The importance of the lighthouse struck home three weeks
before the light was lit.
On January 2, 1881, the lighthouse was nearly complete
but not yet lit. Workers on the rock observed a vessel
approaching the rock. They hurriedly lit bonfires to
warn the approaching ship. The ship veered off and disappeared
into the night. The next morning, the workers spotted
the wreck of the British bark Lupatia - the ship
had missed Tillamook Rock but drove directly into Tillamook
Head. All sixteen of her crew perished - only the ship's
The tower was first lit on January 21, 1881. The lighthouse
cost $125,000. The 62-foot tower displayed a first-order
Fresnel lens 133 feet above sea level. The keepers were
housed in the large square base of the tower. The station
was also equipped with a fog signal. Four keepers were
assigned to the station.
Duty at Tillamook was difficult at best. The station had
four head keepers in the first two years. The keepers
were completely isolated on the rock, yet could see the lights
of the nearby towns offshore. Storms pounded the lighthouse.
An 1897 storm cut a newly installed telephone cable
to the lighthouse. 100 tons of rock was shorn off the western
end of the rock in a 1912 storm. Windows were gradually
cemented over, replaced by small portholes.
In October 1934, the lighthouse was seriously damaged by a
severe storm. Winds reached 109 miles per hour. Huge boulders
were thrust into the lighthouse, smashing the lantern room and
the lens. Water poured into the station. The derrick was destroyed.
The keepers eventually managed to install a temporary light.
Keeper Henry Jenkins built a makeshift radio from
parts from the fog signal room and the dead telephone.
The station survived, but repairs cost $12,000 and was
not repaired until February 1935. The Fresnel lens was replaced
by an aerobeacon, and a metal mesh placed around the lantern
room to protect the tower from large boulders.
In 1945, James Gibbs arrived at Tillamook Rock and served
as keeper for a year. In his excellent book "Tillamook
Rock" he described his experiences aboard the station.
He describes being hoisted onto the rock by derrick
and breeches buoy. "I ascended from the depths like a
hooked fish - up, up, dangling some 75 feet above the swirling
waters boiling against the defiant precipice below."
His book describes, among other things, his experiences with the
"ghost"of the lighthouse, his life with the
three veteran lighthouse keepers, his unsuccessful efforts
at Thanksgiving Dinner, and his battle with kelp flies
while attempting to paint the lighthouse. When his tour of
duty was complete, he wrote, "I somehow knew I was going to
miss the natural surroundings; the untamed, changing seascape
and the moods of weather. Above all, I would miss the ocean,
a capricious destroyer yet a thing of beauty."
Gibbs' lighthouse legacy lives on through his numerous
books on Oregon lighthouses and shipwrecks. He also built
a private navigational aid at his home in Cape Perpetua -
Cleft of the Rock Lighthouse.
Tillamook Rock was extremely expensive to maintain. When the
Coast Guard began automating stations, Tillamook Light was
replaced by a buoy offshore. The last keeper, Oswald Allik,
switched off the light in 1957. Allik would move to
where he would serve as its last keeper as well.
The lighthouse was eventually sold to private interests.
The rock passed through the hands of several different
owners, none of whom could restore the rapidly
decaying station. Finally, in 1980, the lighthouse was
converted into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium.
Tillamook Light, Gibbs pp. 8, 39, 57-58, 61-64, 112, 145
Oregon's Seacoast Lighthouses, Gibbs pp. 173, 175, 177-181, 184-185, 188, 193
Umbrella Guide to Oregon Lighthouses, Nelson p. 63-64, 68
Lighthouses of the Oregon Coast (video)