On January 26, 1912 under the orders of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950), the beautiful Point Adams Lighthouse near Astoria, Oregon was burned to the ground.
Built in 1875, the Point Adams Lighthouse was the first lighthouse to be built on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, and without question, it was the most ornate lighthouse built in the state. It was designed by Paul J. Pelz, who also designed similar style lighthouse structures in California such as the Point Fermin Lighthouse, Mare Island Lighthouse, East Brother Lighthouse, and the Point Hueneme Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built by R. N. Holt and C. W. Holt of Astoria, Oregon under the supervision of H. S. Wheeler, the superintendent of the Thirteenth Lighthouse District. Its lantern held a 4th Order Fresnel lens that gave off a red and white alternating flash that was visible slightly over fourteen miles out to sea. The combination of the Point Adams Lighthouse and the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse on the north side of the river effectively framed the entrance to the Columbia River.
On January 21, 1881 the light was changed to a fixed red light to reduce confusion with the nearby and just completed Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. However, the change caused a disaster when the Captain of British vessel HMS Fern Glen, who was unaware that a change had been made, ran his vessel aground.
R. C. Tracey served as the first keeper of the Point Adams Lighthouse and he was assigned two assistant keepers. However, when the steam powered fog horn was removed from the site, to be placed elsewhere, assistant keepers were no longer needed at the lighthouse.
The second lighthouse keeper was R. N. Lowe, a noted boat builder from Astoria. His son Edward Lowe had the distinction of being the only child ever to be born at Point Adams Lighthouse.
Hero Life Saver Becomes Keeper - In 1881 veteran lighthouse keeper Joel Wilson Munson, who had been the keeper at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse from 1865 to 1877, took over from keeper Lowe as the keeper of the Point Adams Lighthouse.
Joel Munson was well known by the time he arrived at Point Adams; in fact he was known as a hero to many people. Shortly after he had become the keeper at his first lighthouse assignment at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, the bark Industry was wrecked on the Columbia River with the loss of seventeen lives. There was no lifesaving boat available at the lighthouse to try and save the crew, and this upset Mr. Munson. After the shipwreck occurred, Munson found a battered lifeboat that had washed up on the beach, and he made up his mind to restore the lifeboat so that it could be made available for future rescue emergences. However, he did not have any money for the repairs or to purchase the proper equipment to go with it.
So, with his talent for playing the violin, Mr. Munson started to promote fund raising dances in Astoria and charged $2.50 per person, which was big money in those days. The people responded overwhelmingly, and soon he raised the money to restore the boat. It’s a good thing he did. On May 5, 1866 the vessel W.B. Scranton wrecked near the lighthouse. Munson gathered up a crew of volunteers, and in two trips to the wrecked vessel they rescued its crew and passengers.
His efforts did not go unnoticed by government officials, and they soon established a U.S. Life Saving Service Station near the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Interestingly, Munson’s lifeboat was included in the new station’s original equipment, and amazingly, Munson’s original lifeboat was used in the rescues of the crew of the vessel Architect that got stranded on Clatsop Spit on March 28, 1875.
In 1877 Munson decided he wanted a new adventure in life and he resigned from the Lighthouse Service to operate the river steamer Magnet that he had built himself. However, the Lighthouse Service was still in his blood. Three years later when the position of head keeper at Point Adams Lighthouse opened up, he applied for the job and was accepted to the position.
Because of his cordial open door policy at the Point Adams Lighthouse, keeper Munson had lots of relatives, friends, and guests come out to the lighthouse. It was not uncommon for wagon loads of people to show up in the evening. Mr. Munson, still being an avid violin player, would always entertain the visitors with his musical talent. He and his wife Clara, who frequently entertained in the spacious quarters of the keeper’s house, also were more than happy to give tours to anyone who showed up.
The Beginning of End
Mr. Munson served until October, 1898 when ill health forced him to resign. His resignation literally sealed the fate of the lighthouse. No replacement was appointed for him. Three months later the lighthouse was officially decommissioned as being no longer needed.
Sadly, the U.S. Lighthouse Service just walked away from the lighthouse, and it was left empty and abandoned. However, at some point, someone, probably squatters, for a brief time, did take up residence in the old lighthouse. But toward the end of its life, it took on the appearance of a haunted house.
Talk of the demise of the Point Adams Lighthouse started in 1905 when the big guns of Battery Russell were installed near the lighthouse. The big guns were of the disappearing kind that only came up when they would be needed. However, the U.S. Army believed that the old abandoned Point Adams Lighthouse would offer enemy ships at sea a target that could be used to zero in on for a bombardment of the nearby big guns of Battery Russell. Although the official report by the Secretary of War was that the old lighthouse was a fire hazard, the real reason that it needed to be destroyed was to protect the big guns at Battery Russell. But to prove that the lighthouse was indeed a fire hazard, it was quickly and easily burned to the ground.
The destruction of the Point Adams Lighthouse must have broken the heart of lighthouse keeper Joel W. Munson and he died the same year that the lighthouse did. After his death, it was written, “He did his best, and he did it well. Who can do more?”
The Point Adams Lighthouse, where families once lived in harmony and served for the benefit of others, is now but a faded and nearly forgotten memory in the dusty pages of maritime history, recalled now in just a few remaining photos. Let us never forget.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2016 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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