Stories of Oregon's Umpqua River sentinel

Peter Fish

If you think of a lighthouse keeper as salt-sprayed, squinting,and talking like the sea captain on The Simpsons, GayLyn Bradley comes as a surprise. She hasthe soigné aura of a successful real-estate agent. But on theday I visit, her smart red suit is decorated with gold buttonsimprinted with lighthouses. "There is a mystique aboutlighthouses," Bradley says. "Every one has its own story."

They do. And among Oregon lighthouses, the Umpqua RiverLighthouse's story is perhaps the most interesting, thanks in largepart to Bradley.

The Umpqua River Lighthouse rises above Winchester Bay on thesouthern Oregon coast. When you visit, you take a self-guided tourthrough the station's museum. Here you see a photo of the firstlighthouse ― which was built in 1857 and flooded seven yearslater ― and the completion of the second, in 1894. "For 31years there was no lighthouse," Bradley says, in the tone ofsomeone saying that for 31 years there was no food. "We had ninebig wrecks."

Then you tour the lighthouse itself with docents. Umpqua wasn'tthe hardest posting on the Oregon coast, Bradley says, but thedangers were there. She tells the story of early lighthouse keeperMarinus Stream. "Every day he would write in his log book, takenote of the weather, unusual events. On one day you see a newentry, in different handwriting. Very soft, feminine. His wife.'Mr. Stream drowned at 1 p.m.' He had gone out on a rescue."

The highlight of the tour is climbing 60-plus feet to theFresnel lens ― the 2-ton, 616-prism lens that flashes one redand two white beams of light 21 miles out to sea. What makes Umpquaalmost unique in the world is that you get to stick your headinside the lens. The sensation is like what you imagine dancinginside a kaleidoscope would be: dizzying, unrepeatable.

Experiences like that make you think lighthouses should be agrowth industry. But in the era of global positioning satellites,they're deemed superfluous. Even in Oregon, which promotes itslighthouses like crazy, lighthouse after lighthouse has gone dark,too costly to maintain. "Lighthouses are like kittens," I'm told."Everybody loves them. Nobody wants one."

Which is where GayLyn Bradley comes in. When she moved to theOregon coast a few years ago, the Umpqua River Lighthouse was inpoor condition. "I don't do bored well," Bradley says ― herexplanation for why she started working at the lighthouse, mowinglawns and then museum curating and, lately, working with Jeld-WenWindows & Doors to donate historically appropriate windows toreplace the battered ones that were letting in wind and rain. Andthanks to her ― and to fierce community support ― theUmpqua lighthouse shines.

By late afternoon I have learned so much about lighthouses Ithink I am ready to go. Bradley says no. I have to see thelighthouse at night. "It's the most beautiful thing you've everseen. And I've seen the Sistine Chapel."

It is late, and I am tired, but I return. In the dark the coastis gloomy. But here comes the light, flashing white, white, red,the beam sweeping across dunes and sea.

Because Bradley had primed me, I find myself thinking about theSistine Chapel too ― the section where you see God touchinghis finger to Adam's. It's a vision of inspiration and comfort, andso is the shining beam. Each flash says someone ― MarinusStream? ― thinks you're important. Someone thinks you matter.Someone will steer you safely to shore.

INFO: Umpqua River Lighthouse (tours through Oct 30; $3; 5miles south of Reedsport, OR; 541/271-4631)

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