The Haunting at Heceta Head

Some places just ooze history. Some strange kink in the space-time continuum links us back to events, to people, to ways of life foreign and almost impossible to understand, to lives lived with ferocious intensity and dogged determination. In some way those qualities still resonate into our insensitive 21st century lives.

Recently my husband and I stayed overnight at the Heceta Head Lighthouse keepers’ home on the central Oregon coast. This lighthouse is still operating – we woke in the middle of the night to watch the searchlight beam slicing across the mountainsides and the full moon turning the waves in the cove to sterling silver. A guide told us that the light is visible for 21 nautical miles out across the Pacific.

The lighthouse, which sits on a 250 foot promontory, was completed in 1894 in spite of the fact that Highway 101, which now spans the chasm between two mountains and runs past the base of the lighthouse peninsula, had yet to be constructed. In fact, all that connected the spot to Florence, 13 miles to the south was an old Indian trail, which they widened to make a wagon road. But that became impassible when it rained, and in the Pacific Northwest it always rained. The builders often had to either have bricks and stone shipped in by tugboat or fetch supplies via the irregular and treacherous beach that runs past the sea lion caves as it winds southward.  This could only be done at low tide and once they’d gathered the necessary provisions, they had to wait 24 hours for the next low tide so they could return.

That’s how everything – from building materials to flour and coffee – arrived out at the point during the two years of building. In fact, that’s how everything three families needed to survive out there for the next 35 years. Once the men arrived at the base of the cliff, they had to lug everything up the long, steep slope to the promontory called Heceta Head.

Because the light, the only one for 50 miles both up and down a very rugged and dangerous coastline, needed to be rotated and fueled by hand, the law required that two keepers be in the lighthouse during the dark hours. When not cranking the pulley that turned the light – which had to be done every 39 minutes – they sat together in the little room at the base of the tower reading and stoking the fire in the wood stove. This consistency and diligence required the presence of a third keeper to spell the other two and to tend to the other chores around the property. The keepers and their families raised most of their own food, chopped their own fuel, and did all of the maintenance work.

Three residences provided housing for these faithful men and their families. The head keeper’s house was a single-family dwelling closest to the lighthouse (but still at the base of a steep hill). This house was torn down in 1940, its timbers sold and used to build a book store which still stands today. The assistants lived in a two-story duplex next door. The house, with its stark white siding, its dormered windows and Queen Anne frills, its red roof and wide, sweeping porch appears as important and imposing as the lighthouse itself. The white picket fence around it, and the Adirondack chairs on the porch gives it a welcoming, homey look and brings up holographic, mental images of young boys in knickerbockers rattling sticks down the fence and pinafored girls jumping rope in the yard.

The structure sports a mirror image symmetry; the two sides are identical except for one detail: the side that housed the 2nd in command had a dining room chandelier designed for five light bulbs. The side that housed the low guy on the totem pole, however, had an inferior light fixture, identical but dangling only four light sockets. They say the main house had six. Rank, after all, has its privileges. It is this duplex that is now a charming, and reportedly haunted, bed and breakfast.

I have no idea what goes on with the business of ghosts – I’ve never personally laid eyes on one, but something happens, something we don’t understand. Some concentrated intensity lingers, some hyper-awareness of the past. The ghost that appears there has been “seen” so often that she’s been named and a story about a dead child and her need to protect his grave has grown up around her the way the brambles and wind-bent pines have hidden that burial ground – if it ever existed. They call her Rue – and I have no doubt that there were many days that she rued coming to Heceta Head.

Our stay was idyllic. Sun, breeze, nice people, a friendly black cat that sat with us on the west side of porch in the late afternoon. We climbed to the top of the lighthouse, petted dogs and partook of the seven-course, two-hour, gourmet breakfast. This meal features foods from the Northwest – marionberries coated in elderflower syrup, fresh crab cakes, potato sausages, tomato coriander sweet bread, fruit frappe’s—we ate and ate and chatted with the other guests, while the old grandfather clock chimed out the passing hours just as it had a hundred years ago. Two places sat empty at the table and I wondered if they’d been intended to represent the families who had once dined there. The wall between the separate dining rooms had long ago given way to an archway so we dined under the mismatched light fixtures and watched the cooks pick garnish flowers from the raised garden beds behind the house.

This whole event was made even sweeter because it was a gift from an amazing daughter and her husband to mark our 50th wedding anniversary and we did some romantic reminiscing, but the past of those lighthouse keepers and their isolated families kept grabbing our attention. We’d had that experience before. Once standing in Paul Revere’s bedroom on the 4th of July feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, as if we were intruding on his privacy, as if he might suddenly rush up the stairs and discover us there at the foot of his bed; and once on the battlefield at Gettysburg which felt so heavily haunted that I had to leave; I couldn’t bear breathing that heavy, humid air and the agony it still carried.

Did we see ghosts? No. But those people, in some way, still inhabit those places and it is good to remember that they were once there, enmeshed in a life-or-death struggle so intense that their experience was permanently seared into the walls and floors, the grass and trees, the air that flows through them.