In 1848 a lighthouse was recommended to be located at Cape Disappointment in what was then the Oregon Territory. $53,000 was appropriated in 1852. After the lighthouse was designed, a first-order Fresnel lens was ordered. When the lens arrived it was found to be too large for the tower. Rebuilding the tower took an additional two years. The first lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest was finally lit on October 15, 1856. In addition to the light, the station was equipped with a 1,600-pound (730 kg) bell powered by a striking mechanism. The keeper's residence was about a quarter mile away.
The lighthouse had several shortcomings. The fog bell was sometimes inaudible due to the roar of ocean waves. It was discontinued in 1881 and moved to West Point Light in Seattle, and eventually to Warrior Rock Light near Portland. Also, the light was not visible to ships approaching from the north. This problem was corrected by building a lighthouse at North Head, two miles from Cape Disappointment. The first-order lens was moved to North Head and a fourth-order lens installed at Cape Disappointment.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1937. In 1956, the Coast Guard intended to close the station, but retained the light when the Columbia River bar pilots protested. The light was automated in 1973. The red and white flashing light was deactivated in 2008. An observation deck has been built for the Coast Guard to monitor traffic and bar conditions. The grounds are open to the public through Cape Disappointment State Park.
Paula and I had a chance to visit Cape Disappointment State Park in September 2013. Numerous hiking trails throughout the park lead to different vantage points affording splendid views of the coast, including the jetty where the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean.
From the lighthouse we watched as helicopter crews from the nearby Coast Guard station practiced rescue operations. The Coast Guard responds to several hundred distress calls each year.
The Cape Disappointment lighthouse is one of two in the vicinity; the other is the North Head lighthouse, approximately two miles to the north, which provides a guiding light to ships approaching from that direction.