Yes, believe it or not! This is the same “Terrible Tilly” of legendary lighthouse fame, “the most God-forsaken, nastiest chunk of rubble anywhere….a pint-sized Alcatraz that took on the aspects of an insane asylum where its inmates had been exiled forever” according to historian and former keeper Jim Gibbs in his reminiscence of when he was first stationed there.
In fact, in 1890, keeper Louis C. Sauer was indeed hauled off to spend his remaining days in an insane asylum after rushing toward his fellow keepers like a raving maniac, threatening to kill them. A 1900 newspaper declared that a man “not only risks his life in accepting the position, but his reason as well.” Ten of the first eleven head keepers decided not to take the chance and resigned instead.
Yes, this is the same Terrible Tilly that earned its moniker from the unleashing furies of the fiercest of storms with waves that regularly broke over the 134-foot height at the top of the lantern room. Hurricane force winds that exceeded 100 mph would sheer off chunks of the basalt rock that were thrown upward by the eruption of a geyser formed out of the adjoining crevice on the south side. The hurtling missiles shattered panes of glass and prisms of the first order Fresnel lens while letting in the sea which would cascade down the stairs to flood the rooms below, carrying seaweed, fish, dead seabirds, and debris. The fog signal trumpets would be full of rocks, and original ventilators were flattened by the onslaught.
A storm in 1913 threw up so many rocks into the lighthouse that, according to Gibbs, “a gunboat firing a full broadside could not have done more damage.” The keepers thought they would surely be swept into the sea during the 15 hours that it lasted.
The horrendous storm of 1934 was so intense that it entirely decimated the lens which had to be replaced afterwards with an aero-marine revolving beacon. Fragments of rock weighing more than 60 pounds tore through the iron roof of the foghorn house and dwelling. Iron railings were flattened by the boulders and the three foot deeply anchored iron bolts of the huge derrick and boom-lifting apparatus were unearthed from solid rock, and all was swept away into the raging waves. During this particular storm, the western rock overhang, weighing an estimated 25 tons, split off and collapsed into the sea. Yet the lighthouse still stood and its keepers were undaunted in the performance of their duties, for which they all received commendations.
The newspapers accurately stated that, because of its perilous situation, it was the most avoided lighthouse on the government list, and that only through a long and careful search could men be found who were willing to go there as keepers. It took a special type of man to be able to withstand such horrendous conditions, but amazingly enough, many were found who were willing to endure the wrath of Tilly for decades - and some even relished it!
Charley Bearman, who later served as head keeper at Smith Island Lighthouse, was one such man. He recalled with fondness his days at Tillamook right before the Great War. In a recording he made shortly before his death, he stated “that he enjoyed every minute of the five years he spent on the Rock, and they were among the very happiest of his life – tending the light; making furniture from the hard wood crates in which their supplies were lowered on the rock from cranes on the tender; experimenting with cooking for the crew of four always on the rock while the fifth was on shore leave; playing cribbage and pinochle with the men; and precious time to read.”
In 1919, Robert Warrick, superintendent of the 17th lighthouse district, reported that “Tillamook Lighthouse is regarded as a desirable post and applications have come from distant points, some of them in Europe for assignment to work there.”
Perhaps the most famous keeper who was known for his love of Tillamook was Robert Gerlof. He faithfully served at Tilly for 25 years from 1903 until 1928, at which point he was forced to retire, nearing 70 years old. In a newspaper interview, he remarked, “I do not want to leave my rock. I have no family. The sea is my friend. I do not want to go ashore.” In fact, Gerlof did not like to take shore leave if he could help it. The rock was truly his home.
Gerlof was born in Germany in 1860 and immigrated to America some time prior to 1899 when he is listed as serving on the Columbia River Light-Vessel 50. He then transferred to the lighthouse tender Columbine in 1901 before going out to Tillamook Rock in 1903 where moved up through the ranks from fourth assistant until becoming head keeper in 1919. But it was during the year 1920 that Gerlof had the highlight of his career on the Rock and enjoyed his time there the most.
It was due to serving that year with four young men who made life thoroughly pleasant and entertaining, even in the midst of the most trying circumstances on Terrible Tilly. There were still the fearsome storms and isolation of its position, but first assistant Howard L. Hansen, age 19, second assistant Walter T. Lawrence 23; third assistant Orlo E. Hayward, age 18; and assistant Raymond Bay, age 18, truly made it a hallmark year in the history of Tillamook Rock.
Perhaps it was so much more enjoyable because they were friends and family before they ever served together on the Rock. Lawrence and Bay were half-brothers. Bay and Hansen had been raised together in part at Heceta Head Light as their fathers served there together along with Hayward’s father at the same time. Orlo Hayward even lied about his age to get onto the Rock with the other three. A keeper had to be 18 to serve, and at the time of his enlistment, he was only 17, but he clearly didn’t want to be left behind.
Having been around lighthouse life and raised as lighthouse kids, they all seemed indifferent to the negative aspects of the confinement and isolation at Tillamook. Hayward served for a full year before he received his first shore leave. And when they did get off the Rock, they visited their families at Heceta Head and did activities with them, so they were very much still involved in lighthouse life.
