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Terrible Tilly, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

5 min read

When you see the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, you probably think, “Oh, what a beautiful lighthouse!” But – there is more, much more, to its story. Devastating storms, harsh existence, isolation, madness, death, and even hauntings – all add up to the myths, mystery, and intrigue surrounding the lighthouse not by chance nicknamed “Terrible Tilly”.
But let’s start at the beginning.
One mile west of Tillamook Head, a rock Shaped like a sea monster rises from the ocean. It is where old Nor’easters go to die, and where Indians believed under ocean tunnels inhabited by spirits came to the surface. Where clinging to the top, fighting off the sea, stands Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, a sort of symbol of the precarious line between human endeavor and the forces of nature.

Its story began in 1878 when Congress appropriated $50,000 for a lighthouse to mark this section of the Oregon Coast. However, sea conditions necessitating the construction of the lighthouse were notoriously brutal.
So brutal, in fact, that no local workers could be found to participate in the project, as they believed leveling-off the rock was obviously a foolhardy idea.
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 structures. On September 18, 1879, together with a sailor named Cherry was 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, but his body was never recovered.
And so, as a workaround, laborers unfamiliar with the area were hired (and sequestered) in the Cape Disappointment keepers’ quarters to prevent locals from scaring them.
And, of course, they should have been scared.
Early in construction, a storm overtook the tiny island, carrying away their water, tools, and supplies. Reports of the loss of the crew had been freely and cruelly circulated but luckily sixteen days later the work party was found safe and cheerful, though much in want of fresh provisions.

After a total of 575 days of hard labor, the lighthouse was lit for the first time on January 21, 1881. Teams of four men kept the light shining from the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse since the structure’s completion.
The isolation, constant storms, and blaring foghorns at “Terrible Tilly” proved a really challenge for the mental and physical conditioning of even the most seasoned keeper: even with more abbreviated work shifts and longer breaks, the men struggled.
Albert Roeder, the first 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.
One keeper even went insane and reportedly tried to kill a fellow man by putting ground glass in his food.
Moreover, dismissals from the post were frequent.
Another keeper, such a James A. Gibbs, who served for a year on Tillamook Rock, insisted that the place is haunted, saying that all four lighthouse keepers on shift one night saw a ghost ship. He also describes an experience where he heard a “…whispering moan, like one in pain.” His first thought was that it was one of the other lighthouse keepers playing a joke on him, then realized they were all in bed asleep.

In any case, Terrible Tilly shone her light for 77 years before being decommissioned and replaced by a red whistle buoy. Oswald Allik, who had manned the light for two decades, earned the honor of turning off the light for the last time on September 1, 1957. His final, accompanying entry penned reads:

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.

But really Terrible Tilly’s story had closed on such a poetic note? Absolutely no!
The lighthouse was purchased from an auction by five men from Las Vegas, and It is said that three of the men made a pilgrimage to the light a few weeks later, never to return for a second visit or funded any improvements.
Years later, the Tillamook Rock Light changed ownership a few more times before ultimately falling into the hands of Mimi Morissette and Cathy Riley. Under their direction, the structure was gutted and converted into the so called “Eternity at Sea Columbarium” or, in short, a repository for ashes of the dead, where Morissette warned all interested parties literally that “their second choice better be to be buried at sea.” 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.
Despite the columbarium’s operation license is currently invalid, 30 urns are stored in the lighthouse to this day, not counting the two reported stolen by vandals in 1991. The owners of the lighthouse lost their license to operate as a columbarium in 1999 when they were late with their renewal and moreover, in 2005, an application for a new license was rejected due to inaccurate record keeping and improper storage of urns.
Offers for future arrangements continue to be accepted under the assumption that reparations will be paid, and Terrible Tilly will continue her timeless watch over the living and dead alike.
Today, with no more human inhabitants, the ghostly looking lighthouse with more than a story to tell is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And now when you look at it, you’ll know that beyond its beauty is its haunting past.

Images from web – Google Research

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