The Misty Mysteries of an Oregon Lighthouse: Tillamook Rock
(Cannon Beach, Oregon) - Often, truth is stranger than fiction. This is certainly the truth that sits behind the legends one of the more well known yet cryptic attractions of the Oregon coast: the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Forget the talk of ghosts and other oddball stories, the history of this mystery a mile offshore from Cannon Beach and Seaside is much more striking than the made-up stuff.
Construction on this blob of rock began in the 1880’s, after initial plans were scrapped to put a lighthouse on a fog-prone, blind spot area atop Tillamook Head. Things did not get off to a good start. When the initial surveying crew arrived, the very first man to set foot on the rock slipped into the sea and drowned. This created an immediate public outcry that perhaps this wasn’t a good idea.
After the top was blasted, construction crews had to endure insane conditions, living under soggy tents and enormous waves that constantly knocked at them. The crews lived in rotating shifts on the rock, and there were so many casualties in these conditions that men waiting onshore to work there were actually sequestered away from the public and from talk of what went on there.
The barons in charge of the project went to incredible lengths to keep construction workers away from the truth. They were housed in various places along the southern Washington coast, away from Seaside, and for a while even on a ship anchored just offshore.
Once the lighthouse was lit and operational, lightkeepers lived there in shifts and had to endure much. Four at a time occupied the rock, usually only a few months at a time. It was a brutal existence, and one keeper reportedly went mad from the solitude.
A giant winch was used to bring supplies and personnel from visiting ships to the rock, which was a dangerous and unwieldy endeavor under even the best conditions. They were put inside an object called a breeches buoy – which is essentially a giant pair of pants encircled by a floatation ring, attached to the cables overhead. Numerous lives were lost doing this.
The lighthouse seen from Cannon Beach.
The place was ripe for ghost stories. It didn’t help that local tribes purportedly said it was inhabited by evil spirits.
There are rumors of ghost tales over the years, including the claims of voices heard over the din of storms from the lens area and other isolated or dark parts of the lighthouse. Sometimes, stories about ghost ships appearing in the fog and drifting past are associated with the place as well, but usually these have foundations in actual events involving near misses from real ships.
Indeed, a ship called the Lupatia nearly hit the lighthouse in dense fog, but was warned away just in time. However, it did soon after slam into Tillamook Head, killing all aboard except the ship’s dog.
One local legend has it that you can sometimes still hear the dog howl in the night near Tillamook Head.
Another almost spooky tale from the lighthouse comes from a keeper who felt something brush past his face in the dark while lying in bed. All of a sudden, he heard strange footsteps in the pitch black, and after a time, bolted towards the light switch, arms swinging wildly in an attempt to smack whatever trespasser was there. When he turned on the light, he found only an injured bird that had somehow made its way into his bedroom. The odd footsteps were its broken wing hitting the floor.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957, with the last keeper, Oswald Allik, proclaiming “I return thee to the elements.”
One of those who served aboard the lighthouse was U.S. Coast Guard officer Jim Gibbs, who later became a famous writer on maritime subjects, including this lighthouse and Oregon coast shipwrecks. Gibbs has own lighthouse now, having turned his home near Yachats into an actual working lighthouse that can be seen at sea. Mariners say they actually appreciate its presence.
In the 80’s, after numerous failed ownerships, a firm called Eternity at Sea bought the Tillamook Rock lighthouse property, and it now serves as a columbarium – a place for ashes of the dead.
In an odd and somewhat humorous turn, the firm starting running ads in the early 90's offering free satellite TV for life – if you reserved your resting place early.
Perhaps they assumed they would not have to pay for that deal for long.
That firm eventually disappeared and it's unclear if anyone is in charge of upkeep of the columbarium.
Historical photographs below from the family of Jim Furnish, Seaside, Oregon. More about Seaside lodging below as well.
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