The Haunting at Heceta Head

LIghthouse2by Deana Chadwell5/15/15
Some places just ooze history. Some strange kink in the space-time continuum links us back to events, to people, to ways of life foreign and almost impossible to understand, to lives lived with ferocious intensity and dogged determination. In some way those qualities still resonate into our insensitive 21st century lives.

Keeper's House

The Keeper’s House

Recently my husband and I stayed overnight at the Heceta Head Lighthouse keepers’ home on the central Oregon coast. This lighthouse is still operating – we woke in the middle of the night to watch the searchlight beam slicing across the mountainsides and the full moon turning the waves in the cove to sterling silver. A guide told us that the light is visible for 21 nautical miles out across the Pacific.

The lighthouse, which sits on a 250 foot promontory, was completed in 1894 in spite of the fact that Highway 101, which now spans the chasm between two mountains and runs past the base of the lighthouse peninsula, had yet to be constructed. In fact, all that connected the spot to Florence, 13 miles to the south, was an old Indian trail, which they widened to make a wagon road. But that became impassible when it rained, and in the Pacific Northwest it always rained. The builders often had to either have bricks and stone shipped in by tugboat or fetch supplies via the irregular and treacherous beach that runs past the sea lion caves as it winds southward.  This could only be done at low tide and once they’d gathered the necessary provisions, they had to wait 24 hours for the next low tide so they could return.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Heceta Head Lighthouse

That’s how everything – from building materials to flour and coffee – arrived out at the point during the two years of building. In fact, that’s how everything three families needed to survive out there for the next 35 years. Once the men arrived at the base of the cliff, they had to lug everything up the long, steep slope to the promontory called Heceta Head.

Because the light, the only one for 50 miles both up and down a very rugged and dangerous coastline, needed to be rotated and fueled by hand, the law required that two keepers be in the lighthouse during the dark hours. When not cranking the pulley that turned the light – which had to be done every 39 minutes – they sat together in the little room at the base of the tower reading and stoking the fire in the wood stove. This consistency and diligence required the presence of a third keeper to spell the other two and to tend to the other chores around the property. The keepers and their families raised most of their own food, chopped their own fuel, and did all of the maintenance work.

Three residences provided housing for these faithful men and their families. The head keeper’s house was a single-family dwelling closest to the lighthouse (but still at the base of a steep hill). This house was torn down in 1940, its timbers sold and used to build a book store which still stands today. The assistants lived in a two-story duplex next door. The house, with its stark white siding, its dormered windows and Queen Anne frills, its red roof and wide, sweeping porch appears as important and imposing as the lighthouse itself. The white picket fence around it, and the Adirondack chairs on the porch, gives it a welcoming, homey look and brings up holographic, mental images of young boys in knickerbockers rattling sticks down the fence and pinafored girls jumping rope in the yard.

Lighthouse Stairs

Lighthouse Stairs

The structure sports a mirror image symmetry; the two sides are identical except for one detail: the side that housed the 2nd in command had a dining room chandelier designed for five light bulbs. The side that housed the low guy on the totem pole, however, had an inferior light fixture, identical but dangling only four light sockets. They say the main house had six. Rank, after all, has its privileges. It is this duplex that is now a charming, and reportedly haunted, bed and breakfast.

I have no idea what goes on with the business of ghosts – I’ve never personally laid eyes on one, but something happens, something we don’t understand. Some concentrated intensity lingers, some hyper-awareness of the past. The ghost that appears there has been “seen” so often that she’s been named and a story about a dead child and her need to protect his grave has grown up around her the way the brambles and wind-bent pines have hidden that burial ground – if it ever existed. They call her Rue – and I have no doubt that there were many days that she rued coming to Heceta Head.

