Sometimes doing lighthouse research leads to rather miraculous experiences. A couple of years ago, my friend Dave and I were taking a road trip up the Washington Coast. I had been to Cape Disappointment Park in Ilwaco before but had never actually been to the lighthouse due to the long steep hike up the service road and the fact that it is still an active Coast Guard station with access to the tower restricted to personnel only.
Dave and I were en route to North Head Lighthouse, which was only a short drive away, and decided to take the scenic park drive past Cape D because there was a great overlook along the way that I remembered had sweeping views. It was an uncharacteristically gorgeous day with no rainclouds in sight, so I thought we might be able to take some great photos from that vantage point.
We pulled into the turnoff parking area and were getting out of the car to head to the overlook when a pickup truck pulled in beside us. The truck had Alaska license plates, which immediately interested Dave, as it wasn’t a very common thing to see. Dave had spent some time working in Alaska and was curious where the driver had come from. A man in street clothes was opening the door when Dave approached him and the two started to have a conversation while I was digging the camera out of the car.
After some chit-chat about Alaska, the man introduced himself as MKCS Travis Judd who was assigned at Station Cape Disappointment as the Engineer Petty Officer. My little lighthouse antenna popped up at that point and I joined in the conversation which then turned to the history of the Cape Disappointment Light.
As we were discussing the many historic photos with the Civil War cannons surrounding the tower, MKCS Judd asked how I knew so much about the history. I happily told him all about Lighthouse Digest and our focus on preserving lighthouse history. He next asked if I had ever been in the tower, and when I responded no, he offered to drive me and Dave in his truck through the gates right up to the lighthouse and give us access!
We, of course, jumped at the chance and off we went, blithely bypassing all security checkpoints and driving up the steep service road until we finally parked right next to the tower. There were crewmen there servicing the optic, and after being introduced and given a warning not to touch any of the peeling lead paint, we were able to climb up the stairs and old ladders into the lantern room.
What greeted us was a rather rare sight. When the lighthouse was originally built in 1856, it housed a first order Fresnel lens, which was deemed by the Lighthouse Board in 1889 to be “inadequate for the purposes of commerce and navigation. It is believed that if North Head is marked by a first order light, and the proposed lightstations at Gray’s Harbor and Destruction Island are completed, that the Pacific coast will be well supplied with lights of the first order from Cape Flattery to Tillamook Rock.” The Cape Disappointment first order lens was subsequently moved to North Head Lighthouse upon construction, and in 1896, a much smaller 4th order Barbier and Bernard Fresnel lens took its place at Cape D.
Of course, when the lens was downsized, the large diameter lantern was not changed, so there was more than double the space to walk around the lens inside the lantern room. This meant that when a modern optic was installed, there was no need to remove the 4th order Fresnel lens, as there was plenty of space for both to be there.
So, when Dave and I reached the lantern room, we found the old Fresnel lens with a cover over it and the modern Vega optic operating in front of it. The crew removed the cover for us to take photos of both of them together. It was a very interesting contrast to see the 100-year difference in technology displayed side-by-side like that in an active lighthouse – a sight not often seen in other lighthouses across the country.
MKCS Judd next surprised us by saying that he wanted to introduce us to the base commander, Lt. Cmdr. Condit, who, when contacted, was very gracious in spending his time with us. In the course of the conversation in the commander’s office, Travis said, “You know, this whole thing is really incredible. I don’t ever go that long way around the park road usually, but I am off-duty today and wanted to come in to pay a bill, so thought since it was such a nice day, I’d take a drive around the loop. Just as I got to the overlook, a bumble bee flew in my window down near my seat and was buzzing around, so I pulled into the parking area next to you to let it out. It was a one-in-a-million chance that I’d be there exactly when you were and we’d meet like this.”
Lt. Cmdr. Condit then added that, out of the couple of hundred personnel stationed at the base, MKCS Judd was the one historian among them and knew more about the history of Cape Disappointment than anyone else there. He couldn’t believe that our meeting was all by chance either. The visit ended with MKCS Judd taking us downstairs to view some of the historic photos that they had of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. These will no doubt be used for future stories about Cape Disappointment in Lighthouse Digest, thanks to the miracle of the bumble bee at Cape D!
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2019 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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