NEWPORT, Oregon — When you enter the early morning summer fog that surrounds Yaquina Head Lighthouse, explains Eugene area ghost hunter Ann Fillmore, anyone with psychic ability can feel the tingling of lingering spirits.
“You know with certainty that a haunting has taken place here and it’s real,” said Fillmore during a recent interview. “Even the seagulls circling Yaquina Head and other coastal lighthouses are louder – much louder – than any birds I have ever heard. Yes, this lighthouse is most haunted,” she adds.
As a long-time coastal resident and leading paranormal investigator for the past 15 years, Fillmore has experienced the goose-bumps and exceptional recounts of ghost sightings at such places as Yaquina Head Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is located about 10 miles north of Newport, and about a two-hour drive from Eugene.
It’s no secret to coastal residents that stories about its haunted lighthouses have circulated for years. But there is something very different about Yaquina Head, explained Fillmore who serves as research coordinator for the Coast Ghost Paranormal Research Society that meets in Eugene and is based here along the central coast.
The mission of the society is research and helping the community figure out what’s haunted and what to do about it. In addition to conducting investigations, the society teaches workshops along the central Oregon coast about how to document and figure out local paranormal episodes.
Fillmore is serious about her work and frank about encounters she’s had with “ghosts touching me.”
In fact, she’s on the who’s who list of top national and international “ghost busters” who specialize in paranormal behavioral science. She seems serious about her work and makes it clear that the society’s investigations are fully scientific and “respectful” to the ghosts.
When it comes to Yaquina Head, Fillmore’s eyebrows rise in obvious pleasure when she talks about the possibility of a ghost or ghosts that live there.
“Of all the lighthouses in all the world, this one rings all the bells and whistles when it comes to being haunted,” she said. “It’s had those spooky stories tied to it since it was built. There’s just too many for us to brush aside.”
At the same time, regional history records housed at the Pioneer Museum in Florence point to “mysterious circumstances” that have taken place before, during and after construction began on Yaquina Head Lighthouse in the fall of 1871.
“There’s more than a century of evidence that something or someone is haunting the place,” stated an early 20th century record about Yaquina Head and other coastal lighthouses having “out-of-body” guests.
Other historical reports attempt to explain how people working at the lighthouse were injured, boats carrying supplies were overturned and hundreds of ghostly sightings have been observed by locals at Newport and Agate Beaches over the years.
In fact, ghost related stories plagued the lighthouse every since it first opened.
More recently, a photo dealer at the “Oregon Country Fair” showcased unique images of ghostly figures he captured while visiting both Yaquina and Heceta Head Lighthouses. And, when Eugene legend Ken Kesey lived at his beach home near Yachats, he would often take friends and visitors up to the “haunted lighthouse” for a lark.
Hectea Head is located about 12 miles north of Florence and has two ghosts; one ghost resides in the lighthouse keeper’s house and the other is said to haunt the rocky coastal area below Hectea Head.
Fillmore mused over whether it has something to do with the frequent lightening strikes, or the lighthouse keepers being injured or killed during the past 140 years.
“We just don’t know for sure,” she quipped.
At the same time, Ellie Duree, 82, thinks Fillmore and the society may find some answers to “all these ghost sightings and reports down through the years.”
Duree said she’s always been interested in ghosts and now serves as one of Fillmore’s volunteers.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are not alone and these accounts of ‘something strange’ is probably ghosts,” adds Duree, who’s lived on the Oregon coast for most of her life.
She then recounts the stories about ships passing close to Yaquina Head continue to report their compasses going awry.
Many locals also believe that the lighthouse’s eerie beauty, the damp sea fragrance and the hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow during the evening hours also add to its mystery.
Historical records state how the Yaquina Head legend certainly has to do with an assistant lighthouse keeper named Herbert Higgins who was reportedly found dead of mysterious circumstances at his lighthouse post in the early 1920’s.
Ghosts linked to deaths
Overall, four keepers are known to have died while serving at Yaquina Head. What people found spooky are two of them mysteriously died in the same year.
Keeper Shadrack L. Wass died Feb. 9, 1886. He had served 12 years at Yaquina Head. The cause of his death is listed as unknown and “mysterious.” There’s also numerous references to Wass talking about ghosts.
