Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Tillamook, Oregon - 1881 (1881**)

Photo of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse.

History of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-07-05.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Tillamook Rock LighthouseTillamook Rock Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

Standing more than a mile offshore from Tillamook Head is an isolated basaltic sea stack that was frequented by thousands of sea lions. It would soon become known as "Terrible Tilly," after the federal government had established the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in 1881.

As trade along the West Coast continued to grow year over year, the Lighthouse Board began looking to fill in gaps along the Pacific Coast of Oregon. They had established the Cape Arago Lighthouse in 1866, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in 1871, and its replacement, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in 1873.

By the late 1870s, the Lighthouse Board began to focus on Northern Oregon and the entrance to the Columbia River. In 1878, the Lighthouse Board had recommended construction of a lighthouse on Tillamook Head. Congress approved the $50,000 appropriation on June 20, 1878, but a survey of the location revealed several obstacles.

The first was the elevation of the headland. At nearly 1,000 feet above sea level, any light would be frequently shrouded in fog and therefore not be visible to ships. There were no natural "benches," or lower locations along the cliff to place a lighthouse. Although crews could have made one, frequent landslides gave cause for concern.

The final issue with the Tillamook Headland was accessibility. There was no approach from the sea, which would have necessitated opening and maintaining a road 20 miles long, over difficult and unknown land, which all materials to construct the station would have had to travel.

As there was no place to erect a lighthouse on Tillamook Head, the Lighthouse Board began looking offshore at the isolated Tillamook Rock. Although the board wanted an engineer to survey the rock in the fall of 1878, unfortunately, there were delays - severe weather and lack of a suitable vessel for transport to the rock.

By early June 1879, a lighthouse tender was able to transport H. S. Wheeler to Tillamook Rock, but the seas weren't cooperating, and therefore, he could not land. The lighthouse tender was able to get Wheeler close enough to the rock to convince him that it was large enough to build the light on it. He conceded that building a lighthouse upon the rock was going to be no easy feat, but admitted that it could be conquered.

Wheeler was ordered not to return Lighthouse District Office in Portland until he had surveyed the rock. On June 22, Wheeler and several sailors made the trip to Tillamook Rock aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin and were able to land, but an approaching squall cut their trip short. As the seas were rising and they were afraid that the approaching storm would separate them from the vessel, they jumped into the water and were rescued by life lines.

Wheeler was ordered again to determine the feasibility of constructing a lighthouse on Tillamook Rock. He successfully landed on June 26, and although he couldn't take a complete survey, he was able to use a tape line and take approximate measurements. In his report dated June 30, 1879, he stated:

After several previous ineffectual attempts, a successful landing was made on June 26. It is an isolated basaltic rock divided, above low water, into two unequal parts, by a wide fissure with vertical sides running east and west, stands 100 feet above the sea, and has a crest which can be so far reduced as to accommodate a structure not greater than 50 feet square. A comparatively quiet landing can be made on the east side when the sea is smooth. The water on all sides is deep.

He then went on to report the issues with erecting the light on the headland and recommended that the Lighthouse Board place a fog signal upon the rock:

The light should be placed as low as possible, and the rock is its proper site. Though the execution of the work will be a task of labor and difficulty, accompanied with great expense, yet the benefit which the commerce seeking the mouth of the Columbia River will derive from a light and fog-signal located there, will warrant all the labor and expense involved. It is recommended that a siren fog-signal be erected at the station in connection with the light, and that $50,000 be appropriated to continue the work.

Wheeler submitted detailed plans and estimates for construction of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse to the Lighthouse Board on July 11. On August 30, 1879, the State of Oregon had conveyed title to and jurisdiction over Tillamook Rock to the federal government. The Lighthouse Board authorized the plans on September 11.

Before the leveling, Wheeler felt it necessary to have a competent person land on the rock and take a thorough survey. John R. Trewavas, a master mason, from Portland was selected as he had construction experience with remote lighthouses, specifically the Wolf Rock Lighthouse, near Cornwall, England.

