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Oregon Coast's Tillie the Whale History a Kooky and Dramatic One

Published 06/01/21 at 5:25 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast's Tillie the Whale History a Kooky and Dramatic One

(Waldport, Oregon) – These days, quiet little Tillicum Beach near Waldport gets perhaps just a touch frenzied during summer when the state campground gets full and the season is in high gear, but even then the central Oregon coast beach is one seriously laidback stretch of sand. There's nothing here, really, except for some interesting cliffs, some slightly oddball double-tideline action during summers sometimes, and a lot of room for relaxing. (Photo above courtesy Oregon State Archives)

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Yet there was a time almost 100 years ago when this beach was bustling with thousands and within a couple of years there was a regular but kind'a kooky attraction. Tillicum Beach was the home of a small set of auto cabins – a kind of precursor to a motel – called the Shore Pines and a massive whale skeleton called Tillie the Whale. This little spot just north of Yachats became a hit for all ages, and included a gift shop called Tillie the Whale Gift Shop.

Tillie's tale, however, is an interesting origin story – and a dramatic one a little reminiscent of the famed Exploding Whale some 30 years in the future. In fact, it seems to be related to another incident in the '30s similar to the Exploding Whale.

On August 21, 1938, a lovely Sunday morning on the central Oregon coast, a dead whale washed up around 6:30 a.m. at this beach that had just recently been named Tillicum. According to reports such as the Corvallis-Gazette Times the following day, "thousands" hit the beach trying to get a glimpse of the decayed and rather disgusting “monster” as it was often referred to. Some 50 feet in length and about 40 tons, newspapers at the time said it was known to have been hit by a steamer. There was a long wound in its side, and beachgoers could clearly see the tongue and other parts had been eaten away by predators.

The whale had been dead for days, and it quickly began stinking up a storm. Yet somehow reports claimed it “was in good condition.” Those thousands that milled about all day – and for the next few days – all jockeyed for positions upwind from the carcass. It clearly stank to high heaven.

The entire scene quickly became a circus. A nearby resident brought down his 15 dogs and they all ate bits and pieces that had floated away from the body of the whale. This is now something officials sternly warn against: letting your dog near a washed-up whale could get them quite sick.

A gas station in the vicinity charged 5 cents to let people go across a small bridge over a stream to get to the scene. Others tried to jump the width and soaked themselves. The gas station owner made a killing on the toll, and newspapers strangely made fun of those who got wet.

Immediately a major controversy broke out: the Salem Capital Journal, among others, noted on the 22nd that local citizens could not stand the smell. Since the beaches were part of the State Highway Department (what ODOT was once called), it was up to them to remove the offending cetacean from the beach. One newspaper ran with the headline “Odoriferous Whale Threatens Waldport With Wholesale Faint.”

Yet the highway department said no. In fact, the state highway commission lawyer, J.M. Devers, said while it indeed oversees the beaches its authority on such matters was limited only to landing of aircraft on the beaches. Even more interesting: it was Conde B. McCullough who said "no" - an official in the department and the famed architect / engineer of the bridges at Coos Bay, Newport, Depoe Bay and others.

Tillicum Beach now

Then comes a remarkable historical revelation: the Capital Journal article notes that in 1937 up in Warrenton, locals had an explosives expert come up to deal with a dead, rotting whale there. He blew it up with dynamite. That's right, there was a precedent for this, and there was ANOTHER Exploding Whale before the famous one in 1970. Some newspapers portrayed the Warrenton outcome as a good one, but according to Oregon Coast Beach Connection research it wasn't likely so: Warrenton Had an 'Exploding Whale' 30 Years Before Central Oregon Coast

An editorial run by the Evening Herald in Klamath Falls bashed Oregon state officials for not removing it, and one article notes they could ask again at a highway commission meeting on August 30. But by then “the whale probably would be smelling up a good part of the Oregon coast” the Capital Journal wrote.

Tillie the Whale has always been looked upon fondly by those remembering the old Oregon coast, and the little that's talked about it is as a famed attraction. Yet how did it become a whale skeleton on display?

That answer comes just a few days later, as locals find a meat company from Albany to deal with the carcass. On August 24, truckload after truckload of nasty-smelling whale chunks began to get hauled away to the Montgomery Rendering Plant. Crews cut up the creature bit by bit, and back then the owner of the company estimated he would get some 50 barrels of whale oil out of it.

At the time, Cecil Montgomery tells the press the “meat is pretty far gone” and useless, and that if he can get the bones he will grind them down.

Yet he clearly doesn't. What's missing from newspaper reports and accounts then is how did R. Randall of the Shore Pines Cottage Park procure and assemble the whale.

In any case, he did, and within a year Tillie the Whale was on display and making waves with visitors until at least the ‘50s. By 1947, some of those cottages were on sale, but in a 1953 newspaper letter-to-the-editor Mrs. Randall is touting a rare flower on display at the Tillie the Whale Gift Shop. MORE HISTORICAL PHOTOS BELOW

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