How “Cape Foulweather Light” got built on the wrong headland
Today known properly as Yaquina Head Light, the state's tallest lighthouse is a popular tourist attraction, and the home of the nation's only wheelchair-accessible tidepools.
By Finn J.D. John — June 11, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in October 2009, which you’ll find here.
Sometime in the late 1860s, a sailing ship hove to just off the Oregon coast, near the mouth of Yaquina Bay.
This ship was full of building materials. Its mission was to land those materials on Cape Foulweather — today known as Otter Crest — so that a new lighthouse could be built there.
It would be quite a thing, this lighthouse. Plans called for it to be 93 feet tall (it’s still the tallest on the Oregon coast), equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens, painstakingly packed in molasses and shipped halfway around the world from France. From high atop the bluff at Cape Foulweather, it would reach out some 18 miles with the light of its oil lamp, a model designed to burn ordinary lard rather than kerosene.
There was just one problem. No one had given any thought to how the supplies were to be unloaded at Foulweather. And now, staring at the hungry fangs of rocks with breakers crashing over them, the crew of the sailing ship were scratching their heads.
But, the cargo had to be delivered. And so it was: four miles farther south, on a friendlier-looking headland.
And that is how the Cape Foulweather Lighthouse ended up getting built on the wrong basaltic outcropping — at least, according to former lightkeeper John Zenor, who had the story from the son of one of the engineers assigned to the project.
“The man said he kept this secret until his father’s death,” writes Jim Gibbs in Lighthouses of the Pacific. “It was a number of years before the government learned that Cape Foulweather Lighthouse was really on Yaquina Head. By then it was too late to rectify.”
Now, keep in mind that this is a fourth-hand report — the engineer told his son, who told Zenor, who told Gibbs, who tells us. It’s also true that there was some confusion in the community about the names of Yaquina Head and Cape Foulweather, stemming from the fact that Cape Foulweather is arguably not a cape, and Yaquina Head inarguably is one.
But whether by accident or by design, once the materials were landed at Yaquina Head, the die was cast. On Yaquina Head the light would go.
The location was tough — not as tough as Cape Foulweather would have been, but bad enough. There was a little niche there at the root of the headland that, in balmy weather, was protected from the surf — where the "cobble beach" is today. The crew carved a rude stairway into the side of the 80-foot bluff there — basically a stone ladder, and “worth a man’s life to use in a heavy wind,” as Gibbs puts it. And with that, and a derrick installed at the top of the cliff, they were able to get to work.
The light went into service on Aug. 20, 1873, seven years after President Andrew Johnson authorized its construction just after the Civil War. And for the first few years of its existence, it was still being referred to in official correspondence as the “Cape Foulweather Light.”
As it turned out, the Yaquina Head location worked just fine for the lighthouse. As the 20th century dawned on the Oregon Coast, and the Roosevelt Highway (Highway 101) was platted and built, visitors from Newport and beyond started coming to see the lighthouse and to indulge in recreational activities on the government-owned headland it was built on. Some of those visitors found it to be a fantastic source of dense basalt, and a few of them brought equipment in and quarried it for various local projects.
So far, so good; federal land is generally available for American citizens to use. But then, in the mid-1950s, a Newport gravel company staked a mining claim on the place.
The claim was staked under the Mining Law of 1872, and it gave the company exclusive rights to extract mineral deposits from the head. In this case, of course, the mineral deposits were the head itself.
Shortly thereafter, the federal government actually sold the head to the mining company at a price that, even then, was low enough that it probably would have sent somebody to prison if anyone had cared enough to press the case: $3 an acre.
At that point, there would have been nothing to stop the mining company from platting homesites and developing the peninsula for luxury homes, which was what many people thought was the company’s game plan all along.
But it wasn’t. With the added security of outright ownership, the company ramped up mining operations progressively over the following dozen years or so, until by the mid-1970s it boasted a staff of 25 people, busily hauling hundreds of tons off the head every workday.
Then, in the mid-1970s, the situation came to the attention of the state of Oregon, probably through the agitation of one of the then-nascent environmental organizations concerned about the speed with which the head was being dismantled.
The state government started looking for ways to stop that process. But it quickly found that not only could the state not stop the quarrying, it also could not stop buying gravel from Yaquina Head for its area highway construction projects. The state was required by law to take the lowest bidder on such projects, and because of its location and its high yield, the Yaquina Head quarry was always the lowest bidder.
Quarry owner Bob Weinert didn’t help his cause much when, in a 1982 newspaper interview, he shared his vision for the future of Yaquina Head: he intended for it to be quarried right into the sea, leaving nothing behind but a small island out on the end with the lighthouse perched on top.
Quite what the federal government’s response to this plan would have been was never made clear, or if it was I was unable to find it. The fact is, though, Weinert’s plan would have cost the Coast Guard millions of dollars and put its personnel’s lives at risk, because suddenly instead of simply driving out onto the headland to maintain the light, a risky and complicated landing in surf would be necessary every time the place needed a fresh coat of paint.
But Weinert may have intended the comment as a joke, because by the time he gave that interview, the die had been cast, and he knew very well that the quarry would soon be closed. In 1980, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield had pulled some strings in D.C. and got the head named an “Outstanding Natural Area.” Thus fortified, the Bureau of Land Management then got busy trading and buying with Weinert to acquire the head.
Today, the gravel quarry is gone — but there is a huge divot in the side of the head where it used to be. Called Quarry Cove, it is now the scene of the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible tidepools — which haven’t been a total success, because the ocean keeps trying to fill them with beach sand.
(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Lighthouses of the Pacific. West Chester, Penn.: Schiffer, 1986, and Sentinels of the North Pacific. Portland: Binfords, 1955; Eugene Register-Guard archives: 05 Dec 1976, 05 Apr 1982, 27 Dec 1985.)