Our stay was idyllic. Sun, breeze, nice people, a friendly black cat that sat with us on the west side of porch in the late afternoon. We climbed to the top of the lighthouse, petted dogs and partook of the seven-course, two-hour, gourmet breakfast. This meal features foods from the Northwest – marionberries coated in elderflower syrup, fresh crab cakes, potato sausages, tomato coriander sweet bread, fruit frappe’s—we ate and ate and chatted with the other guests, while the old grandfather clock chimed out the passing hours just as it had a hundred years ago. Two places sat empty at the table and I wondered if they’d been intended to represent the families who had once dined there. The wall between the separate dining rooms had long ago given way to an archway so we dined under the mismatched light fixtures and watched the cooks pick garnish flowers from the raised garden beds behind the house.


Boss, Da Plane, Da Plane!!!!

This whole event was made even sweeter because it was a gift from an amazing daughter and her husband to mark our 50th wedding anniversary and we did some romantic reminiscing, but the past of those lighthouse keepers and their isolated families kept grabbing our attention. We’d had that experience before. Once standing in Paul Revere’s bedroom on the 4th of July feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, as if we were intruding on his privacy, as if he might suddenly rush up the stairs and discover us there at the foot of his bed; and once on the battlefield at Gettysburg which felt so heavily haunted that I had to leave; I couldn’t bear breathing that heavy, humid air and the agony it still carried.

Did we see ghosts? No. But those people, in some way, still inhabit those places and it is good to remember that they were once there, enmeshed in a life-or-death struggle so intense that their experience was permanently seared into the walls and floors, the grass and trees, the air that flows through them.

Info: Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast

Deana Chadwell blogs at
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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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13 Responses to The Haunting at Heceta Head

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Be sure to click on the photos for a larger view if you desire.

  2. Anniel says:

    I want to go there and smell the sea and see everything.

  3. Rosalys says:

    Lighthouse keepers were a breed apart. Though isolated and lonely, at least the keepers at Heceta Head were attached to the mainland and had the company of the three families. Pity those who manned a lighthouse on a pile of rocks, out in the middle of a bay or large lake. Lake Champlain had one of those, which has now been brought ashore and is part of the collection at Shelburne Museum. This is where my husband and I took the tour fifteen years ago. It is tiny! Three circular floors of living space, the largest being the bottom one; it’s hard to remember exactly but it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet in diameter. The next floor up was smaller and the third smaller still. Outside there was a very narrow walk around with a railing and that was it. At one time there was a lighthouse keeper who lived there with his wife and multiple children for, I think, seven years! That poor woman!

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    I don’t recall ever visiting a lighthouse, though I’ve certainly read stories (usually mysteries of one sort or another) set in lighthouses, as well as seeing a movie (as I recall, it was titled The Light at the End of the World, but this was decades ago) that involved, in effect, hijacking a lighthouse to induce naval wrecks to be looted.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered any sort of ghost, though there was a strange incident (which I think I’ve discussed here before) in a previous apartment that had me wondering.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    What a terrific travelogue. And Deana is obviously married to a romantic. What a great way to spend a 50th.

    The Oregon coast (probably even more so than the Washington Coast) is stunningly beautiful. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken that drive, but I really must do so.

    There’s a lighthouse I like to visit on Dungeness Spit. It’s a several mile walk to the lighthouse and a somewhat unique one.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I want to give a personal thanks to Deana. She’s such a good sport. She knew that things such as travelogues were the kind of thing I’ve been trying to incentivize. (And short of verbally whipping you, there’s not much incentive I can give).

    We live in this weird (I say “insane”) culture where the merest small little things (except fetuses) are glorified. California (I say, again, “insane”) dumps billions of gallons of water into the ocean all for the sake of some theoretical creature who may or may not depend upon that wastage.

    Similar to what has been done in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere (Theodore Dawes has an informative article in American Thinker: “Forks, Washington, and the Spotted Owl”…Glenn and Deana, I’d be glad to meet you there) the Left is using environmentalism as a cudgel to freedom, industry, and unalienable rights. Government must grow, and it shall be used to unite religion and the state with the official state religion being environmental wacko-ism.

    Under so many false words (see Tim Jones’ new “The Party of Good Intentions”), the Left is destroying this country’s foundation. And as long as people still have time and money for body piercings and painting themselves to look like a Marvel comic, they don’t seem to care.

    I don’t use the word “insane” lightly. And I don’t mean to surround myself with insane people, so if you are here that is a pretty good indicatory that your have two oars in the water.

