When you see the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, you just think, “Oh, what a beautiful lighthouse.” But – there is more, much more, to the story. Devastating storms, harsh existence, isolation, madness, death, and hauntings – all add up to the myths, mystery, and intrigue surrounding the lighthouse nicknamed Terrible Tilly.
It began almost from day one. In 1878, the government determined that a lighthouse was needed to help guide ships around Tillamook Head. A large piece of basalt rock located just over a mile offshore was chosen as the sight.
Locals knew all about the reputation of Tillamook Rock. According to author Mike Helm in his 1983 book, “Oregon’s GHOSTS & Monsters,” Tillamook Rock’s reputation was known to Native Americans. He stated, “They believed it was cursed by their gods, haunted by evil spirits, and they were never known to have approached it.” There are also stories that Native Americans believed the rock was filled with tunnels inhabited by spirits.
Tragedy struck immediately. The first surveyor, master mason John Trewavas, was hit by a wave and swept out to sea, his remains never to be found. Because of the weird stories surrounding Tillamook Rock, local men refused to work on the lighthouse. Finally, a crew was brought in from outside the area and the men were sequestered so that the locals couldn’t frighten them with the stories and scare them off.
Work finally began on the lighthouse, but just getting to the location was dangerous. The only way there was by boat. High winds and huge waves seemed to work with the rock to keep people off of it. Once on the rock, the stay was not usually pleasant. One massive storm stranded the work crew for two weeks, where they nearly starved to death waiting for help.
Finally, on January 12, 1881, the lighthouse was put to work. Four men were assigned to work at a time, working closely together, without the comfort of having their families with them. Some say that drove men to madness.
Besieged by storms, high winds, and massive waves, it was not a pleasant work assignment. It was also hard on the lighthouse itself. In 1934, a rare Pacific hurricane-strength storm threw a boulder high enough and hard enough that it broke the lighthouse lens. It was never replaced.
Helm’s book also tells about James A. Gibbs, who served for a year on Tillamook Rock wrote the book “West Coast Lighthouses: A Pictorial History of the Guiding Lights of the Sea & Tillamook Light.”
Gibbs insisted that the place is haunted, saying that all four lighthouse keepers on shift one night saw a ghost ship. He also describes an experience where he heard a “…whispering moan, like one in pain.” His first thought was that it was one of the other lighthouse keepers playing a joke on him, then realized they were all in bed asleep. He decided to explore the lighthouse some more and found a door to a room that he had not noticed before. Opening the door with apprehension and curiosity, he entered to find a library of sorts, likely meant to keep previous keepers company. He found a book on lighthouses and sat down and began to read it. Coincidentally, it told of a keeper in a lighthouse in the Caribbean who had experienced almost the same kind of ghostly encounters. Helm quotes a passage from another book, “The History of Pacific Lighthouses” by Lawrence Butcher, stating, “On certain nights low, chilling groans are heard from the stair cylinder leading to the lantern…” Did reading these books verify Gibbs’ experiences or did they influence it?
However, other lightkeepers also claim to have heard sounds of a ghost as they climbed the stairs to the tower. Apparently, not all the men hated the place though, because one friendly ghost is said to be the spirit of a lightkeeper who wanted to be buried there because he loved it. Another lightkeeper’s ghost is said to be malicious, attacking his replacements. One of the new keepers said that this awful ghost chased him up the stairs, but that he pushed the ghost back down the stairs. However, the new lightkeeper had to be taken away in a straight jacket, so was he already crazy or did his experience with the ghost cause his mania? It’s also reported that his ghost now haunts the place as well.
On September 1, 1957, the lighthouse was finally inactivated. In 1980 a group of private investors bought the rock and opened a Columbarium to house urns, however, their license was revoked in 1999, and the rock left abandoned.
With no more human inhabitants, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and can be seen from Seaside, Cannon Beach, or Ecola State Park. And now when you look at it, you’ll know that beyond its beauty is its haunting past.