To warn ships of dangerous headlands, the U.S. government built the Cape Blanco lighthouse in 1870. - Bill Miller

A home on the headlands

White cliffs jut into the sea at the Cape Blanco headlands, the most westerly point in the continental United States.

Here on the Oregon Coast, countless seagulls battle against a ceaseless wind. Snipes with pipe-stem legs scamper across the sand, and sunbathing sea lions bellow from their boulder beds, unmoved by the crashing surf.

The inland simmers in summer heat, but here the seasons are always cool. And, although gloomy fog may spoil a sunlit moment and winter rains are sure to come, someone has almost always called this desolate, lonely spot home.

For thousands of years, American Indians camped, hunted and fished on these headlands, and perhaps they watched in 1603 as Capt. Martin de Aguilar sailed nearby in his Spanish frigate and named their homeland Cape Blanco de Aguilar, Aguilar's White Cape.

American settlers began arriving by 1850, and almost immediately there was trouble. When the Rogue River Indian Wars ended, the Indian population was forced onto a reservation in northern Oregon.

As shipping increased between San Francisco, Portland and the north coast, the government realized that ships needed warning of the dangerous headlands and nearby reefs.

In March 1867, Congress authorized $75,000 to build a lighthouse at Cape Blanco and three years later added an additional $20,000.

First, all trees were cleared so they wouldn't block the view of the light. A Fresnel lens, the finest in the world, was ordered from France, and a contract for 200,000 bricks was signed with a local tradesman.

In the summer of 1870, with additional supplies arriving from San Francisco, construction began. That winter, five evenings before Christmas, the "fixed white light" pierced the night sky. On a rare, clear evening it could be seen for 22 miles.

Just south of the 60-foot-tall tower stood a two-story light-keeper's house with green shutters, painted white to match the brick tower. The first keeper to move in was H.B. Burnap with his wife and daughter.

Burnap had kept the light up the coast at the Umpqua lighthouse until it fell in 1863. He hired local boy James Langlois as his assistant, and when Burnap retired a few year later, Langlois took over, with a career at Cape Blanco that spanned nearly 44 years.

Cape Blanco made history in 1903, when Mabel Bretherton, a widow with two children, was hired as assistant light keeper, the first woman in Oregon to tend a lighthouse. Women had been doing the job for more than half a century, but not in Oregon.

Her husband, Bernard, was a well-known Northwest naturalist and writer. Sometime during the 1890s he had taken a job as light keeper at the Yaquina Lighthouse in Newport, a position that gave him plenty of time to observe the local bird population.

By 1902, he was at the Coquille Lighthouse, just north of Cape Blanco, when his health began to fail. He died in February 1903.

Mabel Bretherton remained at Cape Blanco until 1907, when she was transferred to a California lighthouse and her memory fades away.

In 1980, Cape Blanco was automated. With the keeper house long gone, the headland home returned to the wind, the gulls, some sea lions — and a few thousand visitors every summer.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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