Across our State

Cape Disappointment no longer disappointing!

There is a great deal of both history and beauty at Cape Disappointment. The craggy promontory seems to guard the north entrance to the Columbia River near the present town of Ilwaco.

It received its name from John Meares, an English sailor who attempted to find the great river charted by Bruno Heceta in 1775 and which he named Rio San Roque. A Spanish explorer, Heceta and his crew did not enter the river because his ship's men were so ill with scurvy that he feared they were not strong enough for the treacherous waters.

It was disappointing, as well, for two other English explorers, James Cook in 1778, and George Vancouver in 1792, who went up and down the coast but failed to find the entrance to the river that Heceta had mapped.

After several unsuccessful attempts, the river was finally explored and named by American Captain Robert Gray and his ship, the Columbia. It was a pivotal point in claiming the Pacific Northwest for the United States. Thirteen years later, Lewis and Clark visited by land, further strengthening the U.S. claim on the area.

The Columbia River became a busy maritime highway, but the entry was dangerous. Often, ships waited at the entrance for sea conditions to improve. In 1812, a ship called the Beaver tried to deliver supplies to Fort Astor. It waited for several days. Finally some natives told Fort Astor who sent men to climb the rock and burn trees at the top to guide the ship through the bar. That was the first beacon there.

In 1853 supplies for a lighthouse were sent to the site on the ship Beacon, but the ship sank crossing the bar. The crew was saved but not the cargo. The next year was more successful for the supply ship, but it was two more years before the Fresnel lens was delivered. The oil-fed lamp was lit on October 15, 1856 and the lighthouse was finally sending out its fixed white light. It is the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast.

During the Civil War a cannon was mounted near the lighthouse. The area around the lighthouse became Fort Canby in 1875 to protect the Columbia River from enemy attack. It remained an active fort until after World War II.

When war was declared on December 7, 1941, the light beaming out from the lighthouse was extinguished as a blackout was in force along the Pacific coast. But on Dec. 10, a ship carrying Christmas trees on the way to Hawaii sent out a distress call. The captain was unaware of the blackout and his ship was on the rocks just south of the river entrance. Again the crew was saved but the cargo was lost. Fearing more wrecks, the light was relit.

Today Cape Disappointment is part of a 1,882 acre State park with 137 standard campsites and 60 full hook-up sites. Reservations are taken on the State Parks website but not until the winter storms are over.

In addition to the lighthouse built in the mid-1800's, North Head lighthouse was built in the last decade of the 1800's. Shipwrecks had increased north of the cape, so North Head was built two miles north facing the Pacific. The lens from Cape Disappointment was installed at North Head and a new alternating red-and-white flashing light was purchased to replace it. Sailors could tell where they were by which light they could see.

Both lighthouses are open and tours are available during the summer. North Head lighthouse can even be rented for weddings according to the State Parks website; however the reception must be held elsewhere. The keeper's house nearby can also be rented for the honeymoon, or even an anniversary!

I think that's something to consider this Valentine's Day weekend. It's such a beautiful and historic place. The State Parks website is

1 Corey Russell 2/11/2011 3:29 PM


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