Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse sits alone and abandoned 1.2 miles off the Oregon Coast, approximately 30 miles south of the Columbia River. It stands situated on an acre of basalt rock “shaped like a sea monster” in the Pacific Ocean where it’s “sheer cliffs drop straight into the sea to depths of 26 to 240 feet.”

While it’s no longer in operation, it was an amazing feat when it was built with a somewhat dark history. And though it’s abandoned, the lighthouse is allegedly still occupied by a few dead but not gone patrons.

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History of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

In June of 1879, H.S. Wheeler who would be instrumental both in the building and management of the lighthouse, took his single masted cutter the Thomas Corwin out to Tillamook Rock. He was tasked with determining whether or not a lighthouse would be feasible there as Congress had allotted $50,000 (now worth about $1.2 million today) for a lighthouse to mark the Oregon coast in this area. They were originally hoping that they could erect a “1,000-foot-high headland” at Tillamook Head but as it turned out 1,000 feet tended to be covered in fog.

While he had a bit of a challenge getting onto the rock, he ultimately determined that it was possible and the following was noted in The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board: “Though the execution of the work will be a task of labor and difficulty, accompanied by great expense, yet the benefit which the commerce seeking the mouth of the Columbia River will derive from a light and fog-signal located there, will warrant all the labor and expense involved.” And this is where the sordid history of the lighthouse that would be forever known as Terrible Tilly Started.

Construction of Terrible Tilly

John Trewavas was a master mason and had constructed a similar lighthouse on Wolf Rock off Land’s End, England. He was hired to select the sites for the lighthouse, derriks and engines that would be needed. So, on September 18, 1879, he set out with “a sailor named Cherry” to survey the site. But as he attempted to step on the rock, Trewavas slipped and was swept into the sea. Cherry dove in to save him, but ended up having to be pulled from the water by the crew of the boat. The body of Trewavas was never seen again. 

Work wasn’t off to a great start on the new lighthouse and locals refused to work on the project, calling it a fool’s errand. The man who replaced Trewavas on the project, Charles Ballantyne, was forced to hire men that didn’t know the area and sequester them until construction could begin so the local’s didn’t scare them.

On October 21, 1879, the first four labourers headed to the rock. Five days later, the remaining five members of the crew made it out there. The first 10 days of construction were desolate. The crew had no shelter, not even “caves, overhangs or ledges” offered suitable shelter. But they managed to get a shelter in place and the work could really begin. 

They were making their way through construction when a Nor’Easter hit the rock on January 2. Chunks of the rock were torn off by the angry winds and thrown at the workers, along with the storehouse that they had worked hard to put up along with the water tank, traveler line and the blacksmith shop. It was 16 days before help arrived bringing food, supplies and clothing, and luckily the crew “was found safe and cheerful, though much in want of fresh provisions.”

After 575 days, the lighthouse was officially lit for the first time. It was January 21, 1881. The fog signal was in place by February 11, 1881. It was completed with a brick engine and supply house later that spring. All-in-all the construction cost $123,492.82 (over $3.1 million today) and the only death was that of Trewavas. It was largely regarded as a feat of engineering.

The lighthouse was typically staffed by a head keeper and four assistants who spent three months on and two weeks off. Their families were not allowed on the rock, and there had to be a minimum of four keepers on at all times. She got her nickname, Terrible Tilly, because of the tensions on the rock. The lighthouse was constantly under the threat of storms which resulted in frequent blasting of the all-too-loud horn.

Death of the Lightkeeper

There was only one known death of a light keeper at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, the second assistant keeper, Thomas Jones, who fell 35-feet to the rocks below while   painting the derrek and sustained serious injuries. The lighthouse keepers were alone on the rock and not able to render much aid. But a few hours later the steamer Elmore passed and arranged to take Jones off the rock and to the hospital. He died sometime after that most likely at the Bay City hospital. A week later the Elmore took another lightkeeper to the hospital, but luckily it wasn’t life threatening.

