The 107-foot Grays Harbor Lighthouse, dedicated in 1898, is the tallest lighthouse in Washington. It marks the entrance to Grays Harbor, the best of Washington's few outer-coast (on the Pacific Ocean) harbors.
On May 7, 1792, Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806), an American fur trader sailing in the Columbia Rediviva, entered the large bay on Washington’s outer coast later known as Grays Harbor. He remained there until May 11. He named the inlet Bulfinch Harbor to honor Charles Bulfinch, one of the investors in his fur-trading venture. However, noted English seafarer Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) had encountered Gray off Cape Flattery in April of that year during Pacific Northwest explorations with the ship Discovery, sloop Chatham, and storeship Daedalus.
When Vancouver passed Grays Harbor in October 1792, he sent Daedalus and one of the Discovery’s boats to explore. Three days passed before Daedalus could successfully cross the bar into the harbor. The Discovery’s boat, commanded by sailing master Joseph Whidbey, surveyed the bay. He named all of its prominent features, including Point Hanson on the southern tip for James Hanson, one of Vancouver’s lieutenants. Vancouver labeled the area Gray’s Harbor on his charts, which were published in 1798. That name stuck. Later usage dropped the possessive apostrophe.
When the United States Coast Survey began its investigations of America’s Pacific shoreline between San Francisco and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1850, the surveyors quickly identified Grays Harbor as a port with potential. Located about 40 miles north of the entrance to the Columbia River and 93 miles south of the entrance to Puget Sound, the large protected bay gave access to the Chehalis River. The river, in turn, was navigable some distance toward the timber-rich mountainsides of the Olympic Peninsula and potential farmlands of the valleys and foothills below those peaks.
Despite that promise, in the 1850s Grays Harbor was a remote, sparsely populated area. Mariners hesitated to cross the dangerous bar at its mouth. Only a few settlers eked out precarious livings on its shores. They did little to interrupt the seasonal rounds of the Lower Chehalis Indians who lived nearby fishing and hunting seals, porpoises, sea lions, and sea otters in harbor waters.
A light at Grays Harbor was one of only 16 such facilities recommended by the Coast Survey for America’s Pacific Northwest coast. It received low priority. Nonetheless, on September 11, 1854, the federal government set aside a lighthouse reserve for Grays Harbor. The reservation included both capes -- Point Hanson and its north tip opposite, Point Brown.
In 1858, the citizens of Washington Territory petitioned Congress, "praying that Gray’s harbor (sic) be surveyed by government and buoys placed to indicate the channel, and that Gray’s harbor be made a port of entry." Congress did not immediately answer their prayers.
Only in the 1880s did Grays Harbor begin to fulfill its promise. First, vacationers came. Elijah Wade, a Civil War veteran, settled at Point Hanson and began hosting summer reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of former Union soldiers, in an area known as Cohasset Beach about a mile south of the future site of Grays Harbor. As the ranks of Grand Army vacationers thinned, he accommodated others who wanted to spend a few days or weeks by the sea clamming, fishing, and cautiously wading off the surf-pounded beaches. At the same time, small towns grew up at the head of Grays Harbor. They serviced what was becoming a thriving lumbering industry.
By 1890, Grays Harbor was becoming America’s leading lumber port. Grays Harbor shipyards launched nine steamers and three sailing vessels that year, while 13 mills exported 66-million-feet of lumber on 256 vessels. In addition, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Grays Harbor as the western end of its transcontinental rail line. In 1892, it completed tracks to the new town of Ocosta-by-the-Sea, a few miles east of Point Hanson. Although the Northern Pacific soon abandoned Ocosta as a rail terminus, economic development continued as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to pour millions of dollars into improving Grays Harbor navigability.