Finally, after sharing information about workamping in general and my particular workamping experience, it’s time to share the details of the Heceta Head Lighthouse itself.

Because we couldn’t take tours into the lighthouse (closed for maintenance), we interacted with visitors outside the lighthouse. This made the tour much less formal so we gauged a person’s interest then tailored the conversation. 

My favorite visitors were those who showed a high level of interest because it allowed me to share my new knowledge. Not only had I studied the 13-page interpreter handout, I read an in-depth 170-page guide (from the resource library in the volunteer office) on the lighthouse.

So, let’s pretend you are a first-time visitor to the lighthouse and you’ve expressed an interest in history and lighthouses.

After my internal happy dance, here’s what I would tell you.

Welcome to Heceta Head Lighthouse

The Heceta Head Lighthouse flame was first lit on March 30, 1894. The entire station which included the lighthouse, the two oil houses as well as the two light keepers’ houses took two years to build.

Most of the materials for the buildings came by boat. But it could be harrowing at times because the water is quite shallow. In fact, the lighthouse is named for Bruno Heceta, the man who first charted the shallow waters in 1775. Though Portuguese, Heceta sailed for the Spanish Navy.

Diagram of the parts of a lighthouse.
From my volunteer manual, this labels all the sections of the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Click to enlarge.

You might be wondering why they built two oil houses. Like the building materials, kerosene (which light keepers called coal oil) came by boat. Because the task was so difficult, a year’s supply was brought in at once. So, first, the oil houses needed to hold a year’s supply. But the reason for two was because of the highly flammable and unstable nature of kerosene. Two oil houses were a precaution. Should one go up in flames, the light keepers would have a fuel source to keep the flame lit.

A Day in the Life of a Light Keeper

Three men maintained the lighthouse and kept the flame lit during the night: the head light keeper, the first assistant and the second assistant.

Old photo of two houses with fence around outside.
Archival photo of the two houses. In the foreground is the Head Light Keepers house, the one that was torn down. The one in the background was a duplex for the assistants; and, today, is a B&B.

One hour before sunset, one man would walk the quarter mile up the hill from his house to the lighthouse. Thirty minutes before sunset, he would light the 5-wick flame. At midnight, a second man would walk up and relieve the first man. The second man would extinguish the flame thirty minutes after sunrise.

So if you were one of the light keepers, this meant every third night you got a full night’s sleep.

During the day, the men performed maintenance work on the lighthouse but most of the time they cleaned. They washed the walls, the windows and the lens. It was important that no trace of soot, oil or dirt be on any surface to reduce the chances of a fire.

Inspections

Once a quarter an inspector visited the lighthouse. Visits weren’t scheduled to ensure the lighthouse was ship-shape at all times, not just at inspection time. Cleanliness was so important, in fact, the inspector did the white glove test. He expected to run his gloved fingers over any surface of the lighthouse and come away with his glove still white.

Inside a lighthouse, at the bottom.
From the workroom, there is a small narrow passage before you are in the lighthouse. See the start of the spiral steps that lead to the top?

No doubt that was stressful. But the positive aspect of the quarterly visit from the lighthouse inspector’s arrival was the rotating lending library. The inspector would bring a wood box filled with donated books to the light keepers. The inspector would leave a library box, take the last box he left and carry it to the next lighthouse he inspected.

Wooden box filled with books.
A roving library replica in the little museum at the Heceta Head Lighthouse.

Overnight, the light keepers had a lot of time on their hands so these books were a nice way to pass the time. At night, they mainly stayed in the workroom where they had a wood burning stove for warmth. Their job was to record weather and other relevant conditions and to make sure the flame stayed lit throughout the night. This included winding the clock work gears to keep the lens rotating.

How Does the Light Rotate

Every lighthouse has a signature. A lighthouse’s signature is how sailors knew where along the coast they were. The Heceta Head Lighthouse signature back in the day was a 10-second white flash every minute. Today, however, it is a white flash every 10 seconds.

Lighthouse at night.
The arms of the light as the lens rotates.

Some lenses are stationery but the one at Heceta Head rotates. The light itself actually isn’t flashing. Imagine you are standing in front of me and I’m holding a flashlight. If I move in a circle, the light beam falls on you each time I come around to face you. That’s how / why it looks like it’s flashing. The lighthouse’s signature works with the eight bull’s eyes (the center of the lens) reaching the same point every 10 seconds.


Halfway up the inside of the lighthouse, looking down to the ground. The black curved railing was an adjustment made so the gear weight could drop farther down. Previously, the railing was straight.

Before electricity the lens rotated with gears, similar to how a grandfather clock works. A 200-pound cylindrical lead weight, four inches in diameter and 18 inches long, was wound up and then as it dropped, the gears moved.

At first, the weight required winding every 39 minutes. So the man on duty would go from the workroom to the top of the lighthouse to wind it. The men didn’t like this so they asked to make some adjustments.

If we were able to go inside, you’d see where they created holes in the landings and other adjustments to allow the weight to drop farther. After the adjustments, the weight only needed wound every four hours.

Inside a lighthouse lens.
Inside the lens. At the top right of the photo is the bulb.

Today, a ½ horsepower motor rotates the lens and electricity keeps the 1,000-watt light bulb lit 24/7. The bulb is the size of your thumb and it is not LED (a frequently asked question).

Gears at the base of a rotating lens of a lighthouse.
Ranger Ben cleaning and oiling the gears to rotate the lens.

The lens and windows still need cleaned, and the gears need oiled. But without the soot created by the wick and flame, cleaning is no longer a daily task. Today, the rangers do the maintenance and cleaning when needed.

The 1930s

Life at Heceta Head changed a lot during the early 1930s.

