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Tillamook Lighthouse

Twilight Park

April 9, 2022

From today's NYT:

From a distance, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse looks like a real-estate investor’s dream. There are views of Oregon’s coast from the tower, perched on a rugged island a mile offshore. Most days, the solitude is broken only by the sound of crashing waves, and the seclusion by nesting birds and sea lions.

After more than a century weathering storms, guiding ocean mariners, hosting wildlife and serving as a repository for cremated human remains, the lighthouse known in local legend as Terrible Tilly is being prepared for its next owners.

But first, they will need $6.5 million, a unique vision and a way to get there.

The island is a craggy basalt rock that juts up from water so rough that boats cannot dock. It can be reached only by helicopter, and even those sometimes have to circle until the sea lions have shuffled off the landing pad, said Mimi Morissette, director of Eternity at Sea, the Oregon-based company that owns and is selling the lighthouse.

The building and lantern tower need gut renovations. Sea lions and pounding storms have busted through doors. Windows are boarded. Nesting birds have coated surfaces with droppings. Urns holding remains, including those of Ms. Morissette’s parents, are stashed inside.

Ms. Morissette has introduced Terrible Tilly to the businesses she thought might be the best fit for its next stewards: the death industry.

Photographs of the lighthouse and pamphlets were displayed at the annual convention of the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association in Las Vegas in March. Some cemetery owners balked, thinking customers would not want to store remains in a facility they could not visit, she said. “My response was that we know that our project is not for everyone,” she said. “I have an inquiry from a local helicopter company, which could be a perfect match with a company in the death care industry.”

Who wants to buy a lighthouse, anyway?

Over 300 years, more than a thousand lighthouses were installed in the United States, guiding mariners from ship-crushing shorelines.

Some have been destroyed in natural disasters or replaced by automation and transformed into residences, inns and museums. Up to five lighthouses are sold every year through government auctions.

The beacon and foghorn of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse were activated in 1881. As Oregon’s only offshore light, its inauguration was overshadowed by tragedy, coming three weeks after the British ship Lupata rammed into a nearby promontory in fog on Jan. 3, killing all aboard.

For 76 years, Tilly guided ships to Columbia River shipping lanes until it was decommissioned in 1957, replaced by an electronic buoy, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the tower, rising 136 feet above sea level, continued to inspire tales and visions, though it appears as but a wisp in the distance from Oregon’s beaches.

It became known locally as Terrible Tilly because of the isolated and stormy conditions workers endured while tending it, said Andrea Suarez-Kemp, manager of the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.

“Everyone loves to tell stories of seeing mysterious lights and figures, especially during and after a good storm,” she said. “People come into the museum a lot to ask us if Tilly is really decommissioned, because they could swear they saw lights.”

In 1959, the U.S. General Services Administration put the lighthouse up for sale. A group of Las Vegas investors purchased it for $5,600, possibly to install a casino, and then sold it for $11,000 in 1973 to George Hupman, a General Electric executive in New York, who wanted to use it as a summer retreat, according to the register.

The Hupman family rented a helicopter for $260 an hour, flying three passengers at a time. They found the one-acre island taken over by birds and the stench of droppings.

“Sure, it’s dilapidated,” Mr. Hupman told KGW in 1978, in a video recorded on the island as his family tried to clean up.

“The paint’s peeling off, and it’s a mess inside and out,” he said. “But that structure’s going to be there for a long time, one way or another. And, I don’t know, it’s an exciting and strong place in midst of a moving and turbulent environment. It gives you a great feeling, being here.”

After a few trips, he sold it for $27,000 to Max Shillock Jr. of Portland, the register said. He eventually ceded the property to his lender, The Oregonian said in its report last month.

Ms. Morissette and partners purchased it in 1980 for $50,000 to use as a columbarium, state records show. It lost its license in 1999 and was rejected for a new one in 2005 because of violations that included poor record-keeping and improper storage, according to the records. Ms. Morissette said it was shut down for a technical violation, The Times reported in 2007.

How to sell an island columbarium

This month, Ms. Morissette put out a call on her Facebook page for volunteers to “be part of Tilly’s history and salvation” and fly out to help clean up the island after the summer. Because it’s a nesting sanctuary, visiting is not allowed from April to September, she said. “Part of the cleanup is to evict the sea lions that have knocked in the corroding front door, which will be replaced with a permanent titanium door,” she said in an interview.