Nine months later, first assistant Francis G. Wells died on Nov. 16, 1886. Wells was also obsessed with ghosts and called the place “haunted.”
Shortly thereafter, Yaquina Head Lighthouse also made news by being named Oregon’s second oldest lighthouse and its tallest, spanning 93 feet.
A March 1921 story in the Yaquina Bay News reported that it was most shocking to the local community to learn of the death of second assistant Jacob Erickson. The newspaper story said “Erickson was found dead in the tower near the lens.”
The story went on to explain that Erickson, 56, had served only about a month at the lighthouse and his “spirit” was visiting locals in the community.
There’s also Yaquina Head Keeper John Zenor who filed regular reports of ghosts – “someone unseen would come in and go up the spiral stairs” – between 1932 and 1954. He also noted hearing strange “whispers” that would stop speaking when visitors arrived.
Zenor’s ghost stories also made it into national newspapers. Not surprising, Yaquina Head Lighthouse set a record under Zenor’s watch in 1939 when more than 12,000 people visited the lighthouse. Many of the visitors were curious about these ghostly sightings.
According to local newspaper reports, this made it one of most visited lighthouse in the United States, and it also helped put Newport on the map for tourism. Not surprising, various versions of the lighthouse keeper’s ghosts started showing up in local Newport bars as well.
Barflies aside, Fillmore thinks her and other ghost busting experts can’t be all wrong after reviewing hundreds of Yaquina Head ghost stories spanning more than 120 years of regular ghostly activity.
“There’s always someone who tries to explain it away, but when it comes to Yaquina Head it’s been a steady stream of ghostly sightings,” she said. “Just recently we’ve received reports of people seeing ‘something’ in and around the lighthouse that we think has the earmarks of paranormal activity.”
Where it all started
Fillmore, in one of her many coastal briefs on what goes bump in the night around here, notes how Oregon’s ghost stories – which go back hundreds of years – are not limited to creepy old houses.
She and her ghost buster team explain how Native Americans used ghost stories to educate rather than to frighten their people. Then, as coastal pioneers got to know the land and its many legends, new ghost stores came into being and were shared and past down to the next generation.
However, many local historians think stories of Yaquina Head Lighthouse ghosts are “more myth” than factual.
Jodi Weeber, who serves as the research librarian at the Oregon Coast History Center, points out that Keeper Herbert Higgins “did not die at the lighthouse, but somewhere else years later.”
Yaquina Head Lighthouse Historian George M. Collins also takes a more logical stance on the ghosts. Collins prepared a detailed history of the Higgins ghost reports, and reviewed oral histories of the period. His general opinion is no real evidence for ghosts, but he writes “there may be some validity to a specter of a previous keeper.”
Furthermore, a Bureau of Land Management Headquarters report states that a relative of Higgins confirmed that the former assistant lighthouse keeper “did not die at Yaquina Head.” BLM, the government agency that now operates the lighthouse, is adamant that there’s “nothing to claims about ghosts at the lighthouse.”
Weeber also explains how the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse ghost story was originally written as a work of fiction by Lischen M. Miller of Eugene. She said Miller wrote the story, “The Haunted Light at Newport by the Sea,” in 1899 for the publication “Pacific Monthly.”
Weeber said this “fictional” story “seemed to spread like wildfire until it became a ‘true’ story in some minds.” She also noted how an Oregon Agriculture College (OSU in Corvallis) professor named John Horner “would tell the story to his history classes as if it were true. Again, this perpetuated the ghost myth.”
Still, anyone who’s been to Yaquina Head Lighthouse in the fall and winter months can attest to it being a bit spooky at dusk or on a dark, cold and windy night.
Newport local Lindsay Burkert even thinks if Yaquina Head Lighthouse had a voice it would say “stay away,” or , perhaps “come here” when its light reaches out over the Pacific. “It touches you deeply on some level as if it knows something,” Burket said while peering at the mighty structure from the beach.
Ghosts or gulls howling at Yaquina Head. Who knows for sure? But then again, that’s part of its lure. The lighthouse entices those who long for those spooky stories.
If You Go:
Yaquina Head Lighthouse is located one mile west of Agate Beach. From Highway 101 in Agate Beach travel three miles north of Newport. Turn west on Lighthouse Drive and follow it to the lighthouse. The grounds of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse are open daily from sunrise to sunset. For more information, call (541) 574-3100.