North Head Light, built in 1898, was the second lighthouse to be constructed just north of the mouth of the Columbia River. It was built only a scant two miles distant from the first.
Cape Disappointment lighthouse, the oldest on the West Coast, had been in operation since 1856. However, it had long been apparent that the "Cape D" light could not provide adequate coverage for mariners approaching the dangerous confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean - an area chillingly known as "the graveyard of the Pacific." The lighthouse beacon was obscured to ships approaching from the north by McKenzie Head which extends southwest from the Cape Disappointment. But it would be 42 years before the problem was corrected by the construction of the North Head Lighthouse.
Capped with a red roof, the white 65-foot conical tower is built on a 130-foot cliff and faces directly out to the Pacific. The original lens was a first order (non-flashing) Fresnel (pronounced Fray-nel), manufactured in France in 1822. The lens had been used originally at the Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey and, later in San Francisco and at Cape Disappointment. Its light source was a 5-wick oil lamp 18 inches across the base and over eight feet high. It had a beam of three and a half million candlepower, bright enough to be seen 20 miles at sea.
The light keeper's main duties consisted of scouring and polishing the glass prisms by day and tending the burning oil by night. George Easterbrook, one of the early light keepers at Cape Disappointment at a time when the first order Fresnel lens was still in place there, later described some of his experiences in the Winter 1964 issue of the Sou'wester magazine:
"...The fitful and jerky nature of the reflection on the wall notified me at once that the assistant whom I had relieved had neglected, as he often did, to wind up the weights of the clockwork machinery that kept the pumps in motion, pumping up oil from the reservoir to the summit of the wicks in the burners, then falling back whence it came, and continuing this flow the whole night through, ours being a first order stationary light, with five concentric wicks, giving a solid mass of light almost rivaling the sun, and surrounded by an open lantern of heavy French glass prisms, and all inclosed [sic] by windows of heavy plate glass, with a space or inside gallery between them and the lantern itself. I at once sprang up the short flight of iron steps and into the lantern, and fixing on the crank to the oil clock, wound it up snug and gave it another two hours' safe run.
"I then went at my next regular duty, which was to carefully wipe each prism in the lantern and their reflectors, with fine chamois skin, and to clean the inside of the plate windows with towels for that purpose, which labor takes generally two hours, and then comes a rest for the balance of the watch, except on such nights as these, when the salt spray of the ocean, being caught up by the storm and dashed against the glass outside, soon coats it over with a film of salt and grime, which must be cleared off as soon as possible or the light is so obscured as to be of little service..."
Until 1910, the lighthouses and light keepers at Cape Disappointment and North Head, like those throughout the United States, came under the jurisdiction of a federal agency called the Lighthouse Board. After that time, the United States Lighthouse Service, also known as the Bureau of Lighthouses, was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the facilities. In 1939, the responsibility for the lighthouses was transferred to the U. S. Coast Guard, under whose jurisdiction they remain today.