The mouth of the Columbia River is a treacherous place as the result of the tremendous force of the river’s average annual discharge of 175-192 million acre-feet of freshwater colliding with the open ocean. More than 230 ships have been wrecked on or near the Columbia River bar since the 1700s.
The broad entrance to the river is marked by two headlands, low Point Adams, Oregon, on the southern shore, and the higher Cape Disappointment, Washington, on the northern shore. Lighthouses once shown from both capes. The one on Point Adams first was lit in February 1875, and the one at Cape Disappointment almost 20 years earlier, in October 1856.
The Point Adams lighthouse was decommissioned in 1899, but the one at Cape Disappointment remains in operation to this day. It is 53 feet tall and, from its position on the cape, its light is 220 feet above the surface of the ocean.
Two miles north is the North Head lighthouse. While it is odd for two lighthouses to be so close together, the explanation is logical. Not long after the Cape Disappointment light was completed, ship captains began complaining that they could not see the light until they were virtually on the cape, and many shipwrecks along the headland and the Long Beach peninsula to the north proved their point that the entrance to the Columbia remained difficult to find and navigate. So the North Head light was built to augment the beacon from Cape Disappointment and better mark the entrance to the river and warn of the dangerous surrounding headlands.
The North Head light was completed and lit for the first time in May 1898 and continues in operation today. It is 65 feet above the ground and 194 feet above the level of the sea. To distinguish the two lights, North Head flashes a white light, and Cape Disappointment flashes alternating red and white. Both had lighthouse keepers for many years but today are operated remotely.
One other light once marked the entrance to the Columbia, this one floating on the surface of the ocean. A succession of lightships were anchored about five miles west of the mouth of the river from 1892 through 1979. These were the first and last lightships in operation on the West Coast. The last lightship, known as WV 604, now is on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.