Five fascinating facts about the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse near Cannon Beach

The legendary “Terrible Tilly” sits a mile off the coast of Cannon Beach, near Ecola State Park, on the Oregon Coast.

The legendary “Terrible Tilly” sits a mile off the coast of Cannon Beach, near Ecola State Park, on the Oregon Coast.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse near Cannon Beach is sort of the Alcatraz of the Oregon Coast. Built on an isolated rock a mile off the coast, the lighthouse operated from 1881 until 1957. The legendary “Terrible Tilly” has one of the more interesting histories among lighthouses. Hearst’s International proclaimed Tillamook Rock “one of the most spectacular lighthouse achievements of the service.” [The World Today, 1907]

Described in a 1923 Popular Mechanics article as “probably the loneliest station of the (lighthouse) service,” the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Station is a testament to human fortitude and skilled masonry work.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Here are five fascinating facts about Tillamook Rock Lighthouse:

1. The U.S. Lighthouse Board, operating under the Department of Treasury, initially wanted to construct the lighthouse on Tillamook Head, but found it to be too high (1,000 feet above sea level) and often covered in fog. It was also difficult to access by land and prone to landslides. As a second choice, they opted for Tillamook Rock. [Bryan Penberthy, US Lighthouses website]

Photo of Tillamook Rock from a 1923 Popular Mechanics article

Photo of Tillamook Rock from a 1923 Popular Mechanics article

2. On September 18, 1879, John Roose Trewawas, a 36-year-old native of England and master mason from Portland, travelled to Tillamook Rock to complete an “official survey” of the rock prior to construction on the lighthouse’s foundation:

“When the ship arrived at the site, and the surf boat approached [Tillamook Rock] in long, rolling swells, disaster struck. Mr. Trewavas slipped on the wet, slimy rock and was instantly swept into churning waters. His assistant jumped into the frigid ocean in a rescue attempt as the crew of the surf boat threw hand lines out for both men. The assistant was soon hauled from the waters, but the mason was pulled down by the undertow and his body never recovered.” [Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: History and Tales of Terrible Tilly, Brian D. Ratty]

3. Since getting onto the rock was so perilous, workers rigged a supply cable — a “breeches buoy” described as a rope gondola — some 85 feet above the water, running from 45-foot Spruce buoys positioned some 300 feet from the rock to a point on the rock, using “large ring bolts with iron anchors hammered into the stone. A large wooden bin or ‘traveler’ was attached to the cable using a system of pulleys, which could be loaded and pulled over to the monolith, and then pulled back to the ship for more cargo. This method was much more efficient and far safer for moving men and supplies between the ship and the rock.” (Ratty, p. 31)

From Brian Ratty’s book “Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: History and Tales of Terrible Tilly”

From Brian Ratty’s book “Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: History and Tales of Terrible Tilly”

4. To provide a flat foundation for the lighthouse, crews had to remove or “decapitate” the top of the rock, blasting more than 4600 cubic yards of basalt rock to lower the top of the rock from 121 feet to about 90 feet. [Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 68] By the end of May 1880, the rock was ready for construction. This initial period of work took 224 days. [Ratty, p. 36]

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Oregon Coast

5. Before permanent living quarters were constructed for the lighthouse, construction workers lived in a 16’x6’ A-frame tent. “This domicile just held the 10 men in their sleeping blankets. Naturally, they had to crawl rather than walk about, and, as the shelter served as the dining room as well, the little band had to tolerate many discomforts. The men never knew what it meant to have dry clothing or bedding.” [Lightships and Lighthouses, by Frederick Arthur Ambrose Talbot, p. 190]





ANDERSON