|Tillamook Rock, OR|
Description: One mile west of Tillamook Head, a rock rises from the ocean. In the shape of a sea monster, it is where old Nor'easters go to die. Where Indians believed under ocean tunnels inhabited by spirits came to the surface. Where sheer cliffs drop straight into the sea to depths of 96 to 240 feet. Where clinging to the top, fighting off the gripping hands of the sea, stands a lighthouse. A symbol of the precarious line between human endeavor and the forces of nature.
An intriguing and powerful testament of the will and determination of the human spirit, the story of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse began in 1879. Originally, it was hoped that a lighthouse could be built at Tillamook Head, a 1,000 foot high headland 20 miles south of the Columbia River. However, with its high elevation, fog often shrouded the top and its shear face offered no acceptable alternative.
The first surveyors accessed the site by jumping from a rocking boat onto the rock. On one attempt, master mason John R. Trewavas, who had a major role in the construction of a similar lighthouse on Wolf Rock off Land's End, England, made the trip to the rock with his assistant Cherry. In attempting a landing, Trewavas slipped and was swept into the churning sea. Cherry dove in after him, but couldn't find him. The boat was able to rescue Cherry, but Trewavas was never found.
The locals, skittish of the project to begin with, raised an outcry over the foolhardiness of the endeavor. No local skilled workers could be found willing to work on the construction. Charles A. Ballantyne, who replaced Trewavas, hired men unfamiliar with the area and sequestered them in the Cape Disappointment keepers' quarters until construction could begin, in hopes the locals would not scare them away.
On October 21, 1879, four laborers were put on the rock. The rest of the crew followed five days later. Putting men on the rock entailed stringing a 4 ½" line from the U.S. Revenue Cutter, Thomas Corwin, to the rock. The men would then use a "breeches buoy" to cross the line. With the cutter rolling and pitching in the swells, the line was never taut, and the transported fellow was often drug through the icy water.
The first two weeks of construction found the crew totally exposed to the elements. Barren of caves, overhangs or ledges, the rock could not even provide minimal shelter. The workers chipped, chiseled, and blasted away. And then it hit.
January 2, 1880. A dying Nor'easter. The seas crashed above the crest of the rock. Rocks flew as breakers tore off chunks of the rock and tossed them at will. The perilous storm pounded the rock. The storehouse was swept away taking most of their tools and provisions. Then the water tank, the traveler line and the roof of the blacksmith shop were ripped away. Clinging on for life, the men stayed in their shelter, the safest place on the rock. Hungry, soaked, and with no place to go.
The Corwin was finally able to approach the rock 16 days after the storm began. All of the workmen were alive but in dire circumstances. The traveler line was set up again, this time using a kite to transport it to the rock. Food, supplies and clothing were again in the hands of the workers.
By May 31st 1880, 224 days into construction, the hump of the rock had been leveled and construction of the lighthouse began.
All materials for the lighthouse were brought by boat and hauled up the rock by derricks. The structure originally was a one-story room, 48 x 45 feet with a 32 x 28 extension for the fog signal equipment. Later a half story was added. A 16-foot square tower rising from the center of the building supports the lantern room and parapet, which housed a first-order Fresnel lens. The light shown 133 feet above the sea with a signature of a white flash every five seconds.
After a total of 525 days of labor, the lighthouse was lit for the first time on January 21, 1881. Amazingly, the only construction death was the drowning of Trewavas.
Soon the reputation of the lighthouse spread from coast to coast, not only known as an engineering triumph, but also as a challenging assignment for even the most stalwart keeper. Nicknamed "Terrible Tilly", it lived up to its name.
Originally, a keeper assigned to the rock spent three months on and two weeks off. Four keepers were always on the rock. The assignment was changed to 42 days on 21 off, because conditions proved extremely harsh on both the physical and mental stability of the keepers.
The cramped quarters, frequent storms, and fog with the ensuing blasting of the fog sirens, often caused tension among the crew. Enraged keepers were known to pass notes at dinnertime rather than speak to each other. Any keeper causing trouble or showing mental instability was immediately transferred from the rock. The newspapers loved the drama, and any dismissal raised their eyebrows. One reported that Keeper Bjorling was removed quickly from his post after trying to kill the headkeeper by putting ground glass in his food.