    So we live in this unwell (I’m wearing out that other word) culture that is doing its best to rip apart that which is good, true, or beautiful and sometimes we too often rely on just plain words (often in the negative) to try to make the positive argument for traditional American and Western values. But as I’ve been occasionally pointing out, I don’t think anything can make the case for America better than a picture showing it’s goodness, and the eloquent words to go with it.

    I encourage people to travel forth (I’m a homebody, so look who’s talking). And while they do so, while you are perhaps visiting those important American monuments and sites, do write about it. Damning the insane (good word, indeed) Left is all well and good. But we restore nothing unless we show a model of the positive, of where we want to go, where we are, what we value, etc.

    There are entire generations of kids now who have little to no sense of normalcy. God bless Deana for bringing some normalcy (and the s-word) to this site and this world. I’d love to see more articles highlighting that which is good, true, and/or beautiful about this country. And the Oregon coast gives evidence of a grand beauty indeed.

    • Anniel says:

      Our family had been visiting family in Vallejo, California (before total insanity set in). One of Bear’s uncles did lapidary work and he gave our oldest daughter a small jar of polished agates he had tumbled. Driving up the coast of Oregon we came to a place called Agate Beach and decided to stop. Our daughter walked innocently and secretly around dropping the polished agates on the beach and then stood back to see what would happen. Oh my goodness, you should have seen the agate rush! She only confessed after laughing to herself while we drove several miles. She did save a few of the prettiest for herself though.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        You daughter sounds a bit like Dennis the Menace…one of my favorite comic books when I was a boy.

        The word “agate” stirs many fond memories. This was mostly what my father, brother, and I did when visiting a relative near Port Townsend at Beckett Point. We would go down to the beach and search for agates. “Sugar” agates didn’t count. I’m not sure if anyone else knows the term, but I’m guessing some do.

        Eventually my father collected a pretty good jar full of them, which we still have some place. I don’t know why agates had such appeal but it was like looking for buried treasure.

        And this relative that we visited in Port Townsend was my mother’s sister, Virginia, and her husband, Jack. Uncle Jack was a character right out of a novel. He was a curmudgeon and didn’t particularly like children. When we visited his house (a beautiful house on the hill that he built with a tremendous view of Discovery Bay, Protection Island, and the Straight of Juan De Fuca…it’s likely the leftmost house of the three you see near the bend of the road in the center), he would constantly be telling us not to break things even though we never touched any of his stuff.

        But he also nurtured — perhaps started — my interest in rock collecting. He gave me quite a nice small collection of polished rocks. That led me eventually to get my own rock polisher. Forget agates. If you stick nearly any beach rock (or river rock, or any rock, for that matter) in a rock polisher, you’ll unleash its beauty. This uncle also gave me some interesting hand-crafted (by him) bolo ties which all had a fairly prominent polished rock decorating the clip.

        In retrospect, one reason we may have gone down to the beach was to escape Uncle Jack. I have the feeling that perhaps my father wasn’t that fond of him. Whatever the case may be, this was a pretty good beach to look for agates because it (at the time) was somewhat remote.

        • Anniel says:

          Bear’s uncle Bob Gish was a character, always making things out of junk. One day he decided to use an old cement mixer to make a new rock tumbler and made his own diamond blade to cut rock with. It seemed like all the lapidarists in American Canyon and Vallejo came to his shop to do their work. One of our sons says you can tell a true Gish because they never throw anything away.

          Bear’s grandpa (uncle Bob’s dad) tap danced with his cousins Lillian and Dorothy Gish on the Orpheum Circuit. Those girls were so beautiful. I hope my kids remember their relatives and the good things of life as you do with your uncle.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Annie, I probably would have been happy being a lapidariest. Lapidariator? Lapidariman? Whatever you call it.

            Nice connection with Lillian Gish. Quite a star she was.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Just as a note, Dennis the Menace was also a weekly TV show back around 1960 (sponsored by Skippy peanut butter, which isn’t what we buy today, if it even still exists). I still remember a few episodes.

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