By Patrick Johnson
It was the first lighthouse on the Oregon Coast, and remains one of the few lighthouses you can climb to the top of. The Umpqua River Lighthouse provides a unique experience for those interested in lighthouses, their history and how they work.
Located south of Reedsport, on the mouth of the Umpqua River in Winchester Bay, the lighthouse and museum is a great way to learn the history of the area, the lighthouse and the United States Coast Guard on the Oregon Coast.
“Because of our location, next to the active barracks of the U.S. Coast Guard, we felt it was important to include their history as well,” said M.J. Koreiva, museum manager and lighthouse keeper. “It really helps people to visit the museum first, to see some of the history and then take a tour of the lighthouse.”
The museum is broken into three sections, early history including Fort Umpqua, shipwrecks and transportation and the buildings, way of life and the historic lens. Each section has interactive exhibits that are great for kids and adults alike. Also included are the original plans for the lighthouse, directions for the lighthouse keeper and old photos that tell the story of the area.
There is no set schedule for lighthouse tours, and for a small donation, a volunteer takes group to the lighthouse, which is only accessible by taking a tour. The tour is well worth the time, as the guide has a plethora of information about the history of the lighthouse, the bay and even how the inner-workings of the navigational aid. Oh, yes, that’s right, the lighthouse is still operational, and recently the lights were switched over from bulbs to LEDs for less maintenance.
The highlight of the tour, however, is climbing the spiral staircase that takes visitors to the top of the 65-foot lighthouse. At each landing, there is another story about how the lighthouse operated back in the 1800s and even a display case with some of the equipment used.
The best part of the tour, however, is at the very top of the lighthouse, where visitor are invited to look inside the working light. Seeing the red and white prism spin and how the light reflects off the hundreds of panels gives you an appreciation not just for the job the lighthouse has, but the craftsmanship that went into the design.
The Umpqua River Lighthouse has a rich history, and before it was placed at the top of the 100-foot bluff overlooking the entrance into Winchester Bay, it was commissioned in 1857 along the sandy beach of the Umpqua River. Less than 10 years later, a new lighthouse was needed, due to flooding the original lighthouse had fallen over. Luckily the light apparatus was moved because the structure had started to tilt after the Umpqua River rose 45 feet.
Today, Douglas County leases the lighthouse from the Coast Guard, and it is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It is one of the few you can drive right up to, and at night it is impressive, watching the powerful light illuminate the dunes and sea. With the new LED lights the house can be seen all the way to the horizon.
“This is a great piece of living history,” Koreiva said. “It offers a different experience depending on when you see it. During nice days it’s great to photos and see the landscape, during harsh conditions – we do get up to 100 mile per hour winds here – you can see how important it is, and at night it’s amazing.”
About the Umpqua River Lighthouse and museum: Oregon’s first lighthouse located near Winchester Bay is one of the few you can see the inside of the light apparatus and at the same time get a great history lesson, thanks to a team of volunteers. The lighthouse is part of Umpqua River State Park and is managed by Douglas County Parks, which also oversees the museum about a block away in a historic Coast Guard building.
Tip: The museum’s gift shop is located in the basement and well worth a look. It offers a number of items with a nautical theme, artwork, and lighthouse specific items like models, plans, photos and other items.
What to bring: The weather on the bluff can be brutal, so make sure to check the forecast before you leave. In addition, bring appropriate shoes for climbing an iron staircase if you plan on taking the lighthouse tour. Some people who are afraid of heights may get a sense of vertigo if they climb to the top.
Season: Tours are conducted of the lighthouse May 1 through October 30. In the winter the weather is very extreme and tours are available by appointment only.
Getting there: The lighthouse and museum are located six miles south of Reedsport above the entrance to Winchester Bay. The address of the lighthouse is 1020 Lighthouse Road, Winchester Bay, OR. Off of Highway 101, take Salmon Harbor Drive toward the bay, after a little over a mile, take a left onto Lighthouse Road and you will see the museum on your right.
Story by Patrick Johnson, a free-lance writer based in Canby, OR.