In June 1879, H.S. Wheeler boated out to the rock to determine if a lighthouse would be feasible there. Heavy seas initially made landing impossible, but after several attempts, Wheeler was able to clamber up the rock. After a careful inspection, he decided the rock could be conquered. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board carried the following forecast for the project: “Though the execution of the work will be a task of labor and difficulty, accompanied by great expense, yet the benefit which the commerce seeking the mouth of the Columbia River will derive from a light and fog-signal located there, will warrant all the labor and expense involved.”
Master mason John R. Trewavas of Portland, who had a major role in the construction of a similar lighthouse on Wolf Rock off Land’s End, England, was tasked with surveying the rock and selecting the sites for the lighthouse, derricks, and engines. On September 18, 1879, Trewavas and a sailor named Cherry were transported to the rock in a surfboat, but in attempting to step on the rock, Trewavas slipped and was swept into the churning sea. Cherry, who dove in to rescue Trewavas, was pulled from the water by the men aboard the surfboat, but the body of Trewavas was never recovered.
Locals felt the endeavor was foolhardy and refused to work on the project. Charles A. Ballantyne, who replaced Trewavas, was forced to hire men unfamiliar with the area and then sequester them in the old keeper’s quarters at Cape Disappointment until construction could begin so locals wouldn’t scare them away.
The first four laborers were put on the rock on October 21, 1879, and the remaining five members of the crew followed five days later. Landing men and supplies on the rock entailed stringing a four-and-a-half-inch line from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin to a ring-bolt in the rock and then using pulleys to move a traveler along the line with a suspended sling or breeches buoy. With the cutter rolling and pitching in the swells, the line was never taut, and the fellow being transported was often drug through the icy water.
The first ten days found the crew totally exposed to the elements. Barren of caves, overhangs, or ledges, the rock could not even provide minimal shelter. A shallow niche was excavated in the northeast side of the rock, and in it was placed a strongly built timber shanty that was securely bolted to the rock and covered in canvas. With shelter in place, the men leveled a site for a derrick, and then commenced chipping, chiseling, and blasting away the upper thirty feet of the rock to create a site for the lighthouse at a height of ninety feet above the sea.
The lighthouse tender was finally able to cross the Columbia River bar and approach the rock sixteen days after the storm began. Reports of the loss of the crew had been “freely and cruelly circulated,” but the work party “was found safe and cheerful, though much in want of fresh provisions.” The traveler line was set up again, this time using a kite to help transport it to the rock, and food, supplies, and clothing were carried over to the workers.
By May 31, 1880, 224 days into construction, the hump of the rock had been leveled, allowing construction of the lighthouse to begin. During the winter, a contract had been awarded to Chalmers, Holmes, and Jeffrey to provide fine-grained basalt rock, quarried from Mount Tabor, six miles east of Portland. A $8,200 contract for the lantern room and needed metalwork was given to Calvin Nutting and Son of San Francisco. A. & F. Brown of New York City provided duplicate sirens for the station at a cost of $5,100, and Smith Bros. and Watson of Portland supplied the boilers for the sirens for $3,550.
All materials for the station were brought by boat and hauled up the rock by derricks, with the first cargo of stone arriving on June 17, 1880. Under the direction of H.S. Wheeler, superintendent of construction, the cornerstone of the dwelling was laid on June 22. The lighthouse consists of a one-story stone dwelling, measuring forty-eight by forty-five feet with a thirty-two by twenty-eight-and-a-half-foot extension on the west side for the fog signal equipment. A sixteen-foot-square tower rising from the center of the dwelling supports the lantern room, which housed a first-order Fresnel lens equipped with twenty-four flash panels. The light had a focal plane of 133 feet above the sea and a signature of a white flash every five seconds. Two rooms for the keepers were located on both the north and south sides of the dwelling, while storerooms and a kitchen occupied the angles. A keystone rock over the entrance door on the east side of the lighthouse gives the name of the station, year of construction, and the latitude and longitude.
The fog siren sounded a five-second blast every ninety seconds as needed, and water for its operation was collected from the roof of the dwelling and conducted to a 13,000-gallon cistern excavated out of solid rock.
After a total of 575 days of labor, the lighthouse was lit for the first time on January 21, 1881; the fog signal followed suit on February 11. Joel Munson at Point Adams Lighthouse near the Columbia River spotted the initial lighting of Tillamook Rock at 7:15 p.m. and wrote, “Three cheers for the new light, long may it shine.” The total cost of the lighthouse came to $123,492.82, and amazingly, the only construction death was the drowning of Trewavas.
The lighthouse’s reputation soon spread from coast to coast. Not only was it known as an engineering triumph, but also as a challenging assignment for even the most stalwart keeper. Albert Roeder, the first head keeper, didn’t even last four months on the rock before he resigned, saying that too much of the sad sea did not agree with him and that it would be a long time before he made himself a hermit again.
Storms often brought flying rock and debris crashing through the lantern room and the dwelling’s iron roof, and the fog signal would clog with pieces of seaweed or rock. There were several occasions when the entire structure was flooded with seawater. Repairs were constant.
A storm in December 1886 swept away three wooden water tanks near the lighthouse, and water, falling on the roof with the sound of a hundred hammers, crushed in large sections and loosened plaster in the dwelling. A year later, a storm broke in two panes of five-eighths-of-an-inch-thick glass and flooded the lantern room. First Assistant John Flynn was reportedly “floundering around in the lantern like a sea lion after a salmon.” To prevent further breakage of the glass panes during storms, a movable shield of strong wire that covered a quarter of the lantern room was sent to the rock.
