Oct. 14—With the completion of splendid restoration work at North Head Lighthouse, attention now should turn to its less visited but far more historic brother at Cape Disappointment.
Unlike North Head, which the U.S. Coast Guard gave to Washington State Parks in 2012, Cape Disappointment remains an active part of the federal system of aids to navigation. Restoration — or even simple maintenance — of Cape D Light depends on federal spending unless it, too, is transferred to the people of Washington state.
Cape D last received significant renovations in the early 1990s, including a fresh coat of black-and-white painted stripes with a dark green top. It is one of 750 lighthouses 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.
Cape D Light's indoors 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 — has stymied volunteer restoration offers and left the historic structure in limbo.
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 newly reopened 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' 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.
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 2 miles offshore. 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 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 5 gallons of oil each night. This same lens is now on display inside the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. It is one of our area's most spectacular historical artifacts and is well worth a visit.
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.
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 decades 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.
Our nation and state owe it to this 165-year-old historic structure — which has saved countless lives — to implement a comprehensive restoration plan. Part of this should consist of drastic improvements to the trail between the interpretive center and the Coast Guard's well-maintained observation station access road. Part of the dirt track is barely passable in wet weather. It would also be ideal to engineer a safe pathway into the natural wonder of Deadman's Cove, one that armors the eroding hillside there.
We call upon our congressional delegation to begin the process of appropriating funds for this key site, with an eye to cleaning up any toxic substances and restoring the lighthouse to the point where it can be opened to the public. Once enough work has been done that it won't be a burden to state taxpayers, it should, like North Head, be transferred to the able stewardship of Washington State Parks.