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Tales from an Oregon Coast Lighthouse: Aloof Terrible Tilly

Published 08/31/21 at 6:26 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Tales from an Oregon Coast Lighthouse: Aloof Terrible Tilly

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(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – An aloof and even cryptic attraction on the Oregon coast is the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse between Cannon Beach and Seaside. Sitting almost a mile offshore, you can never actually get there, and thus it's a mystery that loads the imagination with possibilities. It's even generated its own legends.

Yet truth is wilder than the make-believe and the paranormal rumors, giving glimpses into how times were lived back then and the adventures of living on a lighthouse so isolated.

All this began just before the 1880s as construction started on this north Oregon coast icon, after initial plans were scrapped to build a lighthouse on top of Tillamook Head. That spot was deemed too foggy, too often, so Oregon officials looked to the rock offshore, which local tribes said was haunted by bad spirits.

A 38-year-old Portland man was among the first to set foot on the rock with the initial group of surveyors, but he slipped on the wet rock getting off the boat and drowned in the sea. A public outcry ensued with many saying this was not worth the dangers.

For at least two years construction crews worked in ungodly conditions to build it and blast the top, constantly battered by sea water, living in tents deeply bolted into the rock yet still too flimsy for this oceanic chaos. They lived in rotating shifts on this basalt blob, often sequestered on the south Washington coast or even in a boat off Seaside so that they could not hear news of what injuries took place on the site.

Tillamook Rock LIghthouse in the '70s - courtesy Jim Furnish family

Transporting to and from the rock was a rickety affair, using a giant winch and a thing called a breeches buoy – basically a big pair of pants encircled by a flotation ring. Nobody died doing this, but plenty were injured.

In early 1881, just before construction was over, on one dark and rather unsettling night the workers thought they heard voices. Suddenly, a ship called the Lupatia appeared out of the fog, making a beeline for the rock. Crews were able to use lanterns to warn them away. However, the ship slammed into Tillamook Head, killing all.

Jim Gibbs, famed author, served on the lighthouse for a time. His first night he had a spooky encounter as he heard what sounded like feet shuffling in the dark. Then suddenly something brushed past his face. Gibbs managed to bolt upright, arms swinging wildly and hit the light, only to discover the intruder was a bird with an injured wing that had come in through the open window. [Also see Oregon Coast History: Storm That Nearly Destroyed a Lighthouse]

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957, with the last keeper, Oswald Allik, proclaiming “I return thee to the elements.” MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Tillamook Rock LIghthouse in the '70s - courtesy Jim Furnish family

Above and below courtesy Seaside Aquarium

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