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The notorious Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, (nicknamed “Terrible Tilly”), is the stuff of aged lore. (Photo credit: Rich Russell)

Resting atop a sea stack of basalt, more than a mile off the banks of Oregon’s North Coast, the notorious Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, (nicknamed “Terrible Tilly”), is the stuff of aged lore. Although long closed to the public, she still stands today, though battered and bruised, a testament to her storied past.

Tilly’s story began in 1878 when a solid basalt rock was selected as the unlikely location for a lighthouse off the coast of Tillamook Head. Danger and intrigue began almost immediately for Tilly. Before work even began, a master mason surveying the location was swept out to sea, never to be seen again.

Constructing Tilly was grueling work. Just accessing the rock was dangerous, not to mention the stormy weather wreaking havoc on the crew, their supplies, and their morale. In January of 1880, four months into construction, a perilous storm sent huge waves peppered with loosened rocks crashing over the work site, sweeping away the crew’s tools, water tank, and provisions. According to historical records, all the workers survived, but they were stranded for over two weeks waiting for new food, clothing and supplies.

Construction took over 500 days and just weeks before completion in January of 1881, the sailing barque Lupatia wrecked in heavy fog killing all 16 of her crew members. The only survivor of the wreck was the crew’s dog. On January 21, 1881 Tilly’s first order Fresnel lens was lit for the first time. Light keepers were assigned to duty, but for shorter than typical rotations — 42 days on, 21 days off — because conditions proved so harsh, both physically and mentally.

For decades, Tilly and her keepers withstood the ravages of the sea, but October of 1934 brought the worst storm on record, inundating the entire Pacific Northwest for four days. Tilly’s lantern room and Fresnel lens were smashed by boulders hurled by the storm. It was never replaced.

On September 1, 1957, Keeper Oswald Allik turned off the light for good and made one final entry in the logbook (now on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria):

“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.”

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was sold to a series of investors over the years, and most recently, she served as the Eternity at Sea Columbarium. She is part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Knowing my fascination with Tilly, my husband (who fishes for salmon off Tillamook Head) snapped a few photos on a recent trip. What a gift! It was hard to imagine, on a day when the sea was more like a glassy lake, how tempestuous the waters surrounding Tilly could actually be. It was not, however, difficult to imagine what Tilly had been through. She is certainly showing her age. Pelicans, cormorants, and sea lions are her inhabitants and they, along with the sea, are now her keepers in her “sunset years.”

Note: The Tillamook Head Trail between Seaside and Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach offers views of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, as does the beach area just south of the parking lot at Indian Beach. Pause from the shore, if you will, and reflect, as Keeper Oswald Allik requested, on Tilly’s not-so-terrible role in history. For more info on where to see Tilly and to learn more of her history, visit seasideOR.com.

Learn more about the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse from OPB’s Oregon Field Guide.

about author Veronica Russell

Veronica Russell has called Oregon’s North Coast her home for more than 20 years. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, and in addition to being a writer, she is a novice hiker and avid photographer. When she’s not playing chase with her three dogs on the beach or doing volunteer work for the Seaside Rotary Club, she is spending her time taking spontaneous road trips with her husband, grown children, dogs and granddogs — and, of course, chronicling it all on Facebook and Instagram.

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  1. (Mr) Sandy Combes says…

    Tillamook Cheese just a coincidence or is there a connection. SC.

    Written on October 26th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  2. Marge Johnson, Rockford, Illinois says…

    I have a picture of my Dad, circa 1922, with a friend and a huge stringer of fish on the beach at Tillamook. It is my treasure. I love Oregon and the Pacific NW. My roots and my heart reside there? Also love Travel Oregon!

    Written on October 26th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  3. Mark Dumoulin says…

    Incredible story had me hooked on the first paragraph. I also enjoyed the history lesson, will definitely be sharing this with all my friends and family.
    Would love to here more stories like this in the future. Thank you

    Written on October 26th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  4. Donna Myers says…

    I know exactly where ..been in the area several times and it’s one of my favorite places. We usually stay a hotel right on the beach…it has a sea wall on the building…..tide is against the building when we get up in the mornings and Tillamook cheese place is down the road. Aliens Market sells Tillmook inB.V.

    Written on October 26th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  5. Irish says…

    I grew up in the Coast Range, and now live on the central Oregon coast, so “Terrible Tilly” has always been a part of my world. I love the history of the place, and I love looking at her off in the distance from the shore. Although I already knew the history of Tilly, this writer’s story was entertaining, and the closer-than-usual photo that her husband took of the Tillamook Lighthouse is greatly appreciated. Thank you for this entertaining and informative article :-).

    Written on October 27th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  6. Lindsey F. says…

    Beautiful, I’m going to have to make a stop next time!

    Written on October 27th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  7. Greg Jeffcoat says…

    I remember Tillamook Rock eventually became a repository of cremated remains.

