North Head has always been my favorite part of Cape Disappointment. When I transferred here nearly eight years ago, the place was mesmerizing from day one. So much existed in one small pocket of the park, it was hard to digest all of it at once. As I dove into the history of North Head, a tiny parcel of the headland quickly became a new obsession — Bell’s View. It soon became apparent that North Head, and Bell’s View in particular, had other aspects to obsess a sleuthing mind… unsolved mysteries.
A few years ticked by and a project landed to satisfy the detective in me. The development of the Bell’s View Interpretive Trail in 2012 shed light on many unknowns. The area was named Bell’s View for former Pacific County Commissioner Thomas Bell in 1937, and was the first state park on Cape Disappointment. The “military bunker” near the edge of the headland was actually a military complex, comprising several functions in one building. Despite our best detective work though, two mysteries remained unsolved: what were the three overgrown foundations for, and who built the water tower? The foundations and water tower are located north of the lighthouse keepers’ complex, but were they related to the lighthouse, the military, or some other government agency? Pieces of evidence were found, but nothing was concrete; no definitive source told us what we wanted to know… until recently.
This past November, a compact disc arrived from the National Archives with more than 50 plans and drawings from the U.S. Naval Radio Station that existed at North Head from 1907-27. The North Head Radio Station was located on the flat stretch of ground between the lighthouse and keeper’s residences. Also near the radio station was the former Bureau of Agriculture’s Weather Station that operated from 1902 to 1955. The radio station transmitted messages, like weather reports, over vast distances using wireless technology, and in 1909 set a world record for transmitting a message 3,500 miles.
Out of the blue, the mysteries were solved. We now know the three foundations were former housing for radio station personnel. After the tragic storm, the Great Olympic Blowdown of 1921 destroyed much of the original station, it was enlarged and additional housing was constructed. Additional infrastructure at North Head requires additional water, so the radio station was responsible for building the wooden water tower adjacent to the foundations. The missing link we had so fervently sought in 2012 answered these questions, and some we hadn’t even considered.
The radio station poured a lot of concrete. In addition to the three foundations, concrete paths were poured that now vanish into the forest; and quite distinctly, a large concrete slab was poured to the west of the Head Lighthouse Keeper’s residence. One can only speculate why the U.S. Naval Wireless Radio Station poured a tennis court at North Head, but one can also imagine it was well received by the area’s residents.
The next time you visit North Head, walk the Bell’s View Interpretive Trail. Pause at the foundations and water tower. Take a moment to consider what Cape Disappointment was like once upon a time, and then keep walking. There is much more to enjoy on this tiny parcel of the headland.
For more information on the North Head Radio Station, or if you would like to view the documents, please contact Stephen Wood, interpretive specialist at (360) 642-3029 or Stephen.Wood@parks.wa.gov