The Cape Otway Lighthouse

Take one lighthouse, a harbour and some boats, stir in Eric the Red and the City of Rayville, and what do you get ?  Answer –   The Cape Otway Lighthouse.

The Cape Otway Lightstation is the oldest, surviving lighthouse in mainland Australia. The light, which has been in continuous operation since 1848, is perched on towering sea cliffs where Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean collide. For thousands of immigrants, including my ancestors, after many months at sea, Cape Otway was their first sight of land after leaving Europe.                          Quoted fromThe Cape Otway Lightstation

Note  Some readers have questioned the use of oldest above so I have added some further notes at the end of the page.

map - from the beach jpgThe closest settlement to the lighthouse was  Krambruk, later known as Apollo Bay, and some of my ancestors settled in the area. The lighthouse became a place to take visitors.   (1)

Then and now 2

From  the family album -the lighthouse in Jan 1948.             And a recent photo (2)

That tall radio mast has now disappeared.

Walway looking NE

Up the tower in Jan 1948        And the same view to the north-east in recent times.(3)

There were many shipwrecks along the Australian coast and the reefs around Cape Otway had their fair share.. As Apollo Bay was a fishing village the fishing boats became used to turning out to help ships in trouble. Some of the shipwrecks were quite notable.
In September 1880 Eric the Red was heading to Melbourne with American exhibits for an International Trade Exhibition in Melbourne when it went down two miles from Cape Otway with the loss of four lives. There was plenty of wreckage from the Eric to be found along the coast which was salvaged and used in the construction of houses and sheds around Apollo Bay, including Milford House (since burnt down in bushfires), which had furniture and fittings from the ship, and the dining room floor made out of its timbers. A ketch named  the Apollo was also built from its timbers and subsequently used in Tasmanian waters.. Waste not, want not !  A relation, Claud Telford, is reputed at the age of fifteen to have walked to Cape Otway from Apollo Bay on 3 or 4 days to help in the recovery. (just oral history). (4)

Another major shipwreck occurred in 1940. Look at the photo of these survivors photographed beside the distinctive foreshore trees at Apollo Bay.  I found in The State Library of Victoria in a collection from the now defunct Argus under Wartime Rescue Photos. Early in the war a German minelayer had laid 40 mines off Cape Otway, as well as at other select places along the Victorian coast (5)

SurvivorsThese men  have the distinction of having been rescued from SS City of Rayville, the first American ship to be sunk in the Second World War, more than a year before Pearl Harbour . Only one life was lost. The lighthouse keeper at Cape Otway saw the flames from the explosion when the ship hit a mine and billiard players in Apollo Bay heard the explosion. Three boats set out from Apollo Bay and found the ship’s crew had been able to take to their lifeboats. These lifeboats with 37 sailors were then towed back to Apollo Bay, arriving at dawn on November 9th, 1940. (6)
The survivors were well looked after. This photo, loaned to me by a Telford relation whose mother is in the photo, shows a mixture of the sailors, hotel staff and others, taken outside the hotel.

Sailors at Apollo Bay
The ship had been laden with Australian lead from Port Pirie and took only 35 minutes to sink.

(1) View of the Lighthouse from the Cape Otway Lightstation site

(2) Thanks  Flickr

(3) As seen on Flickr

(4) Heritage Victoria has a good description of the incident using the Captain’s own words describing the incident.

(5) Photo of survivors from the Argus collection at the State Library of Victoria

(6)  A detailed report on the City of  Rayville incident

There is also an Age report in 2009 about the diver who eventually  discovered the wreckage and a video from Deakin University exploring the wreckage,

I wonder what became of these sailors and their families ?

Further Notes

They started building the Cape Otway Lighthouse in 1846 and the first light shone in 1848.
It was the second lighthouse completed but is the oldest surviving lighthouse.
It was decommissioned in January 1994 after being the longest continuous operating light on the Australian mainland.
It has been replaced by a low powered solar light in front of the original tower

Meanwhile the Macquarie Lighthouse began as  a tripod mounted iron basket which originally burned wood, and later coal.
A sandstone lighthouse was built and began operation in 1818 but the sandstone eventually crumbled and a new lighthouse was built 4 metres away from the first one, lighting up in 1883 when the following photo was taken.