    Is it part of the the Neptune Society?

    Written on October 27th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  8. John St. Sauver says…

    Love the History of this light house, thank you for sharing the story.

    Written on October 28th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  9. Barbara says…

    There is nothing as mysterious as an empty Lighthouse.

    Written on October 28th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  10. Gloria S. says…

    Tillamook Rock Litghthouse, Tillamook Cheese, Tillamook Bay, Tillamook Head and Tillamook County all have the name Tillamook because they are close to each other-

    Written on October 28th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  11. Gloria S. says…

    Was out there close a couple of years ago and was saddened to see the increased degradation of the steel light tower–it wont be too many more years or decaades til it fails or is blasted away in a big storm thus chaniging the profile forever-that masonry will be there, though, for thousands of years or until the rock itself is shattered and claimed by the sea

    Written on October 28th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  12. Lonnie Haynes says…

    60 years after spending 19 months on Tillamook Rock as a 19 year old Coastie, I still enjoy reading the stories and pictures people post of their famous Rock. At the time of my residence there at 19 years old I was not thrilled however. I hope the old girl still stands long after my departure.

    Written on October 29th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  13. Veronica Russell says…

    Mr. Combes: The word “Tillamook” originates with a tribe native to this region. Most people know of Tillamook cheese and ice cream, produced in the town of Tillamook, about an hour’s drive south of Seaside.

    Here in the Seaside area, we have a Tillamook connection: Tillamook Head, a large headland that juts out into the sea separating Seaside and Cannon Beach. The 6.2-mile Tillamook Head Trail takes you over this land mass and offers some great viewpoints, including the viewpoint of Tillamook Rock on which Terrible Tilly resides. This viewpoint from Ecola State Park is the closest you can get to Terrible Tilly.

    Written on October 29th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  14. Dean Parker says…

    Nice work Veronica and Rich took a great pic, hope to stop by on my next ride down the coast come Summer and see yawl.

    Written on October 30th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  15. Lee Wiren says…

    I love this lighthouse, one of my favorites on the west coast! Here is an image I took the other year at Sunset……

    http://www.prismaticimagery.com/Art/Alternative-Photographic-Art/i-Mv6F6zc/9/X3/Sunset%20Solitude-X3.jpg

    Written on October 30th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  16. lissa says…

    Land of trees, cheese and ocean breeze.

    Written on October 31st, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  17. Dolores LEHTINEN says…

    On a visit to Canon Beach a few years ago, we were in a kite shop buying our first kites. It was the end of the day and the shop owner was kind enough to meet us on the beach and help us launch our kites. The skies became dark announcing a coming rainstorm after a beautifully sunny day. I will forever remember the clouds parting and a brilliant ray of sunshine casting a glow right over the lighthouse. It was breathtaking!

    Written on November 1st, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  18. Kim Cook says…

    I have lived in Tillamook for 24 years and through field trips with school and personal site seeing and enjoy hearing stories of The Pacific NW. This was a wonderful Detailed account of the Life of “Tilly” Lighthouse. Thank you, Beautifully written felt as I were there.

    Written on November 2nd, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  19. Charity Haworth says…

    Monthly, we head for Tillamook and Netarts, and thoroughly love the lore that emanates from this part of the Oregon coastline, which we also love. I have to thank my step daughter, Amanda Haworth, for telling me about “Terrible Tilly”, our family interest being that we have a granddaughter named Tilly, but of course, she’s not terrible!

    Written on November 7th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  20. Geist View says…

    Hello,

    Im the YouTube content creator Geist View.
    I have several videos of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse that was taken with my drone. All are in 4K except for one. One of my videos has over 4.2K views so far.
    She is in a very bad state and the lantern room will not last much longer. At least there is now a visial record of her current state.
    Thank you for your time.
    GV

    Written on April 6th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  21. Geist View says…

    Hello all,

    I have several videos on my YouTube channel in regards to Tillamook Light. Most are all in 4K

    Written on April 10th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  22. Margie Coleman says…

    My daughter and I have always been fascinated by lighthouses and this story is very interesting. We both loved it. thank you

    Written on June 3rd, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  23. Cheryl Uhrhan says…

    Yes, Tillamook Cheese is from the same place, just inland a mile. Besides the Tillamook Cheese tour, which is fabulous to see and taste, is the Airplane Museum in one of the old WWII Durigible Hangars. This is a must see. The building was built in war time to house the air ships that were used as lookouts for Japanese ships/submarines. It was built in just a few weeks–27 days comes to mind–an incredible feat for the enormous, gigantic size. There is also an incredible small Quilt Museum in Tillamook. The quilts were so fabulous that even my husband was amazed–they are like paintings. I can’t wait to go back to Oregon and explore more! We were there in 2011.

    Written on June 26th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
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