Seaside History

Terrible Tilly

November 21, 2012 | by Nate Burke

Can you imagine the experience of being a lighthouse keeper? It took a unique personality, a tough individual who had a strong tolerance for isolation, solitude, and a level head. These traits were especially needed at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Nicknamed “Terrible Tilly”, the lighthouse sits like a silent sentry just off the coast of Tillamook Head. It was completed in 1881 and after 76 years of relentless pounding by the ocean, finally decommissioned in 1957.
During its heyday, the Lighthouse was staffed by four brave keepers whose duty was considered extremely treacherous due to the extreme isolation and weather conditions. As this photo from the early 20th century attests, it wasn’t unusual for the small rocky island to be pummeled by giant thundering surf and debris. In 1881, right before the lighthouse was completed, the vessel Lupatia wrecked at the base of Tillamook Head despite the lighthouse staff’s best efforts to signal the ship with lanterns and a bonfire. All 16 crew members perished. The only survivor was the Lupatia’s dog that howled mournfully from the coastline.
In 1980 the lighthouse was privately purchased and converted into a columbarium (a vault for urns containing ashes of the deceased) called Eternity at Sea. Since 1999, the columbarium no longer accepts new urns and the operation has ended. Though now decommissioned and unused, Terrible Tilly still stands tall and is a visible reminder from the Seaside beach of a brave history.  Occasionally, during golden summer sunsets when the sea is calm and glassy, it seems as if the lighthouse hovers on the water.  Like a lonely outpost touching the horizon, it has a front row seat to the swirling clouds and setting sun. At times like these, one can imagine the occasional quiet pleasure of being a lighthouse keeper.

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