On September 18, while attempting to land on the eastern slope of Tillamook Rock, Trewavas lost his footing on the wet slope, slipped, and fell. As he went down, a wave immediately swept him off the rock and into the Pacific Ocean. A sailor named Cherry jumped in after him, and the boat crew rowed quickly to where Trewavas was struggling in the water, but he slipped below the water, drawn under by the undertow. His body was never found.

This incident quickly soured the public's opinion of the remote lighthouse and locals refused to work on the project. The new construction superintendent, Charles A. Ballantyne, was authorized to hire a crew of eight or more skilled quarrymen and transport them to the old keeper's dwelling at the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. The workers were housed there until they could be transported out to Tillamook Rock, which was done largely to keep "the laboring party free from the idle talk of the town."

Due to high seas, the revenue cutter Corwin couldn't cross the Columbia Bar until October 12, when it proceeded to steam out to the rock and anchored 300 feet off the northeast side. On October 21, two men safely landed on the rock. A 4½-inch rope was then delivered to them, which they attached to a projecting ledge 85 feet above sea level, while workers affixed the other end to the mast of the Corwin. Unfortunately, it was impossible to keep the line taut, and occasionally, people and supplies were "dunked" in the ocean.

Attached to the cable connecting the Corwin to Tillamook Rock was a "traveler' which was designed to move back and forth. From there, three additional men and supplies were safely transferred from the ship to the rock by a "breeches buoy," which G. L. Gillespie, Lighthouse Engineer, described as the following:

It consisted of an ordinary circular rubber life preserver, slung from the traveler, to which was securely lashed a pair of breeches cut short at the knees, the latter and its attachments to support the man in the proper position when in the air, and the former to preserve his life if he should fall into the water.

After transferring the men and their provisions onto Tillamook Rock, the Corwin steamed back to Astoria as the seas had become rough. It came back five days later to deliver additional men and supplies.

Due to full exposure to the elements, the nine men spent their first fifteen days on the rock trying to provide shelter for themselves and their supplies. The first few days were spent sleeping in small A-tents, which were neither dry nor comfortable. They soon set up sleeping quarters on the southwest side but found it frequently deluged by the southwesterly seas. To remedy this, they moved their sleeping quarters to the north side.

Their next action was to level a spot for the derrick and then to begin leveling the rock at the 90-foot level. Although some of the rock chipped away rather easily, much of it needed large charges of black powder. This work continued throughout the winter, but on January 2, a nor'easter struck the rock.

The storm sent the waves crashing against and over the rock, carrying away the storehouse, provisions, a water tank, and the roof of the blacksmith shop. The storm reached its height on the night of January 9th. Although the men wanted to seek refuge on a higher level, per Mr. Ballantyne, the men were instructed to stay put in the supply house, which was on a lower landing, but somewhat sheltered. Fortunately, there were supplies of hard bread, coffee, and bacon stored there.

As the steamer couldn't get over the bar and into the Pacific Ocean for more than two weeks after the storm had subsided, rumors spread around town that none of the men had survived. The lighthouse tender made it out to Tillamook Rock on January 25 and found the men safe but in desperate need of fresh provisions.

Ballantyne worked the rock until May 1, when he was ordered ashore to monitor the construction of the appliances needed to land the stone and heavier materials. When he returned on May 31, the work of leveling was complete at 91.49 feet, and the crew had removed 4,630 cubic yards of solid rock. After 224 days of work, Tillamook Rock was ready for the construction of a lighthouse.

On January 15, 1880, the Lighthouse Board made a contract with Messrs. Chalmers, Holmes, and Jeffery, of Portland, Oregon in which they would deliver the stone needed for the lighthouse to the wharf in Astoria. By late May, the supplies were ready for transportation to Tillamook Rock, and after an unavoidable delay, the first batch made it to the Rock on June 17. A separate contract was made to charter a small steam wrecking vessel to move most of the supplies to the rock.

On April 20, 1880, a contract was made with Calvin Nutting & Son of San Francisco, California for $8,200, to supply a first-order lantern and the necessary metal work by September 1. Some of the metal work needed installation at the time of construction, which arrived on the Rock by July. The last section, together with the lantern, were delivered by September.

The Lighthouse Board requested duplicate first-class fog signals on June 21, 1880, for the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Due to the inefficiencies of the steam whistle at Point Adams, the board requested to source the signals from A & F Brown of New York City, the patentees of the equipment, at the cost of $5,100.

