Yaquina Bay, the place where the Yaquina River empties into the Pacific about two-thirds of the way up the Oregon coast, takes its name from the Native American tribe that once populated the area. After Congress appropriated $20,000 for a lighthouse at the north side of the mouth of the bay, supplies were landed by ship and hauled by oxen to the construction site and a pretty two-story dwelling and attached square wooden tower were soon completed. The first principal keeper, Boston native and Civil War veteran Charles H. Peirce, put the fifth-order Fresnel lens—165 feet above the water—into operation on November 3, 1871.
A short time later, less than four miles to the north, Oregon’s tallest lighthouse was built at Yaquina Head. A powerful first-order lens at that location went into service in August 1873. It became clear that keeping both lights in operation was a poor use of public funds, and Yaquina Bay Light was discontinued on October 1, 1874—ending its life as an active federal aid to navigation after a little over three years. Keeper Peirce, his wife, and their ten children moved back to the lighthouse at Cape Blanco, their station before Yaquina Bay.
The government tried to sell the lighthouse in 1877, but the offers were considered too low. In 1888, the lighthouse was used as barracks for workers who were building a jetty. The engineer in charge of that project was in the lighthouse with his wife and child early one morning when lightning struck the building during a thunderstorm. The building was damaged but all escaped safely.
Abandoned and neglected as the years passed, the lighthouse developed a ghostly appearance. It also picked up some ghostly legends to match its look. An 1899 article by Lischen M. Miller in the Pacific Monthly helped the rumors along. “Of an afternoon when the fog comes drifting in from the sea,” she wrote, “and completely envelopes the lighthouse, and then stops in its course as if its object had been attained, it is the loneliest place in the world. At such times those who chance to be in the vicinity hear a moaning sound like the cry of one in pain, and sometimes a frenzied call for help pierces the death-like stillness of the waning day.”
Miller’s story went on to tell the fictional story of a young woman who entered the lighthouse, never to be seen again. Only a handkerchief and a pool of “warm blood” were left behind. Although the story is believed to be the work of Ms. Miller’s imagination, visitors to the lighthouse still ask to see the bloodstains on the floor. And then there’s the story of the hitchhiker who slept inside the lighthouse in the 1970s, and reported that he saw a ghostly woman floating outside a window. Truth or fiction, old ghost stories die hard.
In 1948, the lighthouse was threatened with demolition by the State of Oregon until the Lincoln County Historical Society stepped in. L. E. Warford, an Ohio industrialist who had grown up in Oregon, spearheaded the effort. A lease was granted to the historical society in 1956, but funds for restoration didn’t become available until 1974. With the help of Oregon State Parks, the lighthouse was completely refurbished. Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses, a nonprofit organization formed in 1988, now partners with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to support the preservation and interpretation of the Yaquina Head and Yaquina Bay lighthouses.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.”