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In Service To The Light
by USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler - May 20, 2012

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SEATTLE - The Umpqua river lighthouse guards the Winchester Bay, Ore., coast on May 14, 2012. On this day the maintenance of the light was passed to Douglas County. U.S. Coast Guard high dynamic range photo illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler. SEATTLE — Pass by pass, an old lens turns through the decades. It is part of the rhythm of the Umpqua Coast. Turning with the ebb and flood of the tides, the sun and moon in the sky, its reliable beam shines out onto the sea.

It is an icon of the Coast Guard's ancestry, originally operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. It is a regional identity to the communities surrounding Winchester Bay, a sentimental relic to the ships that transit here, but of all the things that it is, a federal aid to navigation it is no longer.

On Apr. 14, 2012, under the precision of an antique Fresnel lens, Coast Guardsman passed the maintenance and operation of the Umpqua River Lighthouse to Douglas County, Ore. The story of the light is the intertwining story of the Coast Guard, Winchester Bay and the settlement of the west.

"We are only effecting this turnover because of our confidence in the ability of Douglas County, supported by community volunteers, to maintain and operate this light," said Cmdr. Daryl Peloquin, Chief of Aids to Navigation Branch for the 13th Coast Guard District.

When early settlers arrived at the Umpqua River, they found a rugged, but providing landscape. The Native American's name 'Umpqua,' translates to 'full belly,' reflecting the river's abundant and sustaining nature.

SEATTLE - Crewman of U.S. Lifesaving Service Station Umpqua River, Ore., pose for a photo in the station boat house in the 1890s. They are surrounded by lifesaving equipment of the era, and a remnant of the steamer vessel Tacoma, a famous shipwreck of the region, hangs above their heads. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.
SEATTLE — Crewman of U.S. Lifesaving Service Station Umpqua River, Ore., pose for a photo in the station boat house in the 1890s. They are surrounded by lifesaving equipment of the era, and a remnant of the steamer vessel Tacoma, a famous shipwreck of the region, hangs above their heads. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
 

To the early settlers a lighthouse could establish a place in the local, national and global economy. It was critical to the region that ships could safely transit and recognize the ports of Winchester Bay, Reedsport and Gardner, allowing the export of lumber and operation of a strong fishing fleet.

Oregon in the early 1800s was still very much 'the Wild West.' Native Americans and settlers were not always in agreement. Settler's designs to construct a tower made local native people suspect that it was the beginning of a military fort, and they are said to have passively retaliated by walking off with tools from the construction site.

Despite these and the challenges of building on the region's sandy shores, the community completed the first lighthouse to identify the Oregon Coast on Oct. 10, 1857. A mineral oil lamp projected a beam through a rotating Fresnel lens.

The endeavor set the tone for the future of local developing coastal communities, however it is not the light that shines at the Umpqua entrance today. In January

of 1864, storm damage eroded the foundation and the lens was removed only a week before the structure collapsed.

It was 24 years before another light was built here. At the time the light functioned like a clock tower, with pulleys and weight keeping tension on a series of cogs, rotating a first-order Fresnel lens, sending two white flashes followed by one red. A watchman remained on duty to continuously reset and maintain the process, and ensure the lamp was lit.

Seafaring economic prosperity was restored. Winchester Bay could no longer boast the original functioning Oregon light, but the maritime transportation system was operational again.

SEATTLE - Coast Guard Station Umpqua River personnel pose for a photo on recently modernized search and rescue equipment near Winchester Bay, Ore., in the 1940s. Until recently, shore patrols were conducted on horseback or on foot. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.
SEATTLE — Coast Guard personnel pose for a photo on recently modernized search and rescue equipment near Winchester Bay, Ore., in the 1940s. Until recently, shore patrols were conducted on horseback or on foot. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
 

In 1883, the steamer Tacoma wrecked near the rivers entrance. The crew was being battered by storm waves within view of an unreachable shore until a group of hastily assembled volunteers gained national attention by rescuing the desperate men. In doing so they showed the need for a local U.S. Lifesaving Service Station. Later awarded gold and silver life saving medals, the volunteers were employed by the federal government to operate the first local lifesaving station, located on the north shore of the Umpqua.

By the 1940s and the end of World War II, both the Lifesaving Service, and Lighthouse Service had been enveloped into the expanding multi-mission service, the United States Coast Guard. The life saver's of Coast Guard Station Umpqua River would eventually inherit the responsibility of keeping the light and a new station and boathouse were built closer to the light on the south shore of the Umpqua.

The light was automated to an electric motor system in the 60s, and continued to shine across the Pacific Northwest seas unmanned. The automation allowed manpower to focus on other areas of the Coast

Guard's responsibility.

The light continued to shine, into another age of changing times. Large shipping traffic became less of a presence on the Umpqua and small recreational and fishing activity increased. The Coast Guard station moved again, to a location beside the newly constructed Salmon Harbor Marina.

A U.S. Coast Guardsman carries a radio on beach patrol during World War II. During the 1st and 2nd World War, personnel at life saving stations were tasked with patrolling these shores in search of foreign threats. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.
SEATTLE — A U.S. Coast Guardsman carries a radio on beach patrol during World War II. During the 1st and 2nd World War, personnel at life saving stations were tasked with patrolling these shores in search of foreign threats. U.S. Coast Guard photo uploaded by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
 

Maritime navigation slowly changed as well. Global positioning satellites and advanced aid placement along the river's path of transit assisted boaters with perfect accuracy in rain, fog or dark of night. The light was now a romantic symbol of locality, antiquated and historic, and seldom used for more than a reference point.

This intricate navigational system requires a great deal of maintenance, and diverting personnel from active aids to maintain a historic one unnecessarily strained the manpower assigned here.

"Due to the weight of the lens, and its method of rotation on a track system, loss of power can damage the system," said Peloquin. "The wheels on which it rotates can only support the lens as long as it continues to turn. If it stops, blocks need to quickly be put in place to prevent the wheels from crushing under its own weight."

Because of this, the light required an emergency response every time it stopped turning due to power outages or any other reason. This became difficult to manage for local units tasked with Coast Guard missions like search and rescue, homeland security and maintenance of more critical aids to navigation.

"Passing the care of the light to Douglas County enabled the community to keep its beacon, in interest of historical preservation, and its use by any mariners that may still use the light as a point of visual reference," said Peloquin.

It is a solution that allows the light to continue through the ages. To shine on the unknown future for both residence and Coast Guardsman. To remind us all of how the west was settled, and the small

communities that ensured our place as one of the great maritime nations of the world.

By U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
U.S. Coast Guard News
Copyright 2012

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