A & F Brown delivered the completed sirens to the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island on December 1. On January 13, 1881, they arrived in Portland, Oregon where they were tested and then sent via river boat to Astoria. Smith Brothers & Watson, of Portland, Oregon manufactured the locomotive-style boilers at the cost of $3,550. By February 11, all the equipment had been transported to Tillamook Rock and was operational.

On the dark stormy night of January 2, 1881, the British bark Lupata crashed into Tillamook Head. That night, the ship had been so close to Tillamook Rock that the lighthouse workers claimed they could hear the commands of the captain.

To warn the ship of the impending disaster, the workers lit bonfires and set off blasting charges, which successfully warned the Lupata away from Tillamook Rock. It wasn't until the morning when they spotted wreckage floating in the water that the workers realized that the Lupata headed eastward towards Tillamook Head, instead of westward into the open Pacific Ocean. All 16 crewmembers perished, the only survivor was an Australian Shepherd dog.

Nineteen days later, the Tillamook Head Lighthouse cast its characteristic white flash every 5 seconds for the first time from its first-order Fresnel lens. But, for the crew of the Lupata, it was nineteen days too late. The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse took 575 days to complete and came with a price tag of $123,492.82, which in 2017 would be around $2.8 million.

When finished, standing 90 feet above the ocean, was a one-story structure measuring 48 by 45 feet. Rising out of the middle of the structure was a 35½-foot; brick tower, which atop stood an eight-foot-tall lantern. Additionally, on the western side of the structure was a 32 by 28-foot extension to house the fog signal equipment.

In 1882, a few additional items were added to the station to complete it, which included railings, exterior iron stairway, a coal and engine house, tramway, landing wharf, bridge, and a retaining wall on the east side.

What the Lighthouse Board soon determined after building a lighthouse at such an exposed location was that it was going to require continual maintenance. A storm in January 1883 sent stones flying into the iron roof of the fog signal building leaving 20 holes. They were temporarily repaired with putty, and soon replaced with need galvanized sheet-iron.

A new landing bridge was established in June 1885 but was damaged by heavy surf that September. Although rebuilt by the following September, it would be destroyed again in December the following year. The storm of December 1886 caused an unprecedented amount of damage. The following is an excerpt from the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board:

In December, however, the heaviest surf known there broke over the station causing the damages as follows: The roofs on the south and west sides of the fog-signal room and on the west side of the dwelling were crushed in by the water and the part on the north side of the fog-signal room was displaced. The roof was loosened at the south side of the tower, allowing water to leak into the dwelling. The plastering in parts of the dwelling was jarred off and some was loosened by the water. The galvanized-iron chimney-tops were broken from two of the chimneys. The concrete covering of the top of the rock around the building was broken, and a brick parapet and concrete filling in a low place outside the fence at the southeast corner were carried away. A mass of the filling, weighing about half a ton, was thrown over the fence into the inclosure [sic]. Three 730-gallon water-tanks filled with water at the west end of the building were broken from their fastenings and piled against the fence. The ash-chute on the north side of the rock and the spar for swinging the derrick boom were broken away, but the latter was saved by one of its chain fastenings. The platform around the derrick was destroyed and some planks were broken from the landing platform. The landing bridge was carried away, having stood till nearly the end of the storm, when it failed, apparently by the breaking of the pivot at the bottom of which the mast rested.

The weather delayed repairs until February 4, 1887. However, the replacement for the water tanks would have to wait an additional year due to the difficulty landing the bulky tanks on Tillamook Rock.

Storms that approached from the southwest had the tendency to send rocks into the lantern, smashing the glass, and at times, sections of the Fresnel lens even though it was 136 feet above the ocean. During one storm in 1889, ten panes of glass were broken, requiring replacement.

That year, in an attempt to stop the rocks, The Lighthouse Board recommended a "moveable shield of strong wire, having meshes of about 6 inches and covering a segment of about 90 degrees." It was to be put in place during stormy weather and was determined to have no effect in diminishing the light.

