This small park in the southern Oregon coastal town of Port Orford boasts big views and a rich wartime history.
The park preserves the site of the Port Orford Lifeboat Station, constructed in 1934 by the Coast Guard to provide lifesaving service to the southern portion of the Oregon Coast until 1970. Besides the observation tower and boathouse, the compound included an Officer-in-Charge residence and a two-story building housing an office and quarters for the crew. A steep stairway with more than 500 steps connected the Crew Quarters with a boathouse.
Today, the compound is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Crew Quarters is a museum. Take time to inspect the station’s legendary, unsinkable 36-foot motor lifeboat. Inside the museum, you can see historical artifacts and interpretive accounts of the station’s history that help make the past come alive.
The museum, operated by the Cape Blanco Heritage Society, is open May 1-Sept 30 Wednesday - Monday 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m (closed Tuesdays). Entrance is free (donations gladly accepted).
The park’s main trails—the Cove, Tower and Headland trails—begin at the museum. From a viewpoint on the Cove Trail, watch for remnants of the stairway to Nellies Cove. The boathouse, which sheltered two 36-foot motor lifeboats, burned down in the late 1970s. You can still see its pilings and breakwater structures as well as portions of a rail-mounted carriage used to launch the boats into the cove.
Vistas from the Headland Trail extend north toward the Cape Blanco Lighthouse and south to Port Orford and Humbug Mountain. The Tower Trail leads to the historical location of the observation tower, which was removed when the station was decommissioned. During World War II, lookouts worked around the clock watching for enemy aircraft, ships and submarines.
Frequent shipwrecks on the south Oregon coast in the late 1800s and early 1900s prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to select Port Orford Heads as the site of a lifesaving station.
From 1934 to 1970, U.S. Coast Guard surfmen, as they were called, kept watch over a 40-mile stretch of coastline between Cape Blanco and Cape Sebastian. Stationed atop a 37-foot-high lookout tower perched near the westernmost tip of the head, they watched for distress signals from out at sea, ever ready to launch search and rescue missions from their boathouse in Nellies Cove, 280 feet below.
During World War II, the station’s complement grew from 13 to more than 100 Coast Guardsmen who stayed alert around the clock watching for enemy aircraft, ships and submarines. Wartime additions to the compound included a guardhouse, sentries, guard dogs, machine gun pits, and foxholes.
Today, the Crew Quarters building is a museum. It is one of five surviving neocolonial buildings that comprise the historic Port Orford Lifesaving Station. The other structures are a storage building, a pump house, a garage and the Officer-in-Charge quarters, which now serves as a residence for park staff.
The state acquired the property between 1972 and 1985, by purchase and exchange from private owners as well as deeds of federal surplus property. The name Port Orford is derived from Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy, who in 1792 named what is now Cape Blanco for his friend, the Earl of Orford. Eventually, the name was transferred to the port some seven miles to the south.