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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Life at the Heceta Lighthouse

Imagine keeping house perfectly or dangling your son by rope above the cliff...

By Lois Barton

Posted on Oct 23, 2002

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"Devil's Elbow" at Heceta Head, Oregon Coast, watercolor painting by Mary Velthoven, 2002

Like many families in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, we have enjoyed numerous trips to the Pacific coast over the years, through the seasons. One of our favorite stopping places has always been the Devil's Elbow State Park.

In the summer it is a haven for beach combers. There are attractive picnic facilities and rest rooms. The beach is somewhat sheltered and the caves along the bank below the (now automated) Heceta Lighthouse are always inviting. Lovely yellow flowers flourish on the rock walls above the caves where water drips to keep them happy. Our family, dedicated collectors of seashore trivia, found handsful of good things to lug home along with the sand. The attractive bridge over Cape Creek and the highway tunnel which opened onto the bridge above make a lovely scene.

In the winter huge storms roll in off the Pacific. What was it like to live in the Lighthouse above the thundering water? One day I had the chance to learn. I was delighted to meet and interview Evelyn Hansen about her life and the construction she and her family witnessed when they lived at the Lighthouse above Devil's Elbow. Her report from memory follows.

Heceta Lighthouse Keeper, 1924-1931

Evelyn's father, Charles Walters, took his family by train to the Cushman area across the river from Florence in February, 1924. From there they made their way to Heceta Head with the mail carrier. He drove a wagon, traveling much of the route on the beach sand, since the road that time of year was nearly impassable. Mrs. Walters, Emma, and her baby rode under a large umbrella to protect them from the winter rain. Charles was hired as second assistant keeper under Frank DeRoy as head keeper. Bob Bay was first assistant keeper at the time of their arrival. Daughter Evelyn was approaching three years of age when the family went there to live.

The trip from Florence took nearly a full day. There was a spur road to the Stonefield's house down on that level in the cove, and the through road wound up to the Heceta dwellings along the route of the present trail from the picnic area.

One of the first stories Evelyn shared was of a time when two University of Oregon students were visiting the Sea Lion Caves in 1927. The descent to the caves was by rope over the cliff. One of the boys fell. Word was went to the Heceta keepers two miles away, who went to give aid. They were forced to go along the side of the cliff for about 1500 feet on a narrow trail, 8 to 12 inches wide and 300 feet above the surf and rocks. Charles Walters was the first man down over the cliff. He set the compound fracture of the injured man's leg. The student, Frederick Henderson, was then lashed to a board and lifted up the cliff face, this operation taking two hours. He was then put on a stretcher and taken to the train and a hospital.

When Evelyn started to school there were only three pupils in the school. Their teacher was Luttrell Stonefield, and the school house was down near the beach north of Cape Creek. By the time she reached fifth grade the count had grown to sixteen, swelled by children from construction workers' families. There had been a school at Heceta Head as early as 1896. The original building was a rough one-room cabin. Frank DeRoy, a later keeper, told his son that students in that first school left their books in kerosene cans to prevent them from being nibbled by rats. By 1916 there was a new building of a more sophisticated construction in use.

The lighthouse keepers worked in shifts. One was supposed to be on duty all the time the light was lit, which was from dusk to dawn. The lens had to wiped down every day. When it was spotless a curtain was dropped over it to protect it from dust through the day. In addition to care of the light, keepers spent time in "spit and polish" care of the premises. There was an annual award for the best kept facilities, and paint and whitewash were in constant use, as well as brass polish.

The high standards applied to residences as well as the lighthouse. One supervisor was quoted as saying if the living quarters were cluttered and disorderly, the pattern was likely to be found in the work area as well. So keeper's wives religiously washed windows and wielded dust cloths. They never knew when the inspector would show up, although an effort was made to warn the next station by phone just after an inspector's visit.

Heceta Sunset, Devils Elbow State Park, Oregon, courtesy of © Dennis Frates - Roma Stock

The lights up and down the coast each had a different pattern of presentation, so that the mariners could identify their position by the signal. The Heceta pattern was a white flash. Other stations offered a fixed white beam, a red flash or a fixed red signal. The lights had a range of twenty miles and intersected so that the entire coast was protected. Evelyn said the lens revolved around a lamp by means of a clock-like mechanism. "Every three hours the man on watch would have to go up there and wind the weight up to the top. As it dropped, the lens turned. The lens was nine feet tall and you could climb inside of it as it revolved." The early Heceta light, a Bunsen-type lamp with a five inch wick fired with kerosene, gave off 89,000 candle power.

This was replaced in 1934 when electricity became available, by a 500 watt bulb, which increased the candle power to 1,000,000, visible for 21 miles. On-off switches replaced the weights, and the manpower requirements were reduced. Charles Walters and an other of the keepers had their gardens in the area where the picnic tables are now located at Devil's Elbow Park. The little creek which flows through the area was the dividing line between their garden plots. Evelyn remembers particularly the kohlrabis grown there (which she didn't see again for years, because they are not generally available in produce departments).

The mountain above and behind the Heceta residences was treeless when Walters lived there. The children used to pick wildflowers, such as wild iris, on that high ground, and Herman Larsen ran his sheep up there. The tunnel and bridge over Cape Creek had not been built when Walters lived at Heceta.

The construction was begun the year they moved to Bandon Lighthouse. Besides the schoolhouse, there was a radio operation housed in a small building near by (possibly a geodesic unit. The radio people communicated with ships at sea), and the Charles Stonefield's home in the cove now the site of the park. Evelyn's nineteen year old brother was hired to help with surveying for the tunnel and bridge. He was relatively light, so he was lowered on a rope over the side of the cliff to make measurements.

Mail was delivered three times a week to the residents at Heceta. According to an article in the Oregonian in 1975 "Cy Cooper had the contract to serve 45 families on the route from Florence to Yachats in the 1920s. His 1918 Model T Ford truck, equipped with jumbo transmission and Ruckstell rear axle, gave him 13 forward and 8 reverse speeds. He was said to start shifting gears at Yachats and didn't finish until he neared Florence, 13 miles away. Only the bare essentials remained of an auto after Cooper stripped it down. That way, if the Ford hung up on high-center, Cooper could cut a pole from a tree nearby, lift the light-bodied car free and continue on his way. The Oregonian article states "the hard-packed sand, a few feet out into the ocean made a much smoother and swifter surface to travel on than did the existing trails... These trails could turn into impassable troughs of mud within hours in the rainy... winters, and were, at best, considered to be too unreliable for the mail carrier's use... Beach travel was affected by the tides... delivery of the mail depended on the carrier's ability to get through between high tides."

Evelyn said folks on the coast pronounced Heceta with the accent on the first syllable when she lived there (HEC-a-ta). McArthur, in Oregon Geographic Names, notes this practice. He says the proper Spanish pronunciation would be Ay-thay-tah, with the accent on the second syllable, but it is generally called Heseet'a.

This story was originally printed in the Lane County Historian in the fall of 1991.

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household andgarden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

See more of Lois Barton's Articles in West By Northwest
Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

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