Pacific Ocean, looking toward the beach.
Taken from the lighthouse, you can see the historic bridge build in the early 1930s. After crossing the bridge, you go in the tunnel.

Two events happened. First, a road, bridge and tunnel were completed in 1932 making trips into Florence much easier. Before that, families only went into town (11 miles away) a couple times a year. It would take a full day to get there. This also meant they needed to be self-sufficient. Today’s parking lot, for example, was their vegetable garden. They fished and had livestock who grazed on the hills behind us. Back then these hills were pastureland, not the forest you see today.

Second, in 1934, electricity made it to the lighthouse. It was the early days of electricity so there was still a lot of work for the light keepers but it allowed the staff to be reduced to two men.

Coast Guard Takes Over

The US Coast Guard took control of Heceta Head Lighthouse in 1939 as the US government took steps to protect the western coast amid World War II.

When the light keepers reduced to two men, they both lived in the duplex with their families. Today the duplex is a B&B. The former head light keeper’s house stood empty. The cost of maintaining an empty house caused the Coast Guard to tear down the house. Basically, they sold it for parts. A local construction company bought it for $10 in 1940 and tore it down.

The construction owner’s son visited the lighthouse a few years ago. He shared his memory of the labor it took to take the house apart, hour upon hour of pulling nails from the wood boards. The salvaged wood was used to build what is now the Alpha Bit Cafe and Bookstore. in nearby Mapleton. Kind of a cool tidbit.

Then Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The US entered WWII the next day. And the western coast of the US went on high alert.

I would tell visitors that I bet the Coast Guard was sorry they had the light keeper’s house torn down because, at its height, 75 military personnel were stationed at Heceta Head. They could’ve used the rooms. Temporary barracks housed the men.

1960s

The Coast Guard didn’t keep the old records so some bits of information are not as clear during the 1940s and 1950s. But at some point, the light keeper was reduced to one. Then in 1963 (or possibility 1965, as I saw both cited), the last Heceta Head Lighthouse light keeper retired and was not replaced.

By then, automation arrived. One example of automation was the light bulb. They installed a backup bulb. It sits behind the bulb in use. Should the bulb in use go out (not cause by power outage), the backup bulb automatically rotates into place and turns on.

Another Big Change

The Coast Guard maintained the lighthouse until 2001 when they turned it over to Oregon State Parks. Simultaneously, they downgraded the lighthouse from a Class I to a Class II. I’m not sure the technical difference, but basically it means the lighthouse no longer serves as a primary navigation tool by sailors.

However, despite these two facts, during orientation we received instruction that, in the event of a power outage (meaning the light goes out), the Coast Guard was our first phone call.  After informing the Coast Guard, then we call the rangers. The next step was to go into the lighthouse and “close the curtains.”

Fresnel lens at Heceta Head Lighthouse.
From the cliff behind the lighthouse. On the right, you can see the Tyvek curtain.

When you were a kid, did you burn bugs or wood by using a magnifying glass and the sun? Well, imagine if the Fresnel lens, with its nearly 800 pieces of glass, stopped rotating. If the power went out, we were to go to the top of the lighthouse where Tyvek sheets hang. We were to pull the sheets in front of the windows to protect everything.

During December, we never had to do this. Even during the Big Storm, the power never went out. But an outage did occur during a volunteer shift the month previous to mine.

Speaking of the Fresnel Lens

I saved the best for last. I love the lens. Everyone does. I’ll try not to geek-out on the technical stuff, but I found it so interesting that I looked up even more information than the 170-page interpreter guide told me.

Rings of glass.
This entire panel is called a bull’s eye. The lens has eight of them. The center of the bull’s eye is where the light shoots 21 miles out to sea.

The lens is named after its creator, Frenchmen Augustine-Jean Fresnel (fray-NEL) His life (1788 – 1827) and work is fascinating. Considered slow in school, Fresnel had few friends and was sickly from childhood until he succumbed to tuberculous at the age of 39.

Still, he revolutionized lighthouse technology and the science of optics. In fact, the head and tail lights of your vehicle and the flashing lights on an ambulance or police car are all based on the Fresnel optic and his theories. He invented the Fresnel lens for lighthouses in 1822.

Diagram of the working Fresnel lens taken from my interpreter guide.

I told everyone these two facts about the lens. First, the Heceta Head lens is a First-Order Rotating Fresnel lens and the only First-Order Rotating Lens in Oregon. There are six orders and the first is largest. It’s hard to have perspective from the ground, but the lens has a diameter of six feet. That means if I stood in the middle, where the bulb is, with outstretched arms I would not touch any of the glass. It weighs two tons.

The 19th century version of an urban legend says lighthouse lenses were delivered in vats of syrup. Actually, I don’t know if it’s entirely legend but I do know for certain that the Fresnel lens at Heceta Head was not delivered in syrup. The Heceta Head glass pieces were shipped in crates, then carried up the lighthouse and assembled.

The second unique fact is the Heceta Head Lighthouse lens was made in England. In fact, it’s only one of two (or, possibly three depending on the source) Fresnel lenses in the US made in England. All others were made in France. The tell-tale sign of lenses from England is the slight yellow tinge to the glass. The tinge comes from sulfur which is added for strength during the manufacturing process.

For a fantastic view of the lens, I encouraged people to take the short hike up the hill behind the lighthouse. From there, you were level with the lens.

Thanks for Coming

Thanks for visiting the Heceta Head Lighthouse where 50,000 people visit annually. I hope you enjoyed the information and that you’ll come back again soon.

And, in case you are wonder, I took the feature image from the ground floor inside the lighthouse looking straight up. See the spiral steps all the way up. One last interesting fact: the stairs are not attached to the lighthouse walls. They are secured to the landings only. And, if you look closely you will see the railing adjustment the first light keepers made. (Hint: bottom of the picture.)

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