The shield didn’t prevent thirteen panes of glass from being broken in December 1894 by a hurricane that tore loose fragments of rock and hurled them at the lantern room, damaging the lens and revolving apparatus. One monster piece, weighing nearly a ton, was sent crashing through the roof of one of the keeper’s rooms. At one point during the storm, there was six feet of water in the fog signal room and four feet in the living rooms.
After this, the Lighthouse Board decided another tactic was needed, and it had the face of the rock on the west and southwest side covered with a coating of cement to prevent further breaking of the rock by storm waves.
A coating of asphalt, coal tar, and gravel was applied to the lighthouse’s galvanized-iron roof in 1897 to stop the leaking caused by rocks being cast upon it by the sea, but when this didn’t work, the walls of the lighthouse were raised five feet and a new roof of steel I-beams and concrete was put in place the following year.
A head keeper and four assistants were typically assigned to the rock, and the men’s families, if they had them, lived ashore. The keepers spent three months on and two weeks off, with four keepers always on the rock. After conditions proved extremely harsh on both the physical and mental stability of the keepers, the rotation was changed to forty-two days on and twenty-one days off.
The cramped quarters, frequent storms, and fog with the ensuing blasting of the fog sirens, often caused tension among the crew and led to the station earning the nickname “Terrible Tilly.” 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 eyebrows. One paper reported that Keeper Bjorling was removed quickly from his post after trying to kill the head keeper by putting ground glass in his food. Fourth Assistant Keeper Charles Justen was removed from the rock in August 1906 as he was suffering from extreme nervousness and it was feared he would become mentally deranged.
The only known death of a keeper at the lighthouse occurred on August 2, 1911, when Second Assistant Keeper Thomas Jones was painting the derrick and fell thirty five feet onto rocks, sustaining terrible injuries. The steamer Elmore passed the station a few hours later and offered to take Jones to the hospital at Bay City. Jones hung on for a period before passing away. When passing Tillamook Rock the next week, the Elmore was once again hailed and asked to take off another keeper. This time, the injury was not life threatening.
Besides shuttling injured keepers to shore, the Elmore also supplemented the keepers rations by landing a sack of potatoes, some vegetables, and a veal roast. Seamen weren’t the only ones to take compassion on the isolated men. In 1890, the Tillamook Rock keepers sent a letter to The Daily Astorian thanking three ladies who had sent them flowers. The letter read, in part,“No flowers were ever more appreciated than were those bouquets sent by the kind hearted ladies, which made us feel that we are not forgotten by those who live where flowers bloom.”
October 21, 1934 brought the worst tempest ever recorded at the lighthouse. The entire Pacific Northwest was inundated with a fierce and battering storm, and no one felt it more than the men trapped at Terrible Tilly. The sea spewed boulders through the lantern room and ripped out iron bolts anchored three feet deep in the rock. Seawater flowed like a waterfall down the tower into the living quarters.
Repeatedly the entire station was completely submerged in tremendous seas which, meeting the precipitous side of the great rock, swept upward and over the masonry and ironwork structure surmounting the crest. A section of the rock itself was torn away, great fragments of it being thrown over the station, many of them through the plate glass of the first order lantern, 16 panels of which were shattered, rock fragments 60 pounds in weight falling inside. Unbroken seas flooded the lantern, filling the watch room, where the keepers struggled to erect storm shutters in the shattered lantern panels, submerged at times to their necks before the rush of water could escape through the door into the tower and quarters below. The inrushing seas brought fragments of rock and glass, and even small fish, with the flotsam. Assistant Keeper Hugo Hanson’s hand was badly cut with flying glass.
The oil vapor light was extinguished, the first order lens chipped and cracked, and the revolving mechanism so badly damaged that it was not repaired and operated until 6 days later. No light was displayed that first night, but the keepers succeeded during the night and the next day in clamping heavy wooden shutters, on hand for the purpose, into the lantern panels from which the glass panes had been broken, and thereafter displayed a fixed white light from a 300-millimeter lens lantern until the main light was repaired and its regular flashes restored on October 27. The storm raged for 4 days; the great seas thundering over the rock, preventing the keepers from leaving the confines of the tower and quarters until October 25.
The storm washed away the station’s derrick and severed the telephone line linking the station to the mainland, but Assistant Keeper Henry Jenkins, an amateur radio operator, cannibalized the telephone and used waxed paper, tin foil, and brass doorknob plates to create a makeshift short-wave radio. Around midnight on October 23, he managed to relay a message to the lighthouse superintendent, apprising him of conditions at the station. All four keepers on the rock were commended for their exceptional attention to duty through the most trying conditions.
Terrible Tilly shone her light for seventy-seven years before being replaced by a red whistle buoy, anchored one mile seaward of the rock. Realizing the significance of the occasion, Keeper Oswald Allik asked Jim Gibbs, who had served with him on Tillamook Rock in 1945, to compose a final entry for the station’s logbook. On September 1, 1957, Keeper 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 kept in the archives 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.
Five men from Las Vegas purchased Tillamook Lighthouse 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 group for $11,000, partly to retain ties to Oregon where his family had lived for two years in the late 1960s.
Max M. Shillock, Jr. purchased the lighthouse from Hupman in 1978 for $27,000, but he was forced to cede the title to Joy Goolsby, whom he had reportedly swindled out of large sum of money. In 1980, Goolsby sold the lighthouse for $50,000 to real estate developers Mimi Morissette and Cathy Riley, backed by a group of investors. Under Morissette’s direction, the structure was gutted and turned into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium. Interested parties could 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 were 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 vandals reportedly stole two of those in 1991.
In March 2022, Morisette ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal, offering the lighthouse for $5.6 million, and then spent a week marketing it at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Assocation convention in Las Vegas. She plans to use $1.5 million of the sale to cleanup the lighthouse, seal it, and create a titanium honeycomb to store urns.
The ghostly looking lighthouse, now with perhaps more than its own story to tell, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.