When William Valpied Langlois came to the Oregon frontier in 1844, he fathered a lightkeeper dynasty that contributed more than 100 years of service along the Oregon and Washington coast. In the March/April 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest, two of William’s sons, keepers James S. Langlois and Frank M. Langlois, were profiled. But they were only part of the story, as the next two generations that followed had many more keepers and associations with both lighthouse and life-saving service.
William T. Langlois
William Thomas Langlois was the eldest son of famed lighthouse keeper James S. Langlois and his wife Elizabeth Rudolph. William was born on January 8, 1874 in Empire, Oregon a couple of years prior to James starting his 42-year tenure at Cape Blanco Lighthouse.
When he was young, the Indians in the area used to refer to James as “Big Jim” and William as “Little Jim.” William played with the Indian boys, and from them learned how to spear fish and hunt with a bow and arrow in “Indian fashion.” This almost led to his demise. Around age 14, he went spear fishing for salmon at the mouth of the Sixes River and came across a seal frightening the salmon away. In anger, he speared the seal, forgetting that the end of the spear rope was tied to his arm. The wounded seal dragged him into the water and headed for the ocean. Luckily, the rope broke and William was able to swim ashore. The local Indian chief heard of the mishap and the next day gave William a tongue-lashing in the Chinook language that he never forgot.
In an article in the Oregon Journal, William reminisced, “When I was 16 years old, I heard the call of the sea and shipped on a 26-ton schooner engaged in sealing off the coast of Japan. The schooner had a crew of 12 men. I put in five years sealing and hunting sea otter. When I first joined the sealing fleet, there were 14 of us who left Port Orford. Only three came back. The sealing fleet was caught in a typhoon off the Japanese coast and most of the schooners sank. Our schooner lay on its beam ends several times. Time and again she would go over till the sails touched the water.”
His family recollected that he was supposedly lost at sea with no word from him for several months. They were relieved when he returned home safely to Oregon a short time later. Perhaps it was due to his survival of the typhoon that William didn’t think twice about accepting his first lighthouse keeper appointment as 4th assistant at Tillamook Rock the following year in 1896. At least on “Terrible Tilly,” he would have a solid rock under him during the intense storms that gave the place its name.
William T. Langlois served at Tilly for three years until he transferred to Destruction Island Lighthouse off the Washington coast. A year later, on October 11, 1900, he married his childhood sweetheart Audrey Riddle and took her there. However, it still was an off-shore station and considered a hardship assignment, so in 1901 he transferred again to North Head Lighthouse, six months prior to the birth of their only child, Rodney, in October of that year. North Head Light was a family station on shore which provided a more suitable place for Audrey to have her son and be near William at the same time.
But familial togetherness didn’t last very long as William T. Langlois transferred once again back to Tillamook Rock as head keeper for seven years, from 1903-1910. He must have sincerely enjoyed his time there to have gone back and served 10 years, totally regardless of the confined space and horrific storms. William recounted, “During the years I was on Tillamook Rock, I have seen in heavy gales the water dash completely over the top of the lighthouse.”
William went on to say that John Fleming Wilson, famous author around the turn of the century and editor of the Pacific Monthly, used to “come down to see me when I was keeper of the Tillamook Rock lighthouse and pump me for hours. He used much of the material I gave him for stories that appeared in Eastern Magazines.” Perhaps Fleming’s Ghost Island Light published in Harper’s Weekly in 1911, was one such tale that came from William T. Langlois’ stories of service out on Tilly.
After William left lighthouse service in 1910, he ran a mercantile store in Riddle, Oregon until WWI when he sold the store and tried to enlist but was turned down due to having sight in only one eye from an accident several years before. Upon his rejection, he “did the next best thing” and went to work for the Foundation Company where he built 10 ships over the following 18 months.
When the war ended, he quit the shipyard and got into real estate buying and selling apartment houses in Portland, Oregon. That lasted for around 10 years until he retired to Clatskanie, Oregon in 1929. In 1950 he and Audrey celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with 150 of their friends and family. He passed away in 1955 at age 81.
Oscar R. Langlois
William’s youngest brother, Oscar Rudolph Langlois was born to James and Elizabeth Langlois at Cape Blanco Lighthouse in 1880. Oscar first started out as a surfman at the Bandon Life-Saving station in Oregon in 1904 or before. In 1905, he accepted his first lighthouse assignment at nearby Cape Arago Light where he was an assistant to Lars F. Amundsen. Lars, age 52, was unmarried at the time and had his niece, Marie Amundsen living with him at the lighthouse to help with domestic tasks.
