On a small piece of rock a mile and a quarter from land sits a particularly infamous lighthouse, Tillamook Rock. From the beginning, the small beleaguered sentinel and its isolated keepers endured a multitude of hardships, from ferocious storms that would toss boulders through tower windows to months of isolation when no supply ship dared to draw near the dangerous rock.
Construction of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was controversial from the start, when the first surveyor to attempt a landing on the rock slipped into the waves and was never seen again. News of the tragedy quickly reached Portland as well as the state capital, and soon the public was questioning the wisdom of placing a lighthouse on such a dangerous rock, especially when the towering Tillamook Head stood nearby. But the experts pointed out that Tillamook Head was often shrouded in fog, unsuitable for a lighthouse crucial to vessels entering the mouth of the Columbia River twenty miles to the north.
In spite of public criticism the Lighthouse Service and its dedicated engineers prevailed. A crew of workers were hoisted onto the island where they set about anchoring a canvas shelter and beginning the dangerous work of blasting off the top of the rock. After some thirty feet in height, or 4,630 cubic yards of basaltic rock, were removed and the site leveled, construction of the lighthouse began. The workers were again and again subjected to fierce storms that would leave them trapped on the rock, wet and hungry, waiting for rescue. But they persisted and were able to complete the lighthouse in 525 days with no more lives lost.
Built of stone and brick, the lighthouse contained a bedroom for each keeper, a kitchen, storeroom, and annex housing the fog signal equipment. A 13,000 gallon cistern to collect rainwater was carved out of the rock on the north side of the building. The lighthouse tower rose 62 feet from the center of the one and a half story structure. It featured a First-Order lens, lit by an oil vapor lamp, that beamed its white signal eighteen miles out to sea.
Just days before the beacon could be lit, tragedy struck. On the night of January 2, 1881 in stormy seas, the British ship Lupatia drifted near the still-dark Tillamook Rock; so near that workers on the island could hear the ship’s Captain shouting orders to his men. The men on the island scrambled to build bonfires to warn them off. The ship veered away just in time and all on Tillamook Rock breathed a sigh of relief.
But with dawn came a terrible discovery. In avoiding the rock the Lupatia had driven straight into Tillamook Head and now lay broken in the surf. All sixteen men aboard were lost. The lone survivor was a dog—a young Australian Shepherd found wandering among the rocks of the headland.
Tillamook Rock was nicknamed “Terrible Tilly” by those who had to endure the ferocious winter storms that would pound at the small island. A crew of five manned the light, with four on duty and one on shore leave at all times. There were months when boats could not get close and the crew were left to fend for themselves, sometimes being reduced to rationing food until supplies could arrive. Being trapped on a storm-washed rock with three others could wear on the nerves, and there were reports of keepers not speaking to each other for days at a time, passing notes over the dinner table instead.
One of the worst storms began on October 21, 1934 and did not relent until the lighthouse was nearly destroyed four days later. The 100 mile per hour winds and gigantic waves tossed boulders through lantern windows, smashing the light and allowing seawater to pour down the neck of the tower into the living quarters. For four days the exhausted keepers scrambled to make repairs and maintain a backup beacon. One of the keepers, Henry Jenkins, rigged up a shortwave radio out of spare parts and contacted the mainland, informing them of their dire situation. The drama played out in national newspapers and when it was over, the keepers received commendations for their service.
By 1957 Tillamook Rock had become the most costly lighthouse in the lower 48 states to maintain, so the beacon was extinguished and the last light keeper was lifted from the rock. The property was put up for auction by the federal government, then was bought and sold several times before ending up in the hands of the group Eternity at Sea. They have sealed up the windows and lantern room and turned Tillamook rock in to a private columbarium. Fittingly, the lighthouse that once put mortal fear into men is now the home of the dead, a sealed crypt containing the ashes of those who have paid to make this sea bound rock their final resting place.
Tillamook Rock Lighthouse can be viewed from Ecola State Park, 2 miles north of Cannon Beach (Highway 101 Mile Marker 28.0). The closest views with easy access are from Indian Beach between Ecola Point and Tillamook Head. For the more adventurous, the Tillamook Head Trail will take you even closer, with great views around Bird Point and the radar station.