Nineteen miles south of the Columbia River and one mile west of the Oregon coastline, surrounded by a turbulent sea, stands the rough and craglike Tillamook Rock Light Station. The top of the rock is 71 feet above the level of the sea and the light tower is 62 feet tall; thus putting the light beacon 133 feet high. The water at the base of the rock is so deep, whales often swim against the rock to scrape the barnacles off their bellies. Eight-foot swells at the base of the Rock make it nearly impossible to land.
In the mid-to-late 1800’s sea-lanes carried much more traffic than they do today. Mariners insisted that a beacon was badly needed on the Rock. The numerous New England Whalers and the lumbermen sailing those waters particularly needed it. Those were the years when Oregon and Washington harbors were forests of tall-masted sailing ships.
In 1879, under the leadership of Charles A. Ballantyne, a group of nine laborers and quarrymen were secretly transported to the rock by a government steamer. (Public opinion deemed the idea foolhardy and too dangerous for the workers assigned to building it.) The only way to get on and off the rock was to use a crude sort of boson’s chair that moved along a cable stretched from the ship’s mast to the top of the Rock.
Once a workman was on Tillamook, it was safer to stay—if he could. The original idea was for the workman to stay on board a schooner at night and work on the Rock during the day; however, it was not possible because it was too difficult for the men to go from the ship to the rock without suffering a cold dunking in the ocean along the way. So, provisions, tools and living quarters were transported to the Rock. When the quarrymen leveled the top of the Rock, they did so by blasting it a foot at a time. During a year’s time, they ended up removing over 5,000 cubic yards of stone.
During stormy weather, many laborers were swept off the Rock into the rough seas and were rescued. The work took over 18 months to prepare the foundation and to build the one-story dwelling and the square tower, that was first lighted on February 1, 1881. It had a first-order Fresnel lens with an 80,000-c light visible 18 miles. The installation provided quarters for four keepers and enough storage room for a six-month’s supply of food and lighting materials.
Over the years since it was built, the cost of storm damage repair would have rebuilt the lighthouse many times. Storms were especially fierce from early December through March with gale-force winds out of the Southwest driving fierce waves crashing against the Rock.
On December 4, 1887, written in flowing longhand with a quill pen dipped in black ink, the keeper paints graphic word pictures in the lighthouse logbook. Unfortunately, for the reader, he did not give his name.
“Heavy gale from SW. The sea commenced breaking over the building about 9:15 a.m., the window of the oil room was “stove” in and the room and hallway flooded. About 2:00 p.m. the lumber of the house got adrift. At 4:05 p.m. the sea broke in the upper S. by W. pane in the tower. Zanner on watch getting the lamp ready, set the storm pane which was soon carried away. He started the siren and made wood in shutter for the break. At 6:00 p.m. the north tank on the west end of the building broke adrift, broke connection and plugged the feed tank. 12 p.m. all the tanks were jammed together against the rail in the NW corner, having but a few inches of water left and it being clear, (could see the Cape Light) shut down the siren and put lantern in tower. The seas were breaking over so heavy and often that it was dangerous to attempt to fill the tank from the cistern and there was three feet of water in it and might be more before damage was repaired. The seas continued breaking over until 3 a.m. of the 5th. From the commencement, the seas came over on an average of every five minutes. Those which broke over the tower struck the ventilator in such a way that the water came down in the lamp. Everything in the tower is covered with salt water and water is coming down the tower in streams. About 30 of the lenses are chipped and the cover is badly cut. The clockwork is in very bad condition. A portion of the Rock on the SW side is broken off. A large piece wedged against the southeast corner, the fence is bent and broken in 3 places. The roof is leaking all over and the windows on the SW sides. The seas filled the siren with saltwater. The 3 upper and 3 middle panes are stained and leak badly. (Assistant keepers) Zanner and Peterson moved themselves equal to emergency on a very gloomy Sunday.”
Thus on a dreary Sunday in December 1887, with its screaming, howling winds accompanying high seas, huge waves smothered the entire structure. More rock fragments were dislodged and sent soaring through the glass panels of the lantern 133 feet above the surface of the mighty Pacific.
Because the keepers on the Rock were so isolated, it was necessary for them to have some contact with shore stations when serious emergencies occurred. In 1890, an underwater cable stretched from the mainland to the rock. The keepers could finally send and receive telephone calls.
Ten years later, on a very, dreary Sunday afternoon, December 5, 1897, another head keeper at Tillamook Rock took pen in hand to make the frightful entry in the station logbook:
“Strong gale and rain. Wind hauling SW. Sea is getting heavy and the storm cover is up. The gale is increased and the sea is breaking over the tower at 4:00 p.m. During the night, heavy sea carried away kitchen and siren, smokestacks, telephone cable and one panel of fence. Broke in storeroom and living room window shutters and two plate glass windows. Roof leaking badly and plaster falling. Broken plate glass were immediately replaced by wooden shutters and light kept burning until sunrise. The light is not visible from NW to SE on account of storm cover.”
There were monstrous storms recorded in 1902, 1912, and 1934, but that’s another story.
The Light in the tower was permanently extinguished on September 1, 1957. The station passed through private hands in the years after its closing and today it is a columbarium. (Eternity at Sea, Inc.)
Historians tell us that in 125 years, less than 300 people ever set foot on the Rock and less than 10 of them were women. The early American Indians claimed the Rock to be cursed, haunted with evil spirits, and were never known to have approached it.
The thought of setting up housekeeping in Tillamook Rock brings to mind the old saying, “It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”
This story appeared in the
June 2000 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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