Sunday, September 18, 2011

Visiting North Head Lighthouse

Each time I visit the state of Washington, I have to sneak in at least one visit to a lighthouse. There are many wonderful lighthouses there because its coast is part of what is often called the "Graveyard of the Pacific."

On this particular day, Denis and I were north of the mouth of the Columbia River. The Columbia is beautiful and one of my three favorite American rivers, the other two being the Colorado and the Mississippi. The mouth of the Columbia is a particularly deadly section of the Pacific Graveyard, not just because of the weather, but because of a large sandbar on its northern side.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was built on the northern approach to the Columbia River in 1856. It took two years longer than anticipated because the Fresnel lens that had been purchased for it was too large.

There were also other problems. The foghorn often couldn't be heard above the wind and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Captains of ships approaching from the north complained that its light could not be seen in time to avoid running aground on the sandbar. The solution? In 1898, North Head Lighthouse was built two miles to the north. When you're standing at North Head Light, Cape Disappointment is clearly visible to the south, as you can see in my photo above.

North Head is one of the windiest places in the country. The lantern room windows were equipped with handrails for keepers cleaning the glass. Winds of 126 miles per hour were recorded in 1921 before the instrument blew away. Birds have also been known to be blown through the glass, chipping the lens. Fortunately, it wasn't very windy the day Denis and I visited.

Keeper's residence from the parking lot
As we got out of the rental car in the parking lot, a rufuous hummingbird stopped to admire its reflection in the windshield before flying away.

We walked up the gravel drive to the keeper's residence, which is a very substantial-looking building that looks as though it can withstand any wind that Mother Nature decides to throw at it. The house also makes it plain that being the lightkeeper here was a position of some importance.

Assistant keepers' lodgings
The drive turned into a well-maintained path that led past the assistant keepers' quarters. I'd never before visited a lighthouse that had lodgings for assistant keepers, so I knew that North Head Light was indeed an important beacon in its heyday.

I wish we'd been able to go inside both houses. I would have loved to have seen the rooms. On this very pleasant summer day, I thought this could be a wonderful place to live.

Overgrown gardens at North Head Light
As we continued down the path, I looked to my right and could see the remains of flower gardens gone wild, and my mind's eye could picture the lightkeeper's wife, dressed in the fashions of the turn of the twentieth century, as she worked amongst her flowers accompanied by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. As the wild, colorful remnants passed from view, my flight of fancy could see a white wrought iron table and chairs amidst the flowers, a tray with glasses and a large pitcher of iced tea, ladies in their lawn dresses trimmed with lace and picture hats guarding their complexions.

The mouth of the Columbia River
The next view that captured my attention was to the left: through the trees I could see the mouth of the Columbia River, the deadly sandbar stretching well out into the sea, and a beach littered with battered trunks of large trees left there after many storms.

In a way it reminded me of equally beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert. Both places may be in entirely different climates, but both inspire awe, both are beautiful, and both can be very unforgiving. As I drank in the salt air and absorbed the view, I also felt danger lurking in the shadows.

First view of North Head Light

I began to wonder how much further the lighthouse was when I suddenly saw its lantern room peeping above the waving blades of tall grass. I don't know why, but even a glimpse of a lighthouse makes my heart beat faster.

Perhaps in another life I was a sea captain who'd been done a good turn by a lightkeeper? It makes me wonder because I spent the first part of my life living in the middle of fields of corn and soybeans in central Illinois, and the rest living in the middle of a desert. Yet the sea and its lighthouses make my blood pump faster.

My grandfather and father may have been in the U.S. Navy, but I don't think that has anything to do with the way I feel. My grandfather wasn't drawn to the sea; he was drafted in World War II. My father went to sea in hopes of learning skills in the SeaBees what would stand him in good stead on dry land. He was going to put in his time and come home. But I... I've often felt a yearning for the salt air and the open sea.

North Head Lighthouse
Finally our walk led us to North Head Lighthouse, high atop its 130-foot tall cliff with the waves crashing against the rocks below. The tower seemed to glow in the sunlight.

If you happen to see a man wearing a navy blue t-shirt and denim shorts in the foreground of the photo to the left, don't tell anyone-- that's my darlin' Denis, the best traveling companion a lighthouse lover like me could ever have. Neither one of us really wanted to leave that day, but we had to.

Memories are wonderful things, aren't they? I'm certainly glad I could share this one with you.


  1. Cathy thanks for sharing this trip. I love Lighthouses and am not familiar with the west coast ones at all. After Dave retires we might get there! We have done Maine and the Outer Banks. We got to go to the Outer Banks when they moving the Cape Hatteras light so that was pretty amazing to see!.
    And the Ghost of Belfast is now in my to read list!

  2. Peggy-- and here I am not acquainted with any on the East Coast! LOL I hope you get a chance to visit some of the West Coast lighthouses in future.

    Enjoy The Ghosts of Belfast!

  3. Cape Disappointment? What a hilarious name. And I love when you share lighthouses with us.

  4. What a gorgeous post!

    Natural forces are phenomenal, aren't they? Water, especially - and the wind tat comes off it. Absolutely majestic.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Dorte-- I think it's a sad name. It was probably named that by someone who ran aground on that sandbar. Almost to Astoria... but didn't quite make it. :-(

    Debbie-- Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Your imagined scene in the garden made me think about how great it is to be a reader and a person who likes history. You populate scenes you visit with people from the past and know what their life would have been like. I've been at Civil War battlefields and felt like I could almost see the soldiers and the smoke and hear the gunfire and screams. And no, I haven't lost touch with reality. :D

  7. Barbara-- I never once thought that you had!


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