Umpqua Lighthouse History

Commissioned in the fall of 1857, the Umpqua River Lighthouse was the first built in the Oregon Territory.  Settlers knew there was a fortune to bemade in supplying the gold minders and towns in Southern Oregon, and that the Umpqua River offered a convenient route to dreams of gold.

At a cost of $52,500 the first lighthouse was built next to the bar where the Umpqua emptied into the Pacific Ocean.  Between the time the first American vessel successfully crossed the bar, to when the lighthouse was commissioned, there were at least a dozen shipwrecks on the Umpqua.

Despite a shipload of bricks lost on the Columbia River on their way to build this structure, and despite a number of confrontations with newly displaced Rogue River Indians who had just been moved to the Siletz Reservation, a Cape Cod building was constructed with a tower 65 1/2 feet rising above it.  It housed a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens.

On February 8, 1861 the river rose 45 feet after 72 inches of rain had fallen in 4 months, adding to a record-breaking runoff.  This torrent caused the foundation to tilt.  By October of 1863, the keepers were in fear of collapse, and in January of 1864 the light apparatus was moved.  In the process of dismantling the iron lantern house, the building swayed and came down ... the workers barely got out.

The Lighthouse Board replaced the lighthouse with a floating buoy at the entrance to the Umpqua River and built a new lighthouse 25 miles south at Cape Arago.  Locals petitioned to build a new lighthouse, but in vain.  Too much of the commerce of the area had shifted south.  Nine more ships would be lost or damaged before the second lighthouse was erected in the Lower Umpqua area.


In 1888, the Federal Government awarded $50,000 to build a second Umpqua River Lighthouse on the headlands just south of the river mouth.  Between 1891 and 1894 any number of problems had to be solved. 

Initially, there were a number of contracting disputes and the original contractor went bankrupt.  The second contractor hit groundwater when digging the foundation and also went bankrupt.  The next contractor ordered 240,000 bricks from San Francisco because they were cheaper, but when they arrived he found that 1/3 of them were too porous because they had been fired incorrectly in the kilns used for this process.

The structure sat from 1891-93 because even though the parts and pieces of glass were ready to be installed, they found that the building of the structure came up 15 inches short, so they had to find a way to build a suitable platform to house the 1st Order Fresnel Lens that was installed.

The light was finally commissioned on December 31, 1894.