In what was often described as one of the most beautiful places on the Pacific Coast was once home to the Shoalwater Bay Lighthouse, Shoalwater Life Saving Station and a thriving community. Today, everything is gone, having disappeared from the face of the earth, destroyed by the ever approaching ocean. The casual visitor to the area would have absolutely no idea that there were once tree-covered lands, dunes, homes, schools, and highways extending for miles where now there is nothing but water.
Gone are the lighthouse, the life saving station, the Coast Guard station that replaced it, the Grange Hall, the post office, dozens of homes and small farms, and the many memories that were part of this historic area. The only thing that was really saved was the cemetery which has headstones dating back to 1889. And the only reason the cemetery was saved was because it was moved. This was accomplished by, literally, digging up the coffins and moving them to new land donated by a local citizen.
The lighthouse, originally known as the Shoalwater Bay Lighthouse was first established here in October of 1858 on land donated by the local Indian Chief, Ma-tote, (of the Shoalwater Indian Tribe) known as Toke and whom the nearby town of Tokeland was named after. More commonly, because of the land he donated for the lighthouse, he was referred to by many locals as "Lighthouse Charley."
The lighthouse was a near twin to the Smith Island Lighthouse, built at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and also commissioned in 1858, the same year as the Shoalwater Bay Lighthouse. (The Smith Island Lighthouse is also gone, having been destroyed by erosion).
The Willapa Bay Lighthouse was only in business for a short period of time. It was discontinued in 1859. It seems because of its severe isolation, adequate oil could not be supplied to the light to keep it lit. Finally the supply problem for the oil was solved, and the lighthouse was re-commission and lit again in July of 1861. Food and other supplies presented a constant problem to early keepers who were forced to buy their provisions from the local Indians.
Many of those problems were solved when the federal government decided to build the nearby Shoalwater Bay Lifesaving Station. In 1889, the federal government decided to change the name from Shoalwater to Willapa (Whil-a-pah) to rightfully honor the tribe of Indians who had inhabited the land for centuries.
Early Keepers at Willapa Bay never seemed to stay in the position for long, most never lasted a year, until H. Peterson, a former keeper at Tillamook Rock, took over in 1895. He must have liked it there, for he remained in the position until his death in 1913. Another Keeper, Olaf Ludwig Hansen, served at the station for 35 years, retiring in 1930.
The last U.S. Lighthouse Service Keeper was John Wilson, who took over the position in 1930, and served until 1939, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, time had run out for the lighthouse. By that time, the eroding bluff was up to the front door of the lighthouse and it was declared unsafe and was abandoned.
Edith Olson, a correspondent for the Chinook Observer newspaper wrote in a 1992 article for that paper, "Four square miles of land have disappeared into the sea with many homes, the hotel, post office, school, cemetery, lighthouse, Coast Guard station, and countless local landmarks. To say four square miles doesn't sound like much. Try saying over 111 million square feet. Or 2500 acres. Or 7000 good-sized home building sites."
Lois A Robson, the former postmaster, wrote an article called The North Cove I Remember. In that article she wrote, " I have written about how North Cove used to be at the turn of the century, with its named streets, lots and blocks, public buildings and private residences. However, I remember North Cove as it was between 1937 and the fifties. I wish it were like that again. All is washed away now by the insatiable sea . . , there once were people, houses, farms, work, fun and laughter. Now there is only water!"
On December 26, 1940, the lighthouse met its demise. It had been precariously hanging over the side of the bluff, looking as though it might topple at any second. The Coast Guard decided it was endangering the many sightseers who swarmed to get a last glimpse of the light. One wall had already collapsed. First, they washed away the remaining sand from the west side of the structure and then set off a charge of dynamite which toppled the lighthouse over the brink, ending another part of U.S. Lighthouse history.
Interestingly, the demise of the lighthouse was timed almost exactly with the end of the careers of two men closely associated with it. Olaf Ludwig Hansen, at the age of 80, a former crew member at the Willapa Life Saving Station and also a keeper from 1920-1930 at the Willapa Bay Lighthouse, passed away just several weeks before the lighthouse was destroyed. And, Captain Herman Winbeck, USCG Commander of the North Cove Coast Guard Station and the man put in charge of the lighthouse when the U.S. Lighthouse Service was dissolved, retired from the service.
This story appeared in the
January 1999 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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