Why do so many lighthouses inspire ghost stories? Often when I mention a beacon – particularly a coastal one – someone informs me that it’s haunted.

“There’s a good ghost story at that lighthouse” offered a friend and scholar during one of my recent research trips. Here’s the thing about beacons: there is almost always a ghost story.

While lighthouses are symbols of protection and guidance, they also have a dark side. Most coastal lights in the Pacific Northwest sit on high cliffs in remote spots, distant from towns and amenities. Lighthouse staff led isolated lives, and the responsibility for the safe passage of vessels and seafarers weighed heavily on them. The work of tending the light and maintaining the equipment was arduous and constant. Weather was fierce on the Northwest Coast, with winters dragging on in relentless dreariness. And the rocky shoreline was often a place of violence, from the displacement of Indigenous peoples to shipwrecks to accidents and murders. It could be a treacherous place for mariners, lighthouse keepers, and others who got too close.

North Head Light

There are few beacons more eerie than North Head, located in southwestern Washington on a bluff overlooking the stretch of ocean known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Thousands of vessels have wrecked on these shores, demonstrating the need for this 65-foot tower, which went into service in 1898. The wind howls at this light station, while the waves thunder below. A spirit named Mary is said to roam the grounds here. The wife of the first head keeper, she lived for decades with him at the light station and suffered from depression. One day Mary went for a walk with the dog and never returned. When her pet showed up at the light station alone, Mary’s body was discovered on the rocks below the cliff. To this day, it is uncertain whether her death was a suicide, an accident, or murder. Does the ghost of “Melancholy Mary” haunt North Head? Beneath the persistent stories is a sad cautionary tale about the perils of living in a remote and harsh environment. For more on the North Head Light, see the October 2021 issue of 48° North.

Heceta Head Light

Heceta Head on the Oregon Coast seems the perfect setting for a haunted light station. The striking white tower stands 56 feet tall, perched more than 200 feet above the Pacific Ocean in an especially dramatic location. The ghost here favors the keeper’s house. Using a Ouija board, a group of Lane Community College students determined that this spirit, sometimes known as the “Grey Lady,” is called Rue. She may have been the wife of a keeper, and speculation suggests that she lost a child at the light station. Some sources claim that an abandoned grave was discovered on the property, and that the child may have been a head keeper’s daughter, who died by drowning. Tales of missing tools, flying objects, and glimpses of an old woman in the attic window continue, giving Heceta House the reputation of one of Oregon’s most haunted sites. For more on the Heceta Head Light, see the March 2022 issue of 48° North.

Yaquina Head

The past echoes strongly at Yaquina Head in Oregon. Standing at 93 feet, Yaquina Head’s tower is the tallest in the state – and it can appear sinister and foreboding. At least that’s what countless filmmakers and story tellers have concluded. This was the haunted lighthouse featured in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew TV show in the episode “The Mystery of Pirate’s Cove,” which aired in 1977. The horror movie “The Ring” (2002) similarly used the Yaquina Head beacon as a setting for the fictional (and scary) “Moesko Island Lighthouse.”

The lore associated with Yaquina Head includes a persistent rumor about a worker who fell to his death between the double walls when the tower was under construction. As there was no way to retrieve the body without dismantling the tower, it remained there, sealed in a nautical crypt. It is said that those who climb the 144 circular iron stairs can sometimes hear his ghost walking up behind them. In another story, a head keeper went to Newport with his family, leaving the assistant keepers in charge. One fell sick and died while the other got drunk – and they failed to light the beacon. Wracked with guilt, the surviving assistant took to bringing his dog up the tower with him, fearing the lingering presence of his dead companion.

Yaquina Bay

This Oregon light, located several miles from Yaquina Head, was short-lived. Constructed in 1871, it was deactivated just three years later – yet the deserted structure quickly captured the imagination, inspiring a grisly tale in the Pacific Monthly. “It is the loneliest place in the world,” the author began. “Those who chance to be in the vicinity hear a moaning sound like the cry of one in pain, and sometimes a frenzied call for help pierces the deathlike stillness…” Even more disturbing, “far out at sea, ships passing in the night are often guided in their course by a light that gleams from the lantern tower where no lamp is every trimmed.” At the end of the story, a” fair-haired” and “sunny-tempered” girl named Muriel disappears, leaving behind a “pool of warm, red blood” and a stained handkerchief [Lischen M. Miller, “The Haunted Light at Newport by the Sea,” The Pacific Monthly, 1899]. So real did this macabre yarn become that visitors to the restored structure sometimes ask employees why Muriel’s blood has been painted over. The trope of the young female victim in horror stories would become well established during the 20th century.

Grays Harbor Light

The Grays Harbor Light, the tallest in Washington, sits on a dynamic seascape that has been continually transforming since the beacon was built in 1898. As sand accretions expanded the shoreline over the years, the lighthouse receded farther inland. The massive 107-foot tower now peaks above a forest that has grown up around the station. This strange and spooky setting has been the scene of a local Halloween party, featuring an appearance by Christian Zauner, the first head keeper. For more information on this public event, see: 


For more on the Grays Harbor, one of the great coastal (ghostal) lighthouses, see the September 2022 issue of 48° North.