The plan is for the lighthouse to appeal as an alternative to scattering cremated remains at sea, by encasing them in titanium urns in a bank of niches.

David Adams, a funeral business consultant with the Johnson Consulting Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., who is brokering the sale, is aiming for an official pitch by Memorial Day. “It’s going to have to take somebody with an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

The cremation rate in the United States was low when Ms. Morissette, a 77-year-old Oregon resident with a background in real estate development, purchased the lighthouse over four decades ago. The rate reached 56 percent in 2020 and is rising, the Cremation Association of North America said.

“I find it intriguing some people still like the romance of scattering ashes at sea: ‘Dad’s out in the ocean and Mom’s still floating with sharks,’” Mr. Adams said.

“Although romantic in many regards, it is somewhat final. There is no real place to focus on, to go back and memorialize,” he said.

The lighthouse, he added, “gives them a specific focal point.”

The light keepers of Tillamook Rock

Whether entrepreneurs or dreamers, the new owners will inherit a structure where years of dramatic history unfolded.

There were two deaths: A mason tumbled into the ocean in 1879, and a painter fell off a ladder onto the rocks in 1911. “It is a mysterious place, and a little macabre,” said Brian Ratty, the author of “Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: History & Tales of Terrible Tilly.”

In 1944, James A. Gibbs Jr., a Coast Guardsman, was deployed to the lighthouse as one of four keepers. A small boat transported him to the island, where he climbed into a harness that was lowered from above and was hauled up by rope, dangling over waves crashing against the rocks, he wrote in his memoir, “Tillamook Light.”

“Everywhere I looked, the place took on more of the aspects of an insane asylum instead of what I had pictured a lighthouse to be,” he wrote.

The men stood eight-hour watches and took turns cooking. Seas leaped 134 feet to the top of the lantern tower, breaking windows and filling it with rocks and debris. The foghorn was deafening. A moaning “ghost” haunted the winding, 77-step staircase. The light itself was like a “monstrous diamond” that beamed 18 miles out to sea in warnings to ships. “What had I gotten myself into?” he wrote.

In an interview in 2009, Mr. Gibbs, then 87, said it was a mystery how the lighthouse and its keepers had withstood so many years of spirits and storms. “I thought many times of jumping off the rock when I first got there,” he said.

On Sept. 1, 1957, Oswald Allik, one of Mr. Gibbs’s fellow keepers, wrote a farewell message to the lighthouse in the final entry in its log.

“Keepers have come and gone; men lived and died; but you were faithful to the end,” Mr. Allik wrote. “May your sunset years be good years.”

From Wikipedia:

Tillamook Rock Light (known locally as Terrible Tilly or just Tilly) is a deactivated lighthouse on the northern Oregon Coast of the United States. It is located approximately 1.2 miles (1.9 km) offshore from Tillamook Head, and 20 miles south of the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, situated on less than an acre of basalt rock in the Pacific Ocean. The construction of the lighthouse was commissioned in 1878 by the United States Congress and took more than 500 days to complete. Shortly before the completion of the lighthouse in January 1881, the barque Lupatia was wrecked near the rock during foggy weather and sank, with the loss of all 16 crew members.

Tillamook Rock Light was officially lit on January 21, 1881. At the time, it was the most expensive lighthouse to be built on the West Coast. Due to the local erratic weather conditions, and the dangerous commute for both keepers and suppliers, the lighthouse earned the nicknamed "Terrible Tilly" (or "Tillie"). Over the years, storms and the sea have damaged the structure, shattered the lens, and eroded the rock. The light was decommissioned in 1957, and has since been sold several times to private owners. Until its license was revoked in 1999, it functioned as a columbarium since the 1980s, and today remains privately owned. Tillamook Rock Light is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse is visible from the coastal cities of Seaside and Cannon Beach, as well as from Ecola State Park.


In 1878, the United States Congress appropriated $50,000 for a lighthouse to be built on Tillamook Head; however, after a survey was conducted, it was determined that due to the approximately 1,000 feet height of the Head, the light would be obstructed by fog, and the Tillamook rock was selected as the alternative site for the construction. A survey of the rock was ordered in 1879, which was headed by H. S. Wheeler and his cutter Thomas Corwin. Wheeler's initial assessment determined that access to the rock was severely limited, if not impossible, but was ordered to continue. During his second assessment, he was able to land on the rock, but was unable to move his survey equipment without the use of a tape line. He then relayed that the rock would need considerable blasting to create a level area in order to lay down a foundation for the lighthouse, and that more money was going to be needed to complete the project.

