Sea conditions necessitating the construction of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse were notoriously brutal – so brutal, in fact, that no local workers could be found to participate in the project, as they believed leveling-off a small rock located a mile off-shore was obviously a foolhardy idea.
As a workaround, laborers unfamiliar with the area were hired and sequestered in the Cape Disappointment keepers’ quarters to prevent locals from spooking them. Of course, they should have been scared. Early in construction, a storm overtook the tiny island, carrying away their water, tools, and supplies. Sixteen days later, provisions were delivered to the alive, but struggling, crew.
Teams of four men kept the light shining from the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse since the structure’s completion in 1881. The isolation, constant storms, and blaring foghorns at “Terrible Tilly” proved a challenge for the mental and physical conditioning of even the most seasoned keeper. Even with more abbreviated work shifts and longer breaks, the men struggled; one keeper went insane and reportedly tried to kill a fellow man by putting ground glass in his food. Dismissals from the post were frequent.
Terrible Tilly shone her light for 77 years before being decommissioned and replaced by a red whistle buoy. Oswald Allik, who had manned the light for two decades, earned the honor of turning off the light for the last time on September 1, 1957. The final, accompanying entry penned by Allik reads,
An era has ended. With this final entry, and not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements. You, one of the most notorious and yet fascinating of the sea-swept sentinels in the world; long the friend of the tempest-tossed mariner. Through howling gale, thick fog and driving rain your beacon has been a star of hope and your foghorn a voice of encouragement. May the elements of nature be kind to you. For 77 years you have beamed your light across desolate acres of ocean. Keepers have come and gone; men lived and died; but you were faithful to the end. May your sunset years be good years. Your purpose is now only a symbol, but the lives you have saved and the service you have rendered are worthy of the highest respect.
If only Terrible Tilly’s story had closed on such a poetic note. Alack! this was not the case. The lighthouse was purchased from an auction by five men from Las Vegas. It is said that three of the men made a pilgrimage to the light a few weeks later, never to return for a second visit.
Years later, the Tillamook Rock Light changed ownership a few more times before ultimately falling into the hands of Mimi Morissette and Cathy Riley. Under their direction, the structure was gutted and converted into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium (repository for ashes of the dead), where Morissette warned all interested parties that, “their second choice better be to be buried at sea.”
Though the columbarium’s operation license is currently invalid, 30 urns are stored in the lighthouse to this day, not counting the two reported stolen by vandals in 1991. Offers for future arrangements continue to be accepted under the assumption that reparations will be paid, and Terrible Tilly will continue her timeless watch over the living and dead alike.
Know Before You Go
The lighthouse can be seen from shore at Ecola State Park and from Highway 101 near Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Sea conditions usually prevent accessing the rock via boat. Primary access is provided by chartered helicopter. Before doing so, check with Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex to acquire permission, which can be tricky due to endangered sea birds who nest on the island.