The 107-foot Grays Harbor Lighthouse, dedicated in 1898, is the tallest lighthouse in Washington. It marks the entrance to Grays Harbor, the best of Washington's few outer-coast (on the Pacific Ocean) harbors.
Explorers and Fur Traders
On May 7, 1792, Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806), an American fur trader sailing in the Columbia Rediviva, entered the large bay on Washington’s outer coast later known as Grays Harbor. He remained there until May 11. He named the inlet Bulfinch Harbor to honor Charles Bulfinch, one of the investors in his fur-trading venture. However, noted English seafarer Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) had encountered Gray off Cape Flattery in April of that year during Pacific Northwest explorations with the ship Discovery, sloop Chatham, and storeship Daedalus.
When Vancouver passed Grays Harbor in October 1792, he sent Daedalus and one of the Discovery’s boats to explore. Three days passed before Daedalus could successfully cross the bar into the harbor. The Discovery’s boat, commanded by sailing master Joseph Whidbey, surveyed the bay. He named all of its prominent features, including Point Hanson on the southern tip for James Hanson, one of Vancouver’s lieutenants. Vancouver labeled the area Gray’s Harbor on his charts, which were published in 1798. That name stuck. Later usage dropped the possessive apostrophe.
When the United States Coast Survey began its investigations of America’s Pacific shoreline between San Francisco and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1850, the surveyors quickly identified Grays Harbor as a port with potential. Located about 40 miles north of the entrance to the Columbia River and 93 miles south of the entrance to Puget Sound, the large protected bay gave access to the Chehalis River. The river, in turn, was navigable some distance toward the timber-rich mountainsides of the Olympic Peninsula and potential farmlands of the valleys and foothills below those peaks.
Despite that promise, in the 1850s Grays Harbor was a remote, sparsely populated area. Mariners hesitated to cross the dangerous bar at its mouth. Only a few settlers eked out precarious livings on its shores. They did little to interrupt the seasonal rounds of the Lower Chehalis Indians who lived nearby fishing and hunting seals, porpoises, sea lions, and sea otters in harbor waters.
Grays Harbor: Lumber Port and Fishing Spot
A light at Grays Harbor was one of only 16 such facilities recommended by the Coast Survey for America’s Pacific Northwest coast. It received low priority. Nonetheless, on September 11, 1854, the federal government set aside a lighthouse reserve for Grays Harbor. The reservation included both capes -- Point Hanson and its north tip opposite, Point Brown.
In 1858, the citizens of Washington Territory petitioned Congress, "praying that Gray’s harbor (sic) be surveyed by government and buoys placed to indicate the channel, and that Gray’s harbor be made a port of entry" (Journal of the House of Representatives, January 29, 1858). Congress did not immediately answer their prayers.
Only in the 1880s did Grays Harbor begin to fulfill its promise. First, vacationers came. Elijah Wade, a Civil War veteran, settled at Point Hanson and began hosting summer reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of former Union soldiers, in an area known as Cohasset Beach about a mile south of the future site of the Grays Harbor light. As the ranks of Grand Army vacationers thinned, he accommodated others who wanted to spend a few days or weeks by the sea clamming, fishing, and cautiously wading off the surf-pounded beaches. At the same time, small towns grew up at the head of Grays Harbor. They serviced what was becoming a thriving lumbering industry.
By 1890, Grays Harbor was becoming America’s leading lumber port. Grays Harbor shipyards launched nine steamers and three sailing vessels that year, while 13 mills exported 66 million feet of lumber on 256 vessels. In addition, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Grays Harbor as the western end of its transcontinental rail line. In 1892, it completed tracks to the new town of Ocosta-by-the-Sea, a few miles east of Point Hanson. Although the Northern Pacific soon abandoned Ocosta as a rail terminus, economic development continued as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to pour millions of dollars into improving Grays Harbor navigability.
Harbor Light or First-class Light?
These early years of growth doubtless encouraged the House of Representatives Committee on Commerce to recommend an appropriation of $15,000 for construction of a light on Point Hanson. Congress made the appropriation in July 1884. At this time, the Lighthouse Board saw the need for a small "harbor light," rather than a more expensive "first-class" light. The former were for harbor use, whereas the latter were "designed to occupy the headlands of the coast, to aid the mariner in avoiding the dangers which he is liable to encounter when in their vicinity, and in determining his course from point to point" (Scientific American, April 7, 1855).
