Category: Landmark Place
GPS Coordinates: 42.739274, -124.509708
Like many coastal communities, Port Orford was dependent on the ocean for both its life and livelihood. But the community was also subjected to the ocean’s many hazards. It was a strange quirk of fate that Port Orford would have to wait 43 years to actually receive its own life-saving station.
The Port Orford Lifeboat Station was established in 1934 to help save lives and promote commerce. Like most life-saving facilities, the station had two distinct parts: administrative buildings and barracks for the Coast Guard crews (known as “coasties”); and a boathouse which sheltered the heavy motorized boats used offshore. The boathouse was located in a narrow cove which could only be reached by a steep flight of 532 steps. For obvious reasons, these steps were called “The Stairs of a Thousand Tears.” For the next few years, the men stationed at Port Orford provided rescue services to much of the South Coast.
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, the Coast Guard fell under the direct control of the US Navy and its purpose was drastically transformed. Although the coasties would continue to provide life-saving services, they were also responsible for watching the waves for enemy ships and submarines. The number of men stationed at Port Orford increased dramatically and new additions were added to the sprawling grounds, including a tall observation tower at the tip of the headland, a guardhouse, barbed wire barriers, machine gun emplacements and foxholes.
An attack did come, but perhaps not in the way the Coast Guard had expected. In early September 1942, the Japanese submarine I-29 surfaced just off the coast from Port Orford. The sub’s mission was unique: it would launch a seaplane which would then drop incendiary bombs on Oregon’s coastal forest. The Japanese military hoped the bombing runs would cause massive wild fires which would destroy an important natural resource and demoralize the American public. And while the attacks by the I-29 certainly caused alarm, Oregon’s rainy weather rendered the incendiary bombs useless.
Following the end of World War II, the Port Orford Lifeboat Station returned to its previous duties until it was decommissioned in 1970. Unfortunately, the boathouse burned down the following year, leaving only the cement pilings and “The Stairs of a Thousand Tears” as lonely relics of a bygone era. The station became part of the Oregon State Parks system in 1976 and today the buildings and grounds are open to the public.
Photo credit: Lincoln County Historical Society.