lighthouse.

DAMIAN MULINIX/For the Observer

Light peaks through the ceiling below the lamp room of the Cape D lighthouse.

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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.


Ill-fated beginning


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.


Automation


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.

















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