Cape Disappointment marks the north side of the mouth of the
Columbia. The point was named Cape San Rogue by the Spanish
explorer Don Bruno de Heceta in 1775. When British fur trader John
Meares sailed up the Oregon coast in 1788 in search of the
river Heceta claimed to have found, he could not find it and
thus named the area Cape Disappointment. It was not until
1792 that American fur trader John Gray crossed the river
bar and confirmed Heceta's discovery. He named the river after
his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.
The cape was used by navigators well before a lighthouse
was built. In 1812 men at Fort Astor (Astoria) marked the
cape by raising a white flag or setting fire to trees.
In Lt. William P. McArthur's "Pacific Coast Pilot"
of 1850, ships took bearings based upon three spruce trees
that had been topped on the cape.
McArthur suggested a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment in
1848 in what was then Oregon Territory. $53,000 was
appropriated for a lighthouse in 1852. The bark Oriole,
which had delivered materials for construction of four
California lighthouses, arrived at the Columbia River
in September 1853, but ran aground. The crew was rescued,
but the ship and its cargo were lost. Work began despite
the mishap, but a second ship did not arrive for almost
two years. After the lighthouse was designed, a first-order
Fresnel lens was ordered. When the tower was
completed, it was found to be too small to house the
lens. Rebuilding the tower took an additional
two years. The first lighthouse in
the Pacific Northwest was finally lit in 1856.
In addition to the light, the station was equipped with
a 1600-pound bell powered by a striking mechanism. The
keeper's residence was about a quarter mile from the tower.
The station shared the cape with Fort Canby, which
was established by the Union during the Civil War.
In 1871, vibrations from gunnery practice damaged the fog
bell house to such an extent that a new one had to be built.
Keeper John Boyd, who is believed to be the first keeper
at Cape Disappointment, was in frequent communication with
the superintendent of west coast lights.
These communications, published in the Keeper's Log,
indicates the difficulties of early life at the station. The station
was very damp - Boyd requested (and received) a stove for the
bell house to keep the tower warm. In 1857-1858, Boyd writes of continual
difficulty with flooding in the cellar - the water "has become
as high as three feet." In 1858-1859, Boyd
writes that the keepers have not been paid, which has caused
problems with the assistant keepers. "I should say here that
in consequence of not receiving any pay for their services
they have become very careless and negligent in their duties."
In 1859, Boyd's request to buy a horse for hauling oil by
using money from the sale of empty oil barrels was denied,
despite having "paid nearly double the amount of interest
on the money I was obliged to borrow while my salary was withheld
from me." In 1865, Boyd wrote that the vibrations of nearby
Army guns was shattering the lighthouse windows. Boyd was advised
to simply open the windows and "all precautions taken if possible
to prevent injury to the lens, lamp, and other pieces of apparatus
connected to the lighthouse." Keeper Boyd died on duty in 1865.
Probably the most famous of Cape Disappointment's keepers
was Joel Munson. Munson arrived at the station in 1865.
During that year, the bark Industry ran aground
with loss of seventeen crewmen. There was no life-saving
boat at the lighthouse, so the keepers could do nothing
to assist. Munson salvaged a metallic boat shortly
afterwards and raised money for repairing the boat by
holding dances in Astoria. Munson's work paid off in 1866
when the W.B. Scranton was wrecked on the bar.
Munson's boat was used to assist in rescuing the crew.
The government recognized the value of Munson's efforts
and established a Life-Saving station at Cape
Disappointment later that year.