While on Tilly, the four found plenty of diversions to keep them occupied outside of the normal and expected light-tending routine, chief of which was their interest in photography. They set up a developing room inside the lighthouse, purchased good quality cameras, and spent a lot of time experimenting with both the photographic aesthetics and developing techniques of 1920-era print photography. The Terrible Tilly Photo Studio was in high production mode that year! Any keeper who had shore leave was to purchase and shoot as many rolls of film as he could, and then bring them back to the lighthouse to develop. A good hundred photos of life on Tillamook Rock were also captured in the best tradition of vernacular photography.
While it appears that Lawrence was the most prolific of the four in taking photos and experimenting with developing processes, both Hayward and Hansen did their fair share of capturing the moment. Albums have been left behind that tell the tales of Tillamook’s halcyon days - full of sunshine, hijinks, and adventure.
Visually recorded activities included fishing, fog siren sitting, dancing on the most unlikely places, playing instruments, horseplay, painting and lighthouse chores, visits from tenders, kitchen time, pretend “race car” driving with the supplies cart, overnight camping out on the deck, drinking soda, smoking, derrick sitting and standing, as well as crevice climbing. The latter two “photo opportunity” spots were attempted most likely when Head Keeper Gerlof was not around as they looked to be dangerous in the extreme as one misstep could mean the demise of the photographic subject. In fact, the only death recorded of a keeper on the Rock was in 1911 when Thomas Jones fell 35 feet onto the rocks below while painting the derrick. That did not stop the intrepid Terrible Tilly Photo Studio crew from climbing to their lofty perches for the sake of a good shot.
By way of aesthetic studies, Lawrence took many views of the Rock and the environment around it: sunsets, moonlit ocean reflections, perspective views, light value studies of rock texture and the wave eruption action of the crevice and surf. He tried his hand at double exposures which yielded the famous ‘dancing keeper’ photo. He also enjoyed calligraphy, so his albums were works of art with photos mounted on black paper with silver pen scripted captions under them.
But interestingly enough, of the 100 or so photos in the Lawrence and Hayward albums of Tillamook life, there is not one picture of Robert Gerlof to be found. It isn’t known exactly why. Either he was camera shy or not around when the others were in the photo-essay mode. All four of the young men appear in multiple shots, so it is supposed Gerlof was on his rare shore leave when these photos at Tilly were taken, as the fifth man would necessarily be absent due to normal duty and break rotation.
We know, however, that Gerlof did have a good relationship with his four assistants. In a letter written to Orlo Hayward in 1927 from Tillamook, Gerloff states, “You know how it is out here, no excitement, only every month getting stirred up when the tender comes around and so there is not much to write about anything. When you four young men were on this station, this was about my best time I had on the Rock. You remember riding on the car up and down Broadway on Tillamook Rock or cooking donuts in the kitchen… Recollect that I am out here on the Lonesome Rock and you are on a shore station, so your letters are worth the most.” Gerlof sent $20 upon the birth of Orlo’s son Joe for his future savings. He was fondly remembered by the Haywards.
Gerlof stayed on the rock for another year, retiring in 1928 and moving to shore within sight of the light where he could see that it was lit every night before he slept. He died in 1930 at age 70. Orlo Hayward went on to serve for a total of 25 years at another eight lighthouses up and down the Pacific Coast. Howard Hansen appears not to have remained in lighthouse service after his stint at Tilly. He was working as an Empire fisherman in 1936 when his boat overturned off the Bandon coast and he was ironically, tragically drowned. Raymond Bay was transferred to serve at Cape Blanco Lighthouse for a few years after Tillamook, and Walter Lawrence went on to Umpqua River Lighthouse for the next several years. He was able to turn his photographic skills into an occupation in part as one of his albums is entitled “work for others” and contains photos of people and places up through the early 1940s in Portland where he worked as a guard at a navy shipyard. He also continued with his musical pursuits, playing harmonica for a regular variety radio program in Portland.
The photographic legacy these four left serves to temper the horrific reputation of the West Coast’s most loathsome lighthouse assignment. It shows a human slice of normalcy and calmer times, along with camaraderie and high-spiritedness of youth in the lighthouse service. It’s not that the relentless storms raged any less. Orlo Hayward told his children about the “storm of the century” where Gerlof ordered him to lay flat on his stomach under the bed and hold onto the iron bedstead legs for dear life when they thought the lighthouse would surely be washed away. They also were close to starvation at times, due to the weather preventing the tender arrival with provisions. At one point they were down to some beef jerky, a can of salmon, and some crackers before receiving relief. But whatever the hardships, they still maintained an upbeat attitude during their service there.
Even Jim Gibbs came around to a more favorable view of his time on the Rock, mixed with some obvious sentimentality. He wrote at the last, “Despite my early hatred of the rock, I had gradually grown very fond of it and had learned a whole new side to life, that of being in a lonely place and yet finding fulfillment in the natural wonders of God’s world. Where else could you be on a small islet with a perfect 360-degree view of the ocean in all of its varied moods, a place with a grandstand seat for the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets of any place in the world? Where else could you better see the endless string of sea birds flying south in the fall or watch the vast aquarium of mammals and fish cavorting about? I became hooked on lighthouses, and Old Tillamook, despite its scars, was the hallmark.”
Maybe the real truth of the matter is that Terrible Tilly was not so wholly Terrible after all – it just took the right person to appreciate all she had to offer.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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