Willapa Bay, named Shoalwater Bay on July 5, 1788, by English fur trader John Meares (1756?-1809) and so known until about 1900, extends north to within 20 miles of Grays Harbor. Willapa Bay's ocean entrance is 28 miles north of the Columbia and 17 miles south of Grays Harbor. At high tide, the bay covers about 59,000 acres (92-square-miles). At low tide, approximately half the seafloor of the bay is exposed.
Until the 1850s, the shallow inlet had little maritime activity warranting navigation aids. Then, a small oystering industry based on natural beds long used by local Native Americans blossomed. Oyster shipments first went overland to the Columbia River and then by ship to market at San Francisco. Sailing vessels soon carried loads of oysters direct from Willapa Bay to the California city. Lumber schooners, destined for ports all over the globe, later joined the oyster boats in entering and leaving the bay.
By 1855, the United States Lighthouse Board planned to mark the bay's entrance. Lighthouse Board architects designed a 42-foot circular tower. It rested on a base of New England marble. A rectangular masonry structure, providing keepers quarters, surrounded the tower. Board officials chose a lighthouse site on the tip of Cape Shoalwater, at the northern end of the bay. A fourth-order Fresnel lens provided the light's beacon when it went into operation on October 1, 1858.
Less than a year after opening, the lighthouse closed temporarily. Providing food for its keepers and fuel for its lantern proved difficult. In July 1861, the lighthouse reopened. In the mid-1860s, diminishing vessel traffic led the Lighthouse Board to consider shutting down the light. Local protests, however, saved it.
By 1868, coastal erosion began to threaten the light. Contractors built a bulkhead to protect the foundations. Authorities placed 2,000-square-feet of planking around the lighthouse grounds to cut down on the amount of sand blowing into the structure. In 1869, the keepers received instructions to plant shrubs around the bulkhead. These 1860s efforts began a battle that lasted almost 100 years. Keepers struggled to keep newly created dunes from interfering with the light's visibility. In the best conditions, mariners could see it at a distance of 11 miles. In the worst conditions, they could not see it at all.
Fences went up in 1875 in an attempt to stop drifting sands. Willow trees and brush fences followed in 1881. In 1892, brush mats further protected the bulkhead. All the while, pounding surf and storm tides cut away 50 to 100 feet of Cape Shoalwater each year. Then just before Christmas Day 1940, storm winds of up to 85 m.p.h. signaled that the light's days were numbered. The Coast Guard, which had assumed responsibility for lighthouse operations in 1939, removed "the musty records, the fine French glass reflectors [Fresnel lens] used since 1858, and the brass light fittings" (Tacoma News Tribune, December 24, 1940, quoted in Nelson and Nelson). High tides and heavy surf so undermined the lighthouse that by December 26 its south wall collapsed. Rising waters eventually claimed not only the lighthouse, but also much of the cape on which it sat.
In the years after 1940, the Coast Guard erected beacons on a series of towers that gradually retreated from the encroaching ocean. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Willapa Light rested on a metal tower almost a mile from the 1858 lighthouse site.