October 21, 1934 brought the worst tempest on record. The entire Pacific Northwest was inundated with a fierce and battering storm. No one felt it more than the four keepers at Terrible Tilly. The sea spewed boulders through the lantern room, smashing the Fresnel lens. Iron bolts anchored into the rock 3 feet deep were ripped out. Seawater flowed like a waterfall down the tower into the rotunda. Some areas of the lighthouse were neck high in water. All communication to the mainland was lost. The keepers worked feverishly in knee-deep water trying to set up an auxiliary light, but no light would shine that night.
For only one night of the four-day storm were mariners left without the beacon. Heroically, the auxiliary light was beaming the second night. A makeshift short wave radio made contact with a ham radio operator in Seaside, and the world heard the keepers had survived. All were commended for their exceptional attention to duty through the most trying conditions.
The Fresnel lens was never replaced.
Terrible Tilly shone her light for 77 years before being replaced by a red whistle buoy, anchored one mile seaward of the rock. On September 1, 1957, Keeper Oswald Allik, who had served twenty years at the station, turned off the light, and penned the following final entry in the logbook, which today is on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon:
Farewell, Tillamook Rock Light Station. An era has ended. With this final entry, and not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements. You, one of the most notorious and yet fascinating of the sea-swept sentinels in the world; long the friend of the tempest-tossed mariner. Through howling gale, thick fog and driving rain your beacon has been a star of hope and your foghorn a voice of encouragement. May the elements of nature be kind to you. For 77 years you have beamed your light across desolate acres of ocean. Keepers have come and gone; men lived and died; but you were faithful to the end. May your sunset years be good years. Your purpose is now only a symbol, but the lives you have saved and the service you have rendered are worthy of the highest respect. A protector of life and property to all, may old-timers, newcomers and travelers along the way pause from the shore in memory of your humanitarian role.
Tillamook Lighthouse was purchased by five men from Las Vegas at a bid sale in 1959 for $5,600. Three of the men visited the lighthouse a few weeks after the purchase, but it is believed they never again set foot on the rock or funded any improvements. In 1973, George Hupman, a New York-based executive with General Electric, purchased the lighthouse from the Las Vegas combine for $11,000 partly to retain ties to Oregon, where his family had lived for two years in the late 1960s.
The lighthouse was again sold in 1980 to Mimi Morissette and Cathy Riley, both real estate developers, and a group of investors for $50,0000. Under Morissette's direction, the structure was gutted and turned into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium. Interested parties could then have their ashes placed inside the lighthouse, with prices varying from $1,000 for a place in the derrick room to $5,000 for a prime spot in the lantern room. With an estimated capacity of a few hundred thousand remains, the lighthouse seemed to be not only a self-sustaining project but a profitable business opportunity.
The owners of the lighthouse lost their license to operate as a columbarium in 1999 when they were late with their renewal. In 2005, an application for a new license was rejected due to inaccurate record keeping and improper storage of urns. Addressing concerns that urns are not well protected, Morissette, whose parents are inurned at the lighthouse, said, People ask me what if a tsunami hits the lighthouse, and I tell every person their second choice better be to be buried at sea. Eternity at Sea still plans to raise additional money and construct niches in titanium to store some 300,000 urns. To date, only about thirty urns have been placed in the lighthouse, and two of those were reported stolen by vandals in 1991.
The ghostly looking structure, now with perhaps more than its own story to tell, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Head Keepers: Albert Roeder (1881), George M. Rone (1881 1882), Fred B. Cosper (1882), C. D. Varnum (1882 1884), Joseph Hornung (1884 1887), Charles H. Davis (1887), George Hunt (1887 1892), Rasmus Petersen (1892 1894), Marinus A. Stream (1894), Alexander K. Pesonen (1894 1898), Axel Rustad (1898 1900), George H. Stillwell (1900 1903), William T. Langlois (1903 1910), William Dahlgren (1910 1919), Robert Gerlof (1919 - 1928), William Hill (at least 1930 - 1936), Ed Luderger (at least 1940), Oswald Allik ( - 1957).
Located 1.3 miles off the coast of Ecola State Park. The lighthouse is owned by Eternity at Sea Columbarium. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by Eternity at Sea Columbarium. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright L. LeFevre, Russell Barber, Jim Scott, used by permission.