Tlllamook Rock Lighthouse could be the west coast’s most unique deactivated lighthouse. Located one mile off Tillamook Head, the lighthouse stands one-hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean. The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was built in 1881 on a small island just off the Oregon coast. The northern Oregon coastal location is between the towns of Seaside and Cannon Beach.
The Tillamook Lighthouse was originally planned to be built at Tillamook Head. It was soon determined that the site on the coast, twenty miles south of the Columbia River mouth, was too foggy. Work then started to find a more suitable site. Surveyors took a boat out to the small island and decided to build the lighthouse on it. Just getting off the boat at the island, with the whirling Pacific Ocean waves, made that part a challenge. Building a lighthouse on the island was another challenge altogether.
Who Would Build This Lighthouse?
The locals were well aware of the rock island and the dangers it posed. As a result, no local skilled workers could be found who would agree to build the Tillamook Lighthouse. Eventually, workers were found elsewhere who were not familiar with the general area and the rock island in particular. After being housed further north at the mouth of the Columbia River, four workers were first transported to the island in October of 1879. A few days later the remainder of the construction crew were dropped off.
The island offered no natural shelter whatsoever. There were no caves or crevices. A temporary shelter was built to house the workers. Other than that, the work crew was exposed to the elements twenty-four hours a day. This harsh environment most likely was the reason there were no local takers for the construction job. Tools, food and supplies were transported to the island by boat and, because of the wave action, had to be put ashore with a line. There was no way for a vessel to actually moor itself on the rock.
The Storm Hits
Three months after work began on the island, a tremendous storm hit. In January 1880, a nor’easter hit driving waves over the rock island. Parts of rock were torn off the island from the storm and the workers were exposed to all of it. Even the shack where the tools and food were stored was torn away by the storm. Other temporary structures such as the blacksmith shop were damaged.
The storm’s intensity was such that the service vessel, the “Corwin“, wasn’t able to reach the island until sixteen days after the storm began. When the Corwin did reach the rock, a line was affixed to the rock and supplies were put ashore. Amazingly enough, all of the workers survived the fierce storm.
Decades later in 1934, the fierce storms on that part of the Oregon coast destroyed the lighthouse lens and damaged some of the structure.
When you view Tillamook Rock Lighthouse you first notice how the island is relatively level at one end and rises on the other where the light is located. The work crew in 1879 leveled the top of the hump portion and it was there that the lighthouse was built. In fact, it took about seven months of work just to level the top of the hump. The lens house rises sixteen feet from the center of a two story structure. Finally, almost one and a half-years after the workers were put on the island, the light was lit. This was in January of 1881.
You’ll find the following photo articles on our Western Trips site interesting. The Point Reyes Lighthouse near San Francisco and Haystack Rock, a unique geologic formation on the north Oregon coast. Also on this site, see our King of the Columbia Steamboatmen.
Decommissioned in 1957
The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse had a long life protecting shipping. The lighthouse operated for seventy-six years. It was shut down in 1957 and replaced with a small whistle buoy. Lighthouse keepers worked decades on the rock in isolated confinement. There were only so many people who could put up with the isolation. This plus the storms there gave the lighthouse the nickname of “Terrible Tilly”. The lighthouse, because of it’s location on this small island made it the most expensive lighthouse to operate. Most lighthouses closed because of a combination of high operating costs and advanced technology.
Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Today
The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is now owned privately and has the distinction of being the only lighthouse on the Oregon coast privately owned yet listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The island is also part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse was sold several times. At one point it was turned into a Columbarium but the license was revoked in 1999.
While there is no access to the old Tillamook Rock Lighthouse , it is a spectacle to see one mile off Tillamook Head on the Pacific coast. The towns around Tillamook Head, Seaside and Cannon Beach, are very popular tourist destinations with plenty of beach rentals and B & B’s.
Astoria Oregon is about twenty miles to the north and offers plenty of historic sites such as Fort Stevens, Fort Clatsop and the world famous Columbia River Maritime Museum.
(1940’s Tillamook black and white photos from the public domain. Color photos from author’s collection)