The lens inside Umpqua River Lighthouse isn't going anywhere. That's great news for lighthouse lovers, who had been anxiously awaiting the fate of this magnificent piece of glasswork — crafted in France in the 19th century — to be decided.
In the age of global-positioning systems, the U.S. Coast Guard has deemed many lighthouses inessential to marine navigation. The decommission of Umpqua River station and the transfer of its lens to a museum was being considered.
Instead, Douglas County, already responsible for the upkeep of the lighthouse grounds and building, will take over operation and maintenance of the lens, as well. This announcement, which came in December, brought joy to those who appreciate the historic significance of the light and who value the opportunity to view it in its working environment.
The Umpqua River Lighthouse, south of Reedsport, will not necessarily take your breath away with its location. Situated unpretentiously between a parking lot and a small apartment complex, it is undoubtedly the least scenic of Oregon's nine lighthouses. With the ocean a good distance away, you don't even have the roaring surf to put you in a maritime mood.
Here, it's all about the lens: a first-order Fresnel lens, to be exact (named after its French inventor, Augustin-Jean Fresnel). The 616 plates of prismatic glass that compose the whole were cut by hand in 1890 in Paris.
Fresnel (FRAY-nell) lenses remain in five Oregon lighthouses, four of which are categorized as first-order — the largest and brightest kind. The first-order lens at Cape Meares Lighthouse is closed indefinitely to the public for want of expensive repairs after two men, both later convicted, vandalized the landmark in January 2010.
That leaves three. And here's where it gets a little picky among aficionados: The lens at Heceta Head Lighthouse was manufactured in England, not France.
So if you wanted to hop in your car today and see a first-order, French-made Fresnel lens, there are just two options in Oregon: Yaquina Head and Umpqua River lighthouses.
Our volunteer guide for the Umpqua River lighthouse tour, a retired Navy man named Chuck, entertained us with stories while showing us around the place. He told us of the surprise, white-glove inspections to which lighthouse keepers were subject. Government officials would show up unannounced on supply ships and start deducting points whenever they saw signs of carelessness and sloth.
Was the kitchen tidy? Was the furniture in good shape? Were the floors swept? All these things were scrutinized.
But of primary concern was the condition of the lens. Illuminated in those days by burning oil, the lamp could lose brilliance if the glass became soiled with soot. Next to keeping the light burning at night, keeping the lens sparkling clean was the keeper's most important duty.
The grand finale of the tour came when Chuck invited us to ascend the narrow stairway to the top of the 65-foot tower. For the lighthouse fanatic, there's no greater thrill than seeing a first-order beauty at the end of such a climb.
You can poke your head inside the Umpqua River lens, though be forewarned: It rotates 24/7. The constant movement can be a little dizzying as you gaze up into the orb, though Chuck reported no incidents of Hitchcockian "Vertigo."
The panels of glass plates, two clear panels for every red one, produce the lamp's signature beacon of two white flashes followed by one red flash. The red streak is uncommon — yet another reason to get excited about the Umpqua River light station.
First-order lenses measure about 7 feet in height, meaning the average person could stand inside one if it were placed on the ground. They are almost as large across, making them the size of a compact glass pavilion. More than a piece of equipment, every Fresnel lens is a dazzling sculpture, expressing European elegance.
We drove back to the lighthouse that night, sat in our car and watched the spinning lamp shoot its beams into the darkness. It was quite a light show, especially when the rays played through the tops of nearby pine trees.
All we would have needed to turn the moment into a trippy, multimedia experience was some Pink Floyd on the CD player. Come to think of it, Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" would have been the perfect choice.
Located just past Winchester Bay, the lighthouse is open for tours from May 1 through September. A small fee is charged. The grounds also include a maritime museum brimming with photographs and artifacts, housed in a former Coast Guard dormitory. Admission to the museum is free.