The Last Light

While wracked with storms, the lighthouse at Tillamook Rock remained in operation for 77 years before being replaced by a “red whistle buoy” which was anchored a mile further into the sea from the rock. The light was turned off on September 1, 1957, by Keeper Oswald Allik. He had served 20 years at the lighthouse and penned the final entry of the logbook which is now kept at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon:

Farewell, Tillamook Rock Light Station. An era has ended. With this final entry, and not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements. You, one of the most notorious and yet fascinating of the sea-swept sentinels in the world; long the friend of the tempest-tossed mariner. Through howling gale, thick fog and driving rain your beacon has been a star of hope and your foghorn a voice of encouragement. May the elements of nature be kind to you. For 77 years you have beamed your light across desolate acres of ocean. Keepers have come and gone; men lived and died; but you were faithful to the end. May your sunset years be good years. Your purpose is now only a symbol, but the lives you have saved and the service you have rendered are worthy of the highest respect. A protector of life and property to all, may old-timers, newcomers and travelers along the way pause from the shore in memory of your humanitarian role.

The lighthouse was bought and sold a few times since then until it was purchased in 1980 for $50,000 (around $155,000 today) by real estate developers Mimi Morissette and Cathy Riley. They gutted the structure and turned it into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium. For those of us that don’t know a columbarium is “a room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored.” They lost their licence as a columbarium in 1999 when they were late to file and in 2005, their application was denied for inaccurate record keeping and improper storage of the urns. Last, it appears that they do intend on regaining the licence, but to date the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse has only held approximately 30 urns, two of which were stolen by vandals in 1991. 

The Lupatia Shipwreck

While there were no other crew deaths associated with the lighthouse during the building, there was a pretty creepy thing that happened less than a month before construction was complete.

On January 3, 1881, the Lupatia, a “British bark” which was a “type of square-rigged ship” was heading to Portland from Hiogo, Japan. Unfortunately, they’d already seen tragedy having lost their Captain early in the voyage. They were headed to the mouth of the Columbian River when a strong southwesterly wind started to blow.

Around 8 pm that night, the crew working on the lighthouse heard voices in the wind and spotted the red flag of the ship out in the distance. They hurried to build a signal fire and could just make out the Lupatia in struggling in the distance. But quickly the ship drifted away and the light of it and voices faded. 

The next morning, the work crew of the Tillamook lighthouse were met with the bodies of either 12 or 16 sailors (the reports vary) washed ashore at Tillamook Rock beach. Four bodies were said to be never recovered and what was left of the Lupatia were simply scattered parts floating among the rocks.

Ghosts at the Tillamook Lighthouse

James Gibbs, Jr., was a Coast Guard seaman referred to Terrible Tilly as a “pint-size Alcatraz” that he was transferred to as punishment for accidentally sending a message to the local army regiment during the second world war that said that enemy forces had landed. Gibbs and his partner had mixed up the code and what they had intended to ask for was rescue for the two of them along with Gibbs’ dog Pluto who was hurt. Naturally the army was pissed and the Coast Guard was embarrassed. That, mixed with a few other blunders landed Gibbs a stint at Tillamook where he encountered a ghost.

Gibbs was warned that the place was haunted, but he figured it was just the other lightkeepers rousing the new guy. He went to sleep on his first night to get a few hours of shut eye before his first watch started at midnight. He woke up a few hours later to a sound he couldn’t place. He waited a few moments, then footsteps. A few moments later something seemingly breezed by his face. He scrambled to get up and switch on the light, tripping over something. The light revealed the ghost… a goose with a broken wing that had flown through the open porthole.

Embarrassed and shook up but relieved, Gibbs went to relieve the man on duty. He soon found himself buried in a maritime magazine, reading an article about a haunting at the Navasa Lighthouse in the Caribbean which ended with the lightkeeper going mad and ending up in a straightjacket.

While Gibbs did reporting hearing other strange noises and moaning, and also described that night as one of the longest in his life, there are supposedly two non-geese ghosts in the lighthouse. 

The first is a friendly lightkeeper who has refused to leave his post. He’s said to be attached to the rock because he was buried there after his death. The second isn’t said to be as nice, but it sounds like someone might have mixed it up with the story of the keeper at Navasa Lighthouse that Gibbs was reading about because apparently it’s the ghost of a keeper who threatened anyone who might take his job. So much that he pushed his superior to the ground and was “taken away in a straight jacket.”

There aren’t really any great ghost stories that we managed to find from the lighthouse, and it’s probably because it was closed to the public for its entire life.

Visiting Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Unfortunately you cannot actually visit the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse as it’s still privately owned by the Eternity at Sea Columbarium and the grounds, dwelling and tower are all closed. But you can take a look at it if you want to. The best land-based views can be found at Ecola State Park in Oregon. Alternatively, there are said to be helicopter tours in the area that cover the lighthouse so you can get a bird’s eye view.


The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for The Dark Side of Disney: Disneyland Deaths themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:

The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “Ghosts of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.


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