Cape Blanco is the farthest western point in Oregon, and the lighthouse, built in 1870, is the oldest standing lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. [123rf.com]

I brake for lighthouses

If I had a bumper sticker that says, “I Brake for Lighthouses,” I would display it proudly on my car.

Lighthouse history fascinates me, and the old buildings tend to be found at beautiful locations.

But visiting the lighthouse that has been standing tall atop Cape Blanco since 1870 wasn’t even the highlight of a recent trip to the Oregon Coast.

My wife and I took the trail from the campground that cuts across the cape and leads to the lighthouse — a one-mile ramble through dewy grasses, ferns and wildflowers. About halfway there, we spotted something on the ocean that sure looked like a whale spout.

Parking ourselves on a bench, we quickly confirmed there was a whale out ‘thar. More than one, in fact. Way more.  

From our overlook 200 feet above the action, we became spectators to quite a show. A whale-apalooza. 

Every few minutes, spouts shot up like automated fountains, only much better, because we knew a living, breathing giant of the deep was responsible for each blast of water. We figured at least seven whales were present, and possibly as many as 10.  

I consider it good manners to watch whales until they have moved on and you’ve lost sight of their spouts. You never want to skip out while the show is still going on.

I’ve had great whale-sighting luck over the years, so take my advice.

However, this pod had evidently floated into a delicious buffet, and was in no hurry to leave the cafeteria.

So, after an hour of sitting mesmerized, my wife and I decided to get on with our day. The lighthouse, remember?

At the lighthouse grounds, an interpretive sign described 1870s life at the station.

“You tend your horses, cattle and sheep in the barn,” it read. “With no supermarket nearby, you must grow and raise your own food.”

It added: “Imagine growing vegetables in this wind!”

Oddly, though, conditions this day were as tranquil as those at a Zen garden. Not that the sign writer had goofed.

Indeed, stiff winds are common at Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon, though summer tends to be the calmest season.

My wife and I visited Cape Blanco at spring break once, and we felt like we were stuck in the storm sequence from the “Wizard of Oz.”

The person who experienced more gusty days than probably any Oregonian was James Langlois (pronounced Lang-less), appointed assistant light keeper at Cape Blanco in 1876. I can’t think that a job at this weather-battered outpost, 10 rugged miles from the nearest town, Port Orford, ranked as a cushy assignment.

I wonder if Langlois rationalized accepting the gig by thinking, “Aw, what the heck, I can hack it for a year or two. It’ll be a résumé builder.”

Decades later, Langlois was still doing duty at the cape. He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised a large family there. He retired in 1919.                                  

For two dollars, you can take a guided tour of Langlois’ old stomping grounds, which includes an invitation to climb a winding stairway 59 feet to the top of the light tower, where the octagonal lens slowly rotates.

Up close, you can really appreciate the intricacy and beauty of this massive glass prism, made in France and installed in 1936. It’s similar to the original 19th-century lens it replaced, but was designed to be illuminated by electric bulb, rather than burning oil.

The tower and an attached room, originally used as work space and oil storage, are all that remain of the Cape Blanco station. Gone are the keepers’ residence, the wash house for laundry and the barn.

The light still plays a role in maritime navigation, although more sophisticated tracking technologies now exist. Its characteristic white signal flashes seaward every 20 seconds. 

To live and prosper at Cape Blanco, Mr. Langlois must have been an off-the-grid type of guy, long before the concept — or the grid — even existed. Something about this wild and remote place must have spoken to his soul.

On an unusually windless, sunny day in July, when the whales were spouting, I understood the appeal. But for every day as splendid as the one I experienced, there are weeks and weeks that will rattle your bones.

Tours of the lighthouse are offered April through October (closed Tuesdays), beginning at 10 a.m. The road up to the building is gated at 3:30.

— Paul Hadella is a freelance writer who lives in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

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