Oscar and Marie were the same age, and with the two of them together in such an isolated place, it didn’t take long for a lighthouse romance to occur. The couple was married at the keeper’s dwelling at Cape Arago on January 10, 1906. During the summer of the following year, a son, Elmer, was born to the keeper family. That same year, Lars Amundsen also married, so Cape Arago truly became a family station. Unfortunately, it only lasted for two short years as Lars passed away in December of 1909 from stomach cancer.
Upon Lars Amundsen’s death, Oscar, Marie, and Elmer moved to Coquille River Lighthouse, about twenty miles distant, where another son, Walter, was born to the couple three years later. Oscar was the assistant keeper there under Oscar Wiren for the first 11 years, and then was promoted to head keeper for the next 18 years until 1939 when the station was decommissioned and an automated beacon was placed on the end of the jetty instead.
The most traumatic event that occurred during the 29 years that Oscar R. Langlois served at Coquille River Lighthouse was the great fire on September 26, 1936 that destroyed the entire town of Bandon. A scheduled burn at a local logging camp some miles to the east got out of control and set the gorse afire throughout the town. The oily gorse reacted to water much like an oil fire on a stove, so it spread rapidly, and in a manner of hours, burned all but 16 of the town’s 500 buildings.
Bandon’s 1800 residents had to flee quickly and there were many accounts of harrowing escapes, including that of Oscar’s father, James S. Langlois, then in his 80s, who barely made it out as flames licked at the sides of his car.
The Coquille River Lighthouse, being on the other side of the river, became a place of refuge for the fleeing inhabitants. Oscar R. Langlois and his assistant, Charles F. Walters, took the station boat on many trips to row people to safety. Charles’ daughters Emma and Evelyn later recalled what a sad day it was to stand on the porch of the lighthouse and watch the town burn.
Evelyn wrote that there were 30 people wall-to-wall in their side of the keeper’s dwelling that they had to shelter and feed. Emma added that the keepers’ wives had to tend the light for two days while their husbands went off to help fight the fire. Charles had been a fireman before entering lighthouse service in 1925, so no doubt his firefighting skills came in handy during the tragic event.
According to the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, the crew of the tender Rose, which was fortuitously visiting Bandon at the time the fire broke out, “did everything possible to aid in fighting the fire. For 48 hours a considerable amount of people were sheltered on the tender, many of these being old persons or those who were ill. Patrols from the ship searched the ruins for people who might have been injured. Parties were sent ashore and assisted inhabitants in getting clear of the rapidly burning buildings often at considerable risk.” Many commendations were given to all of the Lighthouse Service personnel for their “zeal, courage and individual acts of heroism” that day.
The town was very slow to recover from the disaster and the decrease in river traffic contributed to the decision to dispense with the lighthouse in 1939, which ended Oscar R. Langlois’ 34-year career.
Oscar received a last letter of commendation from the Secretary of Commerce which stated, “The records show that your service has been very creditable and this should be a good source of comfort in the future.” Western World, a local newspaper, added, “It can be said of him that not once did his light fail.”
Oscar R. Langlois enjoyed almost 20 years of retirement with his wife Marie and their family. He passed away on August 4, 1958 at the age of 78.
Further Langlois Contributions
Besides William and Oscar, there were several other relatives and intermarriages with other keeper families resulting in more members of the Langlois family who served either in life-saving or lighthouse keeping positions or both.
Clarence B. Langlois, who was a first cousin to Oscar and William, was an assistant at Coquille River lighthouse during 1906 at least. He also was a surfman stationed at the Bandon Life-Saving Station for a period of time.
William and Oscar’s younger sister, Mary Grace Langlois, married George E. McGinitie, who served with Clarence as a surfman at Bandon before serving as first assistant under his father-in-law, James S. Langlois, at Cape Blanco Lighthouse from 1918-1920.
William and Oscar’s other brother, James Merton Langlois, was also a surfman at Bandon for a number of years. James’ uncle Thomas Langlois married Gertrude Peirce, who was the daughter of Yaquina Bay’s Lighthouse keeper Charles H. Peirce.
The Langlois family truly was a keeper dynasty that can be remembered with honor and gratitude for their service in performing rescues and keeping mariners safe throughout many generations.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2018 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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