Monday, September 26, 2005


Life in a lighthouse


Statesman Journal
By Ron Cowan
September 25, 2005

Nautical artifacts fill this privately owned lighthouse visible from Highway 101.
YACHATS -- Some of Oregon's lighthouses are close enough to touch and welcome visitors who savor their history and ambience.

Others are like the legendary sirens of the sea, so near and yet so far, such as Tillamook Rock, isolated on a craggy piece of basalt off the Oregon Coast, or Cape Arago, precipitously clinging to an eroding islet banned to the public.

The Cleft of the Rock Lighthouse is even more tantalizing.

Although located at the foot of the popular headland known as Cape Perpetua, close to busy Highway 101, this pyramidal-shaped lighthouse is a private home not open to the public.
The stunning setting, overlooking the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean and set amid picturesque green trees and foliage, makes it very inviting.

If visitors knew what was inside the lighthouse and adjoining home, they would be even more eager to visit.

Cleft of the Rock is the home of James Gibbs, who not only built his 34-foot tall lighthouse in the mold of a bygone Canadian beacon, but filled the structure and his home with the artifacts, beacons and assorted equipment of old lighthouses and ships.

If there were a lighthouse museum, it would look like this.

"We used to have tons of people come up here," he said. "It's easily accessible, but it got to be a headache after a while."

Now 83, he welcomes only the occasional journalist and seems to want to hear others' stories as well as share his own.

Gibbs, co-author of "Oregon's Seacoast Lighthouses" and other books, bought this 5-acre setting in 1973, building his home and lighthouse in 1976.

Nowadays, with the boom in coast building, he complains that he is land rich and money poor.
Born in Seattle and raised on Queen Anne Hill overlooking Elliott Bay, Gibbs fell in love with lighthouses at age 11.

"It kind of catches on," he said.

"It's a little bit of everything. They're about as close to a church as you can get."

They have towers, and they save people, said Gibbs, who took the name of his lighthouse from an old hymn.

"So there's kind of a correlation there," he said.

"I think one thing just leads to another."

Gibbs previously built another private lighthouse in 1967, the Skunk Bay Lighthouse on the North Kitsap Peninsula in Washington, using a lantern house from an old lighthouse.
He also had first-hand experience at a working lighthouse.

After attending the University of Washington, Gibbs joined the Coast Guard during World War II and was assigned in 1945-46 to the old Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, long since de-commissioned.

"At that time, I was in my 20s, and all the other men were in their 60s and 70s," Gibbs said.
"When I went to Tillamook, it was the first time I was in the service."

During the war, he also served in beach patrol detachments in Rockaway and Pacific City, organized to guard against Japanese invasion. Also before service at Tillamook Rock, he went to sea duty on an active class patrol cutter.

Gibbs' love of the sea endured after his 4 1/2 years in the Coast Guard.

"I've never been out of the sight of saltwater all my life," he said. "I'm grateful for that."

Gibbs was employed, mostly as editor, at the Marine Digest in Seattle for 20 years and also lived in Bellevue, Wash., and Maui, Hawaii, before making his home in Yachats with his late wife, Cherie.

Over the years, he authored 17 books on lighthouses, ships and shipwrecks and served as president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

All those years and interests seem to have stuck to him like metal to a magnet, judging by the dozens of artifacts in his home, not counting the numerous collectibles he has given to museums.

"Last year, I gave away 300 glass floats," he said.

"The things I've kept have a story to them."

There are Japanese glass floats and a large wheel from the Tugboat Katy poised against the large windows overlooking the ocean -- it's supposedly haunted, as the wheel is known to sometimes turn on its own.

The tiny lighthouse has railings that came from the former keeper's house at Yaquina Head Lighthouse.

In the downstairs of the lighthouse, there is an 1880 dustpan from the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, a utility box from Heceta Head Lighthouse and a stopwatch from the Columbia River Lightship. Brass oil cans came from Tillamook Rock and Heceta Head.

There is a binnacle and compass from a German cargo ship and sidelights from a four-masted schooner.

There is even a metal crank from the Point Sur Lighthouse in California.

A homey sign in the little lighthouse reads, "God said, Let There be Light."

The front door has two old ship's portholes.

"It's very quaint," Gibbs said. "You have a little of everything here.

"I guess I'm the biggest relic. Most of the old keepers have died. There's very few of them left."
The living room in his tidy, attractive house is called the "wreck room," with photos of old shipwrecks. There are French-manufactured classic lenses, one salvaged from a junk yard.

There is a big, 250-year-old metal anchor, metal compasses and binnacles (the compass housing) and what he calls a $5,000 ship's bell from the excursion ship the Princess Kathleen in Alaska.

The ship went aground while carrying passengers, then sank when the tide rose again the next day, Gibbs said.

An unlucky entrepreneur purchased salvage rights for $5,000, but all his men were able to retrieve was the ship's bell.

Gibbs later obtained the bell for $25 from an investor in the ill-fated project.

In the back of the house is Grigg's bedroom, but the bed is really a bunk, now covered in an American flag that once flew over the Yachats Post Office, which was saved from the Battleship USS Oregon.

The ship served with distinction in the Spanish-American War before being disassembled for its metal.

The wooden bunk, with its below-bed chests and attached desk, was in a superior officer's compartment near the wheel house.

The bed is not mere decoration.

"That's the only bed I have in the house," Gibbs said.

The story of the sea is one of love and loss, and for Gibbs, the sea has been both.

His beloved dog Anchor, a chocolate Labrador mix, was a mascot of the lighthouse for 10 years and considered a splendid water dog.

Anchor was on a beach under the perpendicular rock face of the cape on a January day in 1987 when a seething surf sent a mammoth, 25-foot sneaker wave toward the beach. The dog was slammed against the cliff, the backwash carrying her out to sea.

Five days later, her body washed back to land, carried into the rocks of Deadman Cove, directly below the lighthouse.

Gibbs buried Anchor in a grave in front of the house, overlooking the sea, adding another layer of history to a site already filled with it.

Although visitors can't get close to Cleft of the Rock, they still can enjoy the shores of Yachats, a small town known for its fine dining, atmospheric motels and a rocky coastline that can produce spectacular effects during winter storms.

The town, known as "the gem of the Oregon Coast," has a quiet village atmosphere but a quirky attitude reflected in the offbeat events, from mushroom fests to alternative lifestyle fairs, staged at the Yachats Commons to the casual lifestyle.

The name Yachats, pronounced YAH-hots, is derived from the Chinook Indian word, Yahuts, meaning dark water at the foot of the mountain.


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