The Lighthouse Board received more information while negotiations for purchase of a harbor light site were underway, and decided that Grays Harbor merited a first-order light. In 1886, the board asked Congress to increase the original appropriation by $60,000 so that it could establish a first-order light at the entrance to Grays Harbor. Congress appropriated the funds in 1895.
Building the Lighthouse
Construction of the Grays Harbor Light began in 1897. Thirteenth Lighthouse District officials selected a site facing the Pacific Ocean, about 400 feet from water’s edge and two-and-one-half miles south of the extreme tip of Point Hanson, or Point Chehalis as it was coming to be known.
Contractors first built a wagon road across the Point Chehalis peninsula, from a landing on its eastern, or protected, side to the lighthouse site. This facilitated transportation of building materials. They then planted a 12-foot-thick sandstone slab in the dune sands to serve as a base for what would become a brick tower covered with a layer of cement. As the conical tower, with four-foot-thick walls at its base slowly gained height and became more visible, residents of towns such as Aberdeen, Cosmopolis, Grays Harbor City, and Hoquiam at the head of the bay 20 miles away gauged project progress.
Two small oil storage sheds with a combined capacity of 685 gallons, a year’s supply, occupied ground to the north and south of the lighthouse. Inland, or east of the lighthouse itself, builders erected two dwellings, one for the head keeper and his family and the other for assistant keepers. West of the lighthouse, and slightly closer to the sea, they put up a fog signal building.
Delays in transporting necessary materials delayed lighthouse completion until 1898. When finished, the lighthouse had 135 iron steps in a circular staircase leading from the base of the tower to the service area, the first of three levels at the top of the lighthouse. The watch room is the next level. Here, brass wall vents allowed keepers to adjust the flow of air to kerosene lamps that provided a light source before conversion to electricity. This level also housed the clockwork mechanism that turned the light before an electric motor replaced it. In the lantern room above was a third-order Fresnel "clamshell" lens manufactured in Paris in 1895 by Henri LePaute and Sons. Its base, dropping below the floor, rested in a 20-gallon pool of mercury in the watch room, thus allowing the lens to turn easily.
Flashing White and Red
When Christian Zauner, designated as the first keeper of Grays Harbor Light, his wife Hermine, and two daughters arrived on June 14, 1898, from the lighthouse at Destruction Island 70 miles to the north, Grays Harbor Light was ready for operation. On the evening of June 30, 1898, Thirteenth Lighthouse District officials and area dignitaries gathered to dedicate and commission the light.
Its initial signature was a five-second white flash, darkness, then a five-second red flash. After electricity reached the lighthouse, the signature became white flashes followed by 15 seconds of darkness, then red flashes followed by 15 seconds of darkness.
Equipment for the fog signal building was late in arriving, and the fog signal did not begin operating until March 1899. Supplied with windmill-pumped water, a small steam engine provided energy for twin trumpets that pointed out to sea. When the trumpets were sounding, the steam engine’s boiler burned up to 200 pounds of coal per hour.
Zauner remained as head keeper at Grays Harbor until he retired at the end of July 1925, and he soon discovered the disadvantages of running an easily accessible lighthouse. In 1900, he wrote to his superiors in the Lighthouse Service that visitors should not be admitted on foggy or rainy days because "too much wet sand and moisture [is] carried into the lens room" (Quoted in Nelson and Nelson).
Ocean v. Land: A Shifting Relationship
In 1916, the fog signal building burned. Its replacement, with an oil-fired boiler, went up almost a mile to the north. The new fog signal building was nearer the harbor entrance, but it ultimately fell victim to a "hot spot" of coastal erosion. The sea eroded the land and eventually the building fell into the sea. The Coast Guard relocated its nearby radio antenna towers farther inland. Conversely, the sea receded from the lighthouse itself, and accretion extended the beach. By the late 1960s, when the Coast Guard automated the light, the lighthouse stood 3,000 feet from water’s edge, surrounded by scrubby beach pines. In 1977, the lighthouse achieved listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1992, a small electronic optical device supplanted Henri LePaute’s Fresnel lens, although the 1895 mechanism remained in place at the top of the lighthouse. Throughout the 1990s, visitors continued to come to the lighthouse. Volunteers from the Westport-South Beach Historical Society, which does business as the Westport Maritime Museum, often provided informal tours.
In 1998, Coast Guard officials granted the Maritime Museum formal license to conduct tours of Grays Harbor Lighthouse. In June 2004, the Coast Guard transferred ownership to the Maritime Museum, which opens it to visitors on a daily basis in summer and on weekends in most winter months. The light and foghorn continue to guide boats and ships entering the harbor.