Pieces of our Past - LCIC first order Fresnel lens

<pre> The first order Fresnel lens that lighted both Cape Disappointment and North Head lighthouses for decades is a featured attraction at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco. </pre>

ILWACO — The first order Fresnel lens that lighted both Cape Disappointment and North Head lighthouses for decades is the centerpiece of Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape D State Park. Its origin may be a mystery, however.

In 1851, Congress approved building eight lighthouses on the West Coast. They included installations at Cape D in Washington and lighthouses at Humboldt Bay, Fort Point, Alcatraz, Fallaron Islande, Point Pinos, Point Conception, and San Diego, Calif.

The contractor hired a ship, the bark Oriole, to transport the men and materials. It arrived at Cape D in September 1853. After waiting eight days due to rough seas, the Oriole finally attempted to cross the Columbia River bar, but it ran aground within sight of the lighthouse and was broken up by the waves.

All of the lighthouse materials were lost in the wreck, including the lighting system, which was a set of curved metal reflectors illuminated by several different oil lamps. In the time it took to prepare another ship to deliver parts for Cape D, the government decided to outfit the first eight lighthouses with a different lighting system, a Fresnel lens illuminated by a single lamp.

The new shipment arrived in 1856 and the upper parts of the lighthouse had to be rebuilt to accommodate the huge size of the Fresnel lens. Cape D received a first order lens, which was six feet in diameter and nine feet tall, having 210 individual lenses and prisms. The lens was made in France by Sautter and Company as their name is stamped on each of the support pieces.

Originally it had an oil lamp, which had five nested wicks, with each wick having a cloth tube arranged inside another. Oil was pumped from a small storage tank by means of a clockwork mechanism. The oil storage tank was one floor below the lens. This tank was filled more than once per day by carrying oil up the stairs.

The oil was either whale oil or canola oil. Later the light was converted to kerosene and finally to gas. The lamp was originally lit on Oct. 1, 1856. In 1898, the lens moved to North Head, which had been built in response to increasing southbound traffic. In 1898, Cape D received a smaller, fourth-order lens to replace the first-order Fresnel lens that was at North Head.

The lens is still in Cape D Lighthouse after modern lens was installed next to it in 2009. The first order lens stayed in North Head Lighthouse until1937 when it was replaced by a smaller Fresnel.

The lens at North Head was once struck by a duck that was propelled by gale force winds, chipping one of the prisms. After 1937 the lens was displayed outside, where it was damaged by mischievous rock throwers before being moved to the interpretive center in 1975.

In 1841, the United States bought two Fresnel lenses to test them. The lens was invented by French physicist August Fresnel. It used glass elements to focus light from flames into a narrow beam like a laser. The light could be seen for up to 16 miles from the mouth of the Columbia.

The Fresnel system captured and focused more light than did earlier systems that used mirrors. The initial two lenses were installed in Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey in 1841 that known as “Twin lights.” They were touted as the brightest lights in the country.

The first order lens was removed in the early 1850s when Navesink was rebuilt and shipped to San Francisco, and later to Cape D after the sinking of the Oriole according to Sentinels of the North Pacific by James Gibbs.

According to LCIC interpreter Aaron Webster this may not be factual, however. “The lens at LCIC is stamped with Sautter’s name on every single brass frame member. According to Thomas Tag, a lens expert, Sautter did not produce lenses until well after Admiral Matthew Perry’s visit to purchase the lenses.”

Other sources say the original lens was reinstalled at Navesink in1898 and two World Fairs in the early 1900s also claimed it was still in New Jersey. The lens at LCIC may be one created by Henry LePaute.

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes a fascinating time line of Lewis and Clark’s travels that visitors may follow as they move about the center’s broad walkways.

There is a video and many informative plaques that explain various features of Corps of Discovery’s travels across the western United States to the Pacific Ocean during 1804 and 1805. LCIC also has a book and gift store. For more information call 642-3029.

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