By the time Cape Blanco Lighthouse opened in 1870, it was long overdue. The stretch of sea between the cape and Port Orford, Oregon, a newly goldrich hamlet nine miles south, was brutal. Violent squalls would rage into the town's port, while at the cape, torrential rain and thick fog could blind captains to rocks and reefs. Shipwrecks happened so frequently that a local innkeeper started hanging a lantern in a window to aid mariners.
Surveyors decided the area needed a lighthouse, but construction was delayed: first by the wettest winter on record, then again when a supply ship lost most of its cargo in a gale. Eventually more materials arrived, and the crew laid the bricks, installed the doors and windows, and hoisted the intricate, 2,000-pound Fresnel lens—fresh from Paris—into the lens room, 50 feet above land. Finally, on Dec. 20, 1870, the lighthouse flickered to life.
The beacon has shone each night since, thanks to generations of keepers, sometimes serving simultaneously. Two of them—James Langlois and James Hughes—devoted their entire careers to Cape Blanco (42 years and 37 years, respectively). In 1903, Mabel Bretherton was appointed to the job, becoming Oregon's first female lighthouse keeper. These hardy people faced a Sisyphean task: keeping the lamp lit every night from sunset to sunrise, by trimming the wick, replenishing the oil, and winding the clockwork.
The lighthouse was extremely isolated. Early on, ships bearing sugar, flour, coffee, and lard came twice a year. The keepers lived off the land, tending vegetables, raising livestock, and hunting deer and elk. Even after an access road was completed in 1886, it often washed out during winter storms. As the rain pounded, the wind could roar up to 100 miles per hour, tearing shingles off the keepers' residence and shattering the lighthouse windows.