Ilwaco's North Head Lighthouse celebrates 114 years

ILWACO -- The North Head Lighthouse on the Washington coast, which celebrates its 114th anniversary this month, is said to be haunted by the ghost of one of the light keepers wives.

It's also considered one of the windiest places in the United States.

The lighthouse has provided steadfast sentry over the northwestern spur of Cape Disappointment, which sits at the mouth of the Columbia River, since 1898.

To honor the milestone, the Washington State Parks Department has planned a celebration for May 19 at the site, which includes tours of the lighthouse as well as its lantern room between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Tours are $2.50 for adults and free for ages 7 to 17. Ages 6 and younger are not allow on the tours.

"The first head lighthouse keeper at North Head was Alex K. Pesonen," Jon Schmidt, historian and interpretive consultant for Long Beach area state parks, told the Herald via email. "He was placed in charge of North Head on May 16, 1898, the day the lighthouse was put into service."

Pesonen's wife, Mary, is believed to have jumped to her death off a cliff near the lighthouse on June 9, 1923, he added. A newspaper reported she woke before her husband that morning to take her usual short walk with the family dog, but she never returned.

"The keeper's little dog, which always accompanied (Mary) on her walks, came back and acted strangely," Schmidt said.

The dog led searchers to a spot where they found her coat on the edge of the cliff. Her body drifted in with the tide and was found in a cove just beyond the couple's garden, the newspaper reported.

Pesonen retired a year later, and he died in 1925.

"This sad tale has sprung many reports of a female ghost at the lighthouse," Schmidt said. "During the time Pesonen was head keeper, he had an assistant keeper by the name of Mabel E. Bretherton."

Bretherton served as an assistant keeper from 1905-07 and remains the only female keeper in North Head history, he added.

However, there have been many female lighthouse keepers across America during the past 250 years, including Hannah Thomas, who was the nation's first. She tended the Gurnet Point lighthouse in Plymouth, Mass., while her husband fought in the Revolutionary War.

As for the historic wind that blows off the sea at North Head, Schmidt said it's really not a question of if the wind is blowing, but more how fast and from what direction.

"From an interpretive panel on the Bell's View Interpretive Trail, which is a half-mile paved trail accessible from the lighthouse parking lot, there are five panels that all focus on the local weather," he said.

Those panels tell visitors that North Head typically sees light to moderate northerly winds during the summer, but winter can bring a radically different set of conditions.

Southerly winds are frequent, with some storms producing severe wind events, Schmidt said. Meteorologists refer to these fierce winter storms as mid-latitude cyclones, but in some ways they resemble hurricanes with gusts exceeding 150 mph.

Another interesting story about the North Head Lighthouse occurred during World War II, when Japanese submarines were detected along coast of Washington and Oregon.

The light keeper at North Head witnessed one of those submarines open fire on Fort Stevens, across the river in Oregon.

According to lighthouse archives, the keeper immediately extinguished the light in the tower and watched the sub surface, fire several shots at the fort, then submerge and was not seen again.

The North Head Lighthouse is just two miles from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse near Ilwaco. It was built because Cape Disappointment's lighthouse could not be seen by ships approaching the mouth of the river from the north. Five ships crashed on the rocks before the 65-foot North Head Lighthouse was completed.

The lighthouse transitioned to full automation in 1961, and the two light keeper houses were converted to state park offices and park ranger housing, Schmidt said.

In 2000, the historic homes were converted to vacation rentals. The charming white houses with red roofs rent from $299 to $424 per night, depending on the time of year.

Each has three bedrooms, one bath, period furniture and a full kitchen with many modern-day conveniences.

For more information about the historic rental homes, call 888-226-7688 or go to www.parks.wa.gov/vacationhouses/capedisappointment.

How to get there

North Head Lighthouse is in on the grounds of Cape Disappointment State Park, two miles north of the mouth of the Columbia River and just west of Ilwaco.

Just before Highway 101 turns north through Ilwaco, head west on North Head Road to reach the lighthouse. From there, you can loop back into Ilwaco on Robert Gray Drive or continue south and meet up with Fort Canby Road Park to visit Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.

Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. throughout the summer months.

For more information, call 360-642-3078 or go to www.parks.wa.gov/events

* Dori O'Neal: 509-582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com