In 1890, $6,000 was appropriated for a telegraph line to connect the station to Fort Stevens. There were many delays over the years brought about by weather - the workload of the lighthouse tender and consent from landowners. But communication was finally established on November 4, 1895.

Library of Congress picture of Tillamook Rock LighthouseTillamook Lighthouse circa 1891 (Courtesy Lib. of Congr.)

The mighty Pacific Ocean continued its assault on the lighthouse. On December 9, 1894, a severe storm sent waves crashing over the station. The storm broke 13 panes of glass in the lantern and damaged the lens and revolving apparatus. The gale also damaged the roof of the dwelling and fog signal building, allowing sea water to flood both buildings. It would be more than a week before a crew could land on the island and perform temporary repairs.

As the protective net over the lantern didn't seem to stop the panes of glass from being broken, the Lighthouse Board decided to cover the rock on the west and southwest sides with cement to prevent further disintegration.

Another storm which ran from December 6 to the 11, 1897 again damaged the roof of the dwelling and severed the telephone cable connecting Tillamook Rock to Fort Stevens. As the roof of the station was repeatedly damaged and leaked, the Lighthouse Board had it rebuilt with two-foot-thick concrete and steel I-beams. Contractors started the work on May 9, 1898, and finished by that September.

Over the years of service, the remote station had many additional brushes with storms. In each storm, rocks were hurled like projectiles into the lantern shattering panes of glass and letting in sea water which would flow down the stairs into the dwelling. In more than one instance, the sea was water carrying seaweed, fish, dead birds, and debris. In some cases, the trumpets of the fog horn would be full of rocks.

A storm in 1913 that lasted for 15 hours propelled so many rocks at the lighthouse that lighthouse author Jim Gibbs said that a "gunboat firing a full broadside could not have done more damage." However, this storm was nothing compared to the devastating storm that struck in 1934.

The storm struck the Oregon and Washington coasts on October 21. At the mouth of the Columbia River, keepers at the North Head Lighthouse clocked wind speeds at 109 mph. Relief Lightship 92 couldn't hold its position despite her moorings and full speed ahead on the engines.

Offshore, at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, things were much worse. Despite a focal plane of 133 feet above the water, the Pacific Ocean continually submerged the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. When they hit the side of the rock, they were swept upwards and over the lantern. At one point, a section of the rock was torn away sending fragments, some as heavy as 60 pounds into the lantern.

Sixteen panels of the lantern were shattered allowing seawater to flood the watch room. With each subsequent wave, additional seawater, rocks, glass fragments from the lens, and even fish would enter the tower. The keepers struggled against the waves to erect storm shutters and at times, were submerged in seawater to their necks, until the water was able to funnel its way through the doorway into the tower and quarters below.

The storm badly damaged the massive first-order Fresnel lens and extinguished the oil vapor lamp. By the following night, the keepers were able to display a fixed white light from a 300-millimeter lens lantern. Six days would pass before the Lighthouse Service could repair the lens and reinstate its signature flash.

Assistant Keeper Henry Jenkins made a shortwave radio out of miscellaneous items around the station, including the telephone that no longer worked as the storm severed its cable. He succeeded in reaching an amateur operator ashore in Seaside, Oregon, who relayed his message to the superintendent.

When the storm finally subsided on October 25, the keepers found the fog trumpets choked with rocks and other debris, which caused them to fail and the hoisting derrick missing. The massive derrick, used to lift men and supplies onto and off of the island, was anchored by three-foot-long iron bolts into solid rock.

For their efforts to keep the light shining during the storm, Keeper William Hill, and assistants, Henry Jenkins, Hugo Hanson, and Werner Storm all received commendations.

As the repairs were going to run into the thousands of dollars, it was decided to modernize the station. The Fresnel lens was beyond repair and replaced with a modern rotating aerobeacon. Diesel engines installed in the fog signal house provided electricity for the station and light, and a row of batteries to provide backup.

Although it had received the nickname "Terrible Tilly," due to its remoteness and was said to be one of the most avoided stations in the whole country, there were some keepers that loved the location. One such keeper, Robert Gerlof served for an amazing 25 years (1903 - 1928.) He only left because he was he was approaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

A newspaper interview quoted Gerlof as saying, "I do not want to leave my rock. I have no family. The sea is my friend. I do not want to go ashore." Gerloff had served previously on the Columbia Lightship and the lighthouse tender Columbine before taking the assignment at Tillamook Rock.

