Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2017

Mystery Surrounds Tillamook Rock’s First Order Fresnel Lens


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The first order Fresnel lens from Oregon’s Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is shown here on display on October 8, 1935 after it was removed from the notorious lighthouse.

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This extremely rare photo may be one of the only known photos in existence that shows the entire 48,000 candlepower first order Fresnel lens that was once in the lantern of the lighthouse known as “Terrible Tilly.” A first order lens is the largest and most powerful of the Fresnel lenses.

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Almost all previous written accounts of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse state that the lens was destroyed in a 1934 storm. This photograph proves beyond a doubt that the lens did in fact survive and went on to become the center point of a 1935 U.S. Lighthouse Service exhibit at the Pacific International Livestock Exhibition in Portland, Oregon.

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If you look closely at the lens, you will be able to see the chips and damage possibly caused to the lens in a violent storm one year previously, in October of 1934, which had knocked the lens out of operation for a short time. During the ensuing months, the lens was disassembled and removed from the tower and replaced with a double-tiered rotating aero beacon.

Shown in the far left of the photo are a radio beacon transmitter and receiver. Only slightly seen, to the left side of the lens, is the flag of the Lighthouse Commissioner, and to the right of the lens, is the flag of the Superintendent of Lighthouses. Also, a framed print to the right of the first order Fresnel lens shows the lightships Umatilla and Columbia, plus two relief lightships.

This recently rediscovered photograph was originally ordered by lighthouse engineer Ralph R. Tinkham and taken by a photographer from the Columbia Commercial Studio in Portland, Oregon.

The Mystery

However, the next big question was this: what happened to the lens after it was displayed at the 1935 Pacific International Livestock Exhibition? Lighthouse Digest historian Debra Baldwin, who is working on book about Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, discovered the answer in the June 5, 1940 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon where the headline of a story read “University Receives Gift of Famed Lens” The story said that the University of Oregon had been “permanently loaned” the Fresnel lens from the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse by the United States Coast Guard.

The story went on to say, “At present this valuable old lens lies disassembled in the campus warehouse. When it is put together again it will be set up as a showpiece of the university where waves of faces, instead of salty spray will surround it. Before it came into the possession of the university it demanded a fair amount of government storage space in Portland. Now, being larger than the average room in the average residence, it is a “big” problem to the university authorities in charge of its placement.” The story went on to say that assembled, the lens itself weighs about 4 or 5 tons, and when all in one piece, stands approximately 17 feet high and measures 6 to 7 feet in diameter. “Dr. Earl M. Pallett, executive secretary of the university, who has been in charge of procuring the lens states that it will probably be placed in operation in a suitable spot on the campus where it may be examined by students and visitors.”

But then, the mystery of what happened to Tillamook’s Fresnel lens after it came into the possession of the University of Oregon deepens. There does not seem to be any record of the lens ever going on display.

Perhaps a suitable location on the campus could not be found. Perhaps it became cost prohibitive to assemble and display it at the time. Most likely it remained in storage at the university while funds and a location could be agreed upon. However, with America’s 1941 entry into World War II, the lens probably was no longer a priority, and it may have been forgotten about or given back to the Coast Guard.

What happened after World War II is anybody’s guess. If the lens had remained in storage in the main campus warehouse, it was likely destroyed in a gigantic fire that disintegrated the university’s warehouse on February 11, 1947. The headline in the Eugene Register-Guard for February 12, 1947, which accompanied a large photo of the warehouse totally engulfed in flames, read, “Explosions Send Debris Flying High Into Air; Hundreds Watch Costly Blaze Destroy Equipment.”

We do know that in 1986 a man name Richard D. Smith donated a prism that he claimed came from Tillamook Rock Lighthouse to the Tillamook Pioneer Museum. Richard D. Smith was a student at the University of Oregon when he recovered the prism from the ashes of a fire at the University of Oregon’s Physical Plant in Eugene Oregon. He kept that prism in his personal collection for many years before donating it to the museum in 1986. The official accession at the time was that one, or perhaps, more than one of the prisms, might have been removed from the lens crates for repair to a different building. However, we don’t know if this prism was recovered from the same fire as previously reported or a different fire.

The glass prism donated to the museum is 9” long, the sides are 1¼” and the prism (3rd side) is 15/8.” If any other prisms were picked up from that fire, they were apparently unreported.

The mystery of what happened to most of the first order Fresnel lens of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse may never be totally solved. Was it destroyed in one or more separate fires? Is most of the lens still in storage somewhere? Perhaps, like at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was packed away in a government warehouse, where it sits to this day, waiting to be rediscovered.

However, more than likely, other than that one lonely prism, the 1st order Fresnel lens from Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was destroyed and lost forever.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2017 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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