Life On Oregon Coast Lighthouse was 'Terrible' - the Stormy History

Published 2009


(Seaside, Oregon) - It has been nicknamed "Terrible Tilly" – and for more than a few good reasons.

For generations, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse has captured the imaginations of visitors to Seaside and Cannon Beach, sitting a distant one-mile away and remaining a mystery because it's the only Oregon lighthouse not accessible by walking up to it. It often disappears into the mists of the Pacific, given the right weather conditions, swallowed up by fog. Then it reappears, adding to the legends and mysteries already surrounding it, as new and old visitors conjure new tales to explain this mystifying presence just offshore.

It all began in the 1800’s, when the decision was finally made to create this grandiose landmark. It took much wrangling and scientific survey to come up with the location, as government officials decided Tillamook Head itself would not be a good place for a lighthouse for numerous reasons, including its blind spots on either side of the point and for various technical issues. It was finally decided that the lighthouse would be built upon a chunk of rock about a mile offshore, which would require considerable blasting to flatten its top.

Construction of the lighthouse was terrifying. Crews had to endure insane tidal and wind conditions as the waves slammed against the relatively small area. They lived under soggy tents, even in these conditions. It is documented that construction workers were housed in Seaside and even on an offshore ship as they waited to start work, sequestered from the rest of the population so they wouldn't hear the horror stories of working on the rock.

The lighthouse went into service in 1881, manned by four people at a time, stuck there for months. 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. Numerous men were injured doing this, yet strangely there's only one death associated with the lighthouse's construction.

Living on the rock meant being regularly attacked by enormous storms. Having boulders and logs tossed through glass was not an irregular occurrence. During a storm in 1896, a rock weighing 135 pounds crashed through the roof and into the kitchen of the keeper’s quarters.

Another tale has a giant bird slamming into the glass around the holidays - a time when the men living there were running low on supplies. So they turned the ill-fated winged beast into a holiday feast.

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957.

One of the last lighthouse keepers on Terrible Tilly was author Jim Gibbs, a U.S. Coast Guard officer at the time, who later went on to write 21 books on maritime history. In one interview in the early 2000s, he said he often enjoyed the solitude atop the scary place – the same solitude which often drove other men mad.

In later years, Gibbs went on to carry on the now-extinct job of lighthouse keeper, building his own private lighthouse on his home just south of Yachats. The light was visible 16 miles out to sea, and was designated an official navigation landmark. It is no longer in use and owned by different people now.

After the light went out for the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, it lay abandoned for two decades. Eventually, it was purchased from the government and then another company, which used it as a columbarium – a resting place for ashes of the dead.

For a time in the '90s, that company, Eternity At Sea, ran strange ads in publications around the northwest for perks such as free satellite TV and other goodies if you purchased your resting place there ahead of time.

- Photos courtesy Seaside Historical Museum. For more on the lighthouse, visit them at 570 Necanicum Dr., Seaside. (503) 738-7065. More lighthouse photos below:

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Crew aboard the lighthouse in the '30's


 

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