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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

“Terrible Tilly” lighthouse came 3 weeks too late for 16 sailors

Construction crew struggled to light a warning bonfire after hearing a sailing ship about to hit the rocks below; the next morning, all they could see was the top of its mainmast sticking out of the water.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2017 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.

A picture postcard from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly" on a calm day.
This colorized postcard image from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly,"
perched on its tiny speck of rock far out to sea, on a calm day. The crane
behind the lighthouse is the mechanism used to land boats with supplies
by lifting them out of the sea, because there is no beach or harbor .

A few miles off the coast near Tillamook, a rock sticks out of the open sea. The water around it is hundreds of feet deep, and there’s no beach anywhere on it. But there is an old lighthouse on that rock, long since retired from service.

This is probably Oregon’s most famous lighthouse, and ironically — because it’s in the open ocean and you can’t drive there — the only one almost no one has actually seen. It’s the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, also known as “Terrible Tilly.”

Guarding a graveyard of shipping

There are plenty of stories about this place. Before it was built, in 1881, ships kept getting their keels ripped out by the other rocks nearby, most of which didn’t break the surface of the water most of the time. After it was built, the light was incredibly expensive to maintain. This particular spot gets probably the heaviest weather in the state, with winds gusting up to 100 miles an hour with depressing regularity and enormous waves sometimes breaking over the top of the light tower.

A picture postcard from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly" on a calm day.
A 1950s-era postcard image of the light as seen from the air.

The invention of radar and Loran navigation allowed the Coast Guard to decommission the light in 1957, and one imagines it did so with a sigh of relief. The place was nothing if not a liability.

Today it’s still there, but it’s being used as a tomb of sorts — a final repository for dead folks who have been cremated and wanted to spend eternity in a lighthouse.

But this is a story from long before “Terrible Tilly” was decommissioned. In fact, it’s from three weeks before the light was first turned on.

A ghostly ship on a stormy night

It was January 3, 1881, and the lighthouse was nearly finished. It was a typical January night on the north coast, which is to say, a rough one. The construction crew, done for the day, was getting ready to turn in for the night when the supervisor ran into the room: He’d spotted a ship’s running lights, and it was headed right for the rocks.

A picture postcard from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly" on a calm day.
A black-and-white postcard of the lighthouse on a calm day, circa 1910.

The crew ran out. Sure enough, below them they could see the lanterns marking port and starboard. And the ship was perilously close — so close that, between breaking waves, a commander could be heard shouting the order to come about: “Hard aport!” The workers then heard rigging creaking and sails flapping as the order was obeyed.

The light wouldn’t yet shine. So the crew scrambled to light a signal fire, stared out into the night and prayed. The ship, which had tacked (or gybed, if the winds were out of the southwest) away from the rock, disappeared into the night. Hoping it had made its way through the rocky minefield to the safety of the open sea, the crew went to bed.

A picture postcard from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly" on a calm day.
The lighthouse as seen from another angle, taking a moderate breaker, in a
postcard postmarked 1921.

As you’ve likely gathered, it hadn’t.

The only survivor: A dog

The next morning workers looked down off the rock and saw a piece of polished wood sticking a few feet up out of the water. It was the tip of the mainmast of the ship whose lights they’d seen the night before.

The ship turned out to be a 1,300-ton British barkentine, the Lupatia. She had been making for the mouth of the Columbia River, on her way from Japan to Portland to take on a load of wheat.

Survivors were not to be expected from wrecks like this. The high lethality of the Tillamook rocks was one of the primary reasons the lighthouse had to be built there. Shipwrecked sailors could swim to one of the nearby rocks, if they could see them, but they’d be dashed to a pulp against them by the surf. The nearest beach was miles away.

A picture postcard from the 1910s shows "Terrible Tilly" on a calm day.
A 1910s-era postcard of the lighthouse as seen from the south.

Of the 16-man crew of the Lupatia, 11 eventually washed up on shore and were buried as best they could be. The only survivor was a dog.

Eighteen days later, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was lit for the first time.

(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; Gibbs, James A. Oregon’s Salty Coast. Seattle: Superior, 1978)