In September 1879, a third survey was ordered, this time headed by John Trewavas, whose experience included the Wolf Rock lighthouse in England. Trewavas was overtaken by large swells and was swept into the sea while attempting a landing, and his body was never recovered. His replacement, Charles A. Ballantyne, had a difficult assignment recruiting workers due to the widespread negative reaction to Trewavas' death, and a general desire by the public to end the project. Ballantyne was eventually able to secure a group of quarrymen who knew nothing of the tragedy, and was able to resume work on the rock. Transportation to and from the rock involved the use of a derrick line attached with a breeches buoy, and in May 1880, they were able to completely blast the top of the rock to allow the construction of the lighthouse's foundation.

The structure of the lighthouse included an attached keeper's quarters and a 62-foot tower that originally housed a first-order Fresnel lens, with an incandescent oil vapor lamp, 133 feet above sea level. The light had a visibility range of 18 miles, and was fixed with a steam foghorn. It is located on less than an acre of basalt in the Pacific Ocean, 20 miles south of the mouth of the Columbia River, approximately 1.2 miles off Tillamook Head, and is the northernmost lighthouse along the Oregon coast. The construction lasted more than 500 days by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the leadership of George Lewis Gillespie Jr. The cost of $125,000, at the time (equivalent to $3.35 million today, was the most expensive West Coast lighthouse ever built, later surpassed by the St. George Reef Light off the northern California coast.

The wreck of the Lupatia

In early January 1881, when the lighthouse was near completion, the barque Lupatia was sailing in thick fog and high winds when the ship's Captain noticed that they were too close to shore. Wheeler, the official in charge of the lighthouse's construction, heard the voices of the panicked crew and immediately ordered his men to place lanterns in the tower and light a bonfire to signal the ship that they were approximately 600 feet from the rock. The ship appeared to have been able to turn itself toward returning to sea. However, it quickly disappeared into the fog, and Wheeler was not able to hear the crew. The next day, the bodies of all 16 crew members were found washed up on shore of Tillamook Head. The only survivor of the wreck was the crew's dog.

Operational era

The beacon was first lit on January 21, 1881, and was assigned with four keepers. Duty at the Tillamook Light was considered difficult due to the isolation from civilization, and the severe weather conditions. The light was nicknamed "Terrible Tilly" (or "Tillie"), for the frequent stormy conditions of its location. Throughout its history, the area was hit by large, violent storms that damaged the lighthouse with large waves, winds, and debris, and on several occasions, the tower was flooded after the lantern room windows were broken by large debris.[3] The lighthouse had four head keepers during its first two years and in 1897, a telephone line was installed, though a storm cut it shortly afterwards. During a storm in 1912, 100 tons of rock were reportedly shorn off the western end of the rock, and the windows were eventually cemented over and replaced by small portholes.

On October 21, 1934, the original fresnel lens was destroyed by a large storm that also leveled parts of the tower railing and greatly damaged the landing platform. Winds had reached 109 miles per hour, launching boulders and debris into the tower, damaging the lantern room and destroying the lens. The derrick and phone lines were destroyed as well. After the storm subsided, communication with the lighthouse was severed until keeper Henry Jenkins built a makeshift radio from the damaged foghorn and telephone to alert officials. Diesel engines were installed to provide electricity for the light and station. Repairs to the lighthouse cost $12,000 and were not fully completed 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.

Post-operational era

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957 and replaced with a whistle buoy, having become the most expensive U.S. lighthouse to operate. The last keeper was Oswald Allik, who would later become the last head keeper of Heceta Head Light. During the next twenty years, the lighthouse changed ownership several times; in 1980 a group of realtors purchased the lighthouse and created the Eternity at Sea Columbarium, which opened in June of that year. After interring about 30 urns, the columbarium's license was revoked in 1999 by the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board and was rejected upon reapplication in 2005.

Access to the lighthouse is severely limited, with a helicopter landing the only practical way to access the rock, and it is off-limits even to the owners during the seabird nesting season. The structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 and is part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse's rock is now frequently visited by thousands of sea lions, seals, and sea birds.

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