The last keeper at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was Oswald Allik, who turned the light off on September 1, 1957. He transferred to the Heceta Head Lighthouse where he served until July 20, 1963, the date that the Heceta Head Lighthouse was automated.

As the maintenance and upkeep at such a remote station had become too costly and the lighthouse was no longer near the steamer lanes, the Coast Guard replaced it with a lighted whistling buoy about a half-mile west of Tillamook Rock. However, after a few months, it too was decommissioned.

The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was placed for sale by the General Services Administration in 1959 and sold to a group called the Academic Economic Coordinators of Las Vegas for $5,500. Although some of the group visited the rock before placing the bid, none visited after.

In 1973, the group sold the station to George Haupman, a General Electric executive, in 1973 for $11,000. He had plans to turn the station into a summer retreat, however, after visiting the island and seeing the condition of the lighthouse, he ended up selling to Max Shillock Jr. for $27,000 in 1978.

Shillock and three friends attempted to reach the rock in a 12-foot motorboat in heavy seas. On the way there, the boat capsized sending the men into the ocean. During the ordeal, one man drowned, and a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the other three men, a story which made the news.

Shillock soon defaulted on his loan and was sued by Mrs. Joy Goolsby, the loan holder. During the settlement, Goolsby became the sole owner and immediately placed Tillamook Rock back on the market. Due to the publicity of Shillock's rescue, there was a lot of interest in the property and Goolsby ended up selling the place for $50,000 just three years later.

The new owners, Eternity at Sea, a group of investors from Portland, planned to operate the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse as a columbarium. To convert the location into a crypt, they cemented over all windows and placed metal plates over the lantern panes. Although the plans appeared to be successful, by 1999 only 30 urns had been placed.

That same year, Eternity at Sea lost its license to operate as a columbarium as it was late in renewing its license. It had applied again in 2005, but the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetary Board rejected its application due to improper record-keeping and improper urn storage. The board said that rather than being placed in niches as required, the urns sat on boards and concrete blocks and therefore the lighthouse could not qualify as a columbarium.

Eternity at Sea's Ms. Morissette isn't giving up. She is still advertising for "Honorary Lighthouse Keepers," and her long range plan is to construct walls of niches in titanium that could hold 300,000 urns. When people ask her what if a tsunami hits the lighthouse, she tells them "their second choice better be to be buried at sea."

Today, nature is reclaiming what man took from them in 1879. The rock is a nesting place for sea birds, and seals and sea lions have returned to the lower sections. Due to an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is a privately owned part of the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Because of this agreement, the rock is off limits during the spring and summer when the seabirds are nesting. Not even the owner can approach the rock.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. "The Halcyon Days of Oregon's Tillamook Rock Lighthouse," Debra Baldwin, Lighthouse Digest, July / August 2016.
  3. Report Upon The Construction of Tillamook Rock Light Station, Sea Coast of Oregon, G. L. Gillespie, 1881.
  4. "Terrible Tillie, Where the Departed Rest Not Quite in Peace," William Yardley, New York Times, October 24, 2007.
  5. "A Nice Place to Visit, But...," Richard Clayton, Lighthouse Digest, June 2000.
  6. Oregon's Seacoast Lighthouses, Jim Gibbs & Bert Webber, June 2003.
  7. "Tremendous Seas Sweep Tillamook Rock," Lighthouse Service, Lighthouse Service Bulletin, November 1, 1934.

Directions: The lighthouse sits several miles off shore. The best view would be from the water. However, there is a decent view to be had from Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach. There is a $3.00 fee to enter the park. After heading into the park, head to the left hand side. It will take you a short distance to a parking area. From here, if you walk up to the ocean, you can see the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. I used a 1000mm telephoto lens for this picture.

Access: The lighthouse is owned by Eternity at Sea. Grounds / dwelling / tower closed.

View more Tillamook Rock Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 62.00'
Focal Plane: 133'
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1957)
*Latitude: 45.93700 N
*Longitude: -124.01900 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.