Oregon's Heceta Head Lighthouse
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
Heceta Head, formerly an Alsea tribal village, sits atop a steep bluff overlooking the wild and unforgiving Pacific Ocean. In the 1892 annual report of Portland's Chamber of Commerce, we find the origins of its construction. "Contracts have been let," that report declared, for a lighthouse at Heceta Head. But actually building the light and its two keepers' houses was an almost impossible challenge.
The original project required more than two years of work and $180,000. Construction was supervised by Pennsylvania-born West Point graduate Thomas H. Handbury. Lumber was milled in nearby Florence and Mapleton and transported by raft to the coves beneath the building site. On other occasions, it was simply tossed from tugboats to the beach. Supplies were then carried up the sharp incline, nearly vertical at some points, or transported by wagon on a treacherous, one-lane road.
The original Fresnel lens used to light the tower was made in Birmingham, England by the Chance Brothers. It was 72" in diameter, and took eight minutes to make a complete revolution. A 5 1/2" wick, burning coal oil, cast a light equivalent to 170,000 candles. A system of hand-wound weights and pulleys created a flash every sixty seconds. The 56' tall Heceta Head Lighthouse cast its first beam in March 1894. It was a godsend to the sailors, ships' captains and fishermen who had been begging for some means of avoiding the deadly rocks and shoals lining that spot on the Oregon coast.
In addition to the lighthouse, two keepers' houses were built, both white with brown roofs. They were nearly identical except that the head keeper's house (placed 50' from the lighthouse) was intended for use by only he and his family. The assistant keepers' residence (40' further away) was a duplex, meant to house two assistants and their households. There was also a barn built about 700' southeast of the lighthouse.
Perhaps the provision for three keepers was a means of combatting the isolation. Or, maybe it simply ensured sufficient manpower on-site while one of the keepers was ill, or went to nearby Florence to retrieve the mail. Eventually, a small community of homesteaders did settle near the lighthouse - but it was still a hard and lonely life.
The first lighthouse keeper was Andrew P. C. Hald. Born in Denmark, the 51-year-old had been serving as first assistant at the Cape Meares lighthouse in Washington. The promotion to head keeper at Heceta Head bumped his annual salary from $600 to $800. He came to the lighthouse with his wife, "Gine" or "Sine" depending on the source consulted, sixteen years his junior. In the 1900 census, taken just after they left Heceta Head, Mrs. Hald reported that both of her two children were still alive. They also had a teenage niece in their household named Hilda. (This information will come to play a bit later in this story.)
By the mid-1930s the lighthouse increased from 170,000 to 950,000 candle power. In 1939 the U.S. Lighthouse Service was disbanded, and control of Heceta Head transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.
During WWII, the waters around Heceta Head were particularly dangerous - and not just because of the busy shipping lanes and underwater hazards. Japanese mines regularly floated around the southern tip of Heceta Head, some finding their way to the beaches. It is astounding that no ships were sunk, or lives lost.
The one constant, more deadly, threat to lighthouse keepers was Mother Nature. Storms bringing winds of 100 miles per hour shook the house walls. Loss of electricity meant no light, no means of communication, and no heat for days on end. Tidal waves, believed to be caused by distant earthquakes, reached more than 20 feet in height. They crashed against the cliffs, and littered the beaches and nearby Suislaw River with debris.
As if weather conditions and seclusion weren't challenging enough, encounters with unexpected animal species left one lightkeeper's family shocked and shaken. In 1914, Olaf Hansen's wife and daughter were walking on the beach when they came upon a squid - head, beak and several tentacles out of the water. Mrs. Hansen called for her husband who, along with assistant keeper DeRoy, killed the creature. They measured its body at over 6' long, its tentacles 16' from tip to tip, and its diamond-shaped tail 27" across. Coincidentally, in 2009 these same creatures, today known as Humboldt squids, washed up onto Oregon's beaches by the dozens, the theory being that the warmer-than-usual water drew them north.
Little by little the Heceta Head Lighthouse and its associated buildings fell into disrepair. In 1963 the light was automated. Three years later, the head keeper's residence was torn down. In 1973 the job of caretaker for the lighthouse and surrounding property went to Harry and Anne Tammen. It is this couple, apparently, who made the first public claims of supernatural activity at Heceta Head. In a 1977 newspaper interview, Harry claimed to hear the clicking of a light switch going on and off, footfalls on the cellar steps, and rattling dishes. He told the story of a contractor who, while repairing a broken upstairs window, saw a "wrinkle-faced woman" in a long, gray hoopskirt. She floated toward the contractor, but disappeared just as she reached him. The contractor, according to Harry, left and refused to return - but late that night sweeping sounds were heard in the attic. In the morning, the Tammens found the shards of glass in a neat pile.
Upon their retirement in 1989, Harry Tammen said that he and his wife had worked at Heceta Head longer than anyone else, and that they would miss it and its ghost in the old-fashioned dress. This claim of longevity is contradicted, however, by records indicating that Captain Clifford B. Herman lived there from 1925 to 1950, outlasting the Tammens by nearly a decade.
In 1995, the remaining keeper's house was converted to a bed and breakfast inn. There is a three-month waiting list for would-be lodgers.
So what of the stories that Heceta Head is haunted? Many ghost hunters and bloggers insist that every lighthouse keeper from the 1950s forward said they'd witnessed unusual activity there. If so, CIM found no statements or records substantiating this.
As to the ghost now known as the "gray lady" - she is said to be the wife of the first lighthouse keeper, Andrew P. C. Hald, supposedly still roaming the grounds looking for the gravestone of her young daughter who died at Heceta Head. As the 1900 census proves, however, the Halds had only two children - and both were still alive after the couple left Heceta Head for a position at another lighthouse.
Of course, there are other, more stereotypical claims: screams in the night, cabinet doors that open and close by themselves, and objects that disappear from one spot only to reappear in another. We've asked the current innkeepers to respond to these assertions but have, as yet, received no comment. ☁