-Macquarie_Lighthouse_old_and_new  1883
Hey, hey, two lighthouses side by side, switch one off, switch the other on, so depriving NSW of that word continuous..

Woud I be right in saying Macquarie can claim the continuous area title and Cape Otway can have the continuous building/light title !
In 1976 the Macquarie Lighthouse was fully automated


22 thoughts on “The Cape Otway Lighthouse

  1. Boobook

    I suppose the ‘Rayville’ blokes are wearing borrowed clothes – a motley collection. Did they go back to the US or join another crew in Australia I wonder?
    Great photos B.


    1. boundforoz Post author

      On this voyage it had come to Australia via the Panama Canal and had picked up a load of lead ingots at Port Pirie. Some reports say the load also included wool and copper. It was then heading home to New York.


      1. jamestaylorgimme

        My present wife was related by marriage to the Harry Ferrier mentioned in the following article: ‘City of Rayville’ Sinking

        At about 6.45pm on the evening of 8th November, 1940, the MV (Motor Vessel) ‘City of Rayville’, a 5883-ton cargo vessel – built in 1920 by Oscar Daniels & Co. of Tampa Bay, Florida USA and owned by the U.S. Maritime Commission, was near the start of a journey from Port Pirie, South Australia to New York when she apparently struck a German mine and sunk in 260 feet (80 metres) of water about 3 miles (5 kms) south of Cape Otway.

        At the time, the ‘City of Rayville’ had on board a crew compliment of 38 men and a cargo of 1,500 tons (1,360 tonnes). Residents along the Cape Otway coastline and in the nearby Otway Ranges, heard an explosion which was followed by a red glow in the sky. Some witnesses at the time reported hearing the explosion as far away as 9 miles (15 kms) from Cape Otway. All but one of the crew survived the disaster, with James Bryan of Norfolk, Virginia losing his life when he re-entered the water in a vain attempt to retrieve personal effects from the doomed ship before she settled beneath the waves.

        The ‘City of Rayville’ is considered the first American ship sunk in the Second World War, as the United States was about a year away from ‘officially’ entering the war (with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December, 1941). The cargo consisted of 37,520 bars of lead, currently valued at $1.2 million (USD) ownership of which passed into the hands of Lloyds of London at the time. Salvage rights to the ship were sold to an English salvage company for $50,000 (£25, 000 Aust pounds). However the City of Rayville has been declared a historic shipwreck long after those salvage rights were sold. No vessel protected under the 1976 Historic Shipwrecks Act may be disturbed without a permit and there is no precedent for the issuing of a commercial salvage permit for the recovery of cargo.

        The wreck of the City of Rayville was reputedly located in January of 1999 by Harry Ferrier a local Apollo Bay deep-sea fisherman.


      2. boundforoz Post author

        The old saying – it’s a small world. We float our little stories out on the internet and eventually it bumps into someone who is connected to the story. Thanks for making the connection.


  2. diane

    I like the way you have the old and the new photos. It is a great lighthouse and area. I hate to be picky but The Macquarie Lighthouse on South Head in Sydney is the oldest lighthouse in Australia built in 1883 and is still operational. Seems odd that the information came from the lightstation. Maybe there are other reasons I don’t know about.


    1. boundforoz Post author

      I like picky ! There’s too many things published that are not quite accurate. So I had another look and I think it boils down to the use of words. Macquarie had to replace a building so lost the right to the use of the word continuous. Have a look at the extra notes that I’ve put at the end of the page.


  3. Wendy

    Often when I see then and now photos, I prefer the “then,” but this time I’m impressed by how well the Otway Lighthouse aged. Very interesting story about the rescue. The lighthouse keeper was obviously doing his job as he should.


  4. Bob Scotney

    I though of the Viking Eric the Red at first. When I realised where Cape Otway is located O was further intrigued as I followed the trail of a Thomas Scotney to Tasmania early in the transportation of convicts from England. But that would have been before the lighthouse existed.


    1. boundforoz Post author

      The Cape Otway lighthouse wouldn’t have been needed for convicts being brought from England. Their transports would come across the southern Indian Ocean in the Roaring Forties, then up the east coast of Tasmania to the Derwent River. But it was built in time for the rush to Melbourne after the gold rush in Victoria started about 1851.



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