Captain John Meares was the first to sail into Tillamook Bay, naming it Quick Sand Bay because of the mud at low tide. Captain Robert Gray was the first American on the scene and he called it Murderers Harbor because one of his crew was killed by natives there.
The lighthouse was built in 1889 and commissioned on January 1, 1890. The tower stands 38 feet high and is the shortest lighthouse in Oregon. It is constructed of bricks (made right on site at a cost of $2,900) with iron plates covering it. The original addition that now houses the interpretive shop was a work room built in 1895 - the current interpretive shop replaced the original work room in 1978.
The light was a five wick oil lamp with a reflector to increase the light. It was turned by a 200 pound lead weight that was wound by a system similar to a grandfather clock. It turned 2 ½ hours on one winding at a pace of 4 minutes per full revolution. The lens and iron housing weighed two tons complete. The two oil storage buildings held 3,240 gallons of oil in five gallon cans and were located east of the lighthouse. The walls were made 15 inches thick to protect the area from the danger of fire in the buildings.
The lens is a first order Fresnel (pronounced "Fraynel") lens made in Paris, France. It was shipped around Cape Horn, up the west coast to Cape Meares and then hauled 217 feet up the cliff by a wooden crane that was built from local timbers native to the area. It is an eight-sided lens with 4 primary lenses and 4 bull's-eye lenses with red panels covering the bull's-eye lenses. It produced about 30 seconds of fixed white light from the primary lens followed by a red flash of 5 seconds from the bull's-eye lens once every minute. This was the signature of Cape Meares Lighthouse. The primary lens produced 18,000 candlepower and the bull's-eye lens produced 160,000 candlepower. The light could be seen 21 nautical miles at sea.
The oil lamp was replaced in 1910 with an oil vapor light similar to the Coleman lanterns of today. This was replaced in 1934 with electricity produced by generators and eventually by central power. The light today is automated and produces 57,000 candle power. It is located in a building adjacent to the historic structure.
The keepers houses were located where the parking lot and kiosk are now situated. The houses cost $26,000 to build. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1963, stood vacant for a number of years and was heavily vandalized.