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Tillamooklighthouse

“Terrible Tilly”

Category: Landmark Place

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GPS Coordinates: 45.9375, -124.019

As you stand at the edge of the rocky cliff and look out at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, one thought is probably racing through your mind: How on earth did someone build that?

Considered an engineering triumph for the nineteenth century, this is perhaps Oregon’s best known light, due largely to its fearsome reputation. By the late 1800s, the rocks offshore from Tillamook Head had long been a hazard to shipping, causing countless wrecks and claiming innumerable lives. The people of Oregon were anxious to put a lighthouse in the area to warn vessels away from the underwater hazards. There was one perfect location for the light, but unfortunately it was on top of a jagged outcrop of basalt just over a mile from shore.

The Deadliest Piece of Rock on the Oregon Coast

The construction fell on the Army Corps of Engineers who planned to blast away part of the rock with dynamite to make a level surface on which to build the tower and the nearby buildings. But even from the first day, it was clear that the construction of “Terrible Tilly” would be an exercise in patience, endurance and ingenuity. When the first team of surveyors made their way out to the rock, one of them drowned just getting off the boat! Those who followed would have to battle aggressive sea lions, dangerous winds and waves over one hundred feet (30.5 m) in height. Even worse, the powerful wave action would break off chunks of basalt and send the pieces flying through the air like missiles. These hunks of rock regularly smashed holes in the walls and roofs of both the light tower and the keeper’s residence. Windows would shatter so frequently they were eventually cemented over or replaced with ship’s portholes. And the ceilings had to be replaced with reinforced concrete.

The conditions on the rock were so bad that it was difficult to find men who would actually accept the work. The construction foreman finally solved this problem by hiring outside the area and lodging his workers in Astoria where they couldn’t hear any of the doom-and-gloom stories about “Terrible Tilly.”

“Terrible Tilly Today”

Despite the unimaginable hardships of building and operating the station, “Terrible Tilly’s” light shown continuously for seventy-seven years until it was finally decommissioned in 1957. After the station was abandoned, there was a lot of debate about what to do with it. Yes, it was historic, but reaching it was so dangerous that only three hundred people had ever visited the rock during its years of operation (that’s less than four people per year!)

Finally, the lighthouse was sold off to various private investors, whose plans for it included everything from a seaside resort to an offshore gambling casino. Finally, the inside of the buildings were gutted and metal sheets were welded over the light. The entire facility was turned into a columbarium, a depository for cremated human remains, until this business also failed.

Today, the future of “Terrible Tilly” remains uncertain although it continues to be a favorite landmark and photo opportunity for visitors to Ecola State Park.

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Lights Along The Coast

A Newport historian shares the amazing and important history of Oregon's numerous lighthouses.

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