Mother Nature winning battle to reclaim Tillamook Rock

A wave crashes on Tillamook Rock Lighthouse after a tsunami surge Friday, March 11, 2011, near Cannon Beach, Ore. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

TILLAMOOK, Ore. (KOIN) — The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is the subject of local folklore and tales of the dead, its secrets guarded by the treacherous seas surrounding its darkened doorways, battered walls and rusty tower.

The lighthouse, built in the middle of the ocean in 1880, also represents the perseverance of early pioneers and the dangers of trying to tame the rock it rests on.

Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, May 2017 (KOIN)
Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, May 2017 (KOIN)

You can only get to the “Terrible Tilly” by helicopter or boat, and once you reach it, you understand how dangerous life on the rock can be, and why people believe spirits still roam the grounds.

“I’ll still have people come in and they’ll say, ‘I saw people on the rock,'” historian Elaine Trucke, executive director of the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, said.

Tillamook Rock is isolated, sitting about a mile off the Oregon coast. The Coast Guard will warn you not to head out there without being able to call for help.

Historians say the rock claimed its first victim in the late 1800s, before construction on the lighthouse began.

“One of the first surveyors that was trying to build the lighthouse was washed off the rock and they never found his body,” Trucke said.

Still, construction on the “Terrible Tilly” continued, and crews endured intense waves in pup tents until they finished the job. They tried and failed to prevent another tragedy when the ship The Lupatia sailed too close to the rock on a foggy night.

“They set a big bonfire and started yelling and screaming,” Trucke said. “The entire crew was lost, the only survivor was a dog.”

Construction of the lighthouse was finally complete in 1881, but Coast Guard members who staffed it, 4 at a time, had a tough commute: a wooden crane lifted people on and off the rock in what looked like a life ring with pants sewn onto them.

Men passed the time by reading, cooking, playing jokes and weathering intense storms. Waves were reportedly so big, they would go over the top of the lighthouse.

The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1957, thanks to advancements in radar, but it didn’t stop the “Terrible Tilly” from claiming more lives. Trucke said someone was washed off a boat going around the lighthouse in 1964. His body was never found.

Elaine Trucke, executive director of the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, May 2017 (KOIN)
Elaine Trucke, executive director of the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, May 2017 (KOIN)

In the 1970s, a General Electric executive bought and repaired the lighthouse for use as a second home. Trucke said he spent only one night on the rock.

“He sold it about 2 days later,” she added.

After that, “Terrible Tilly’s” story took an unusual turn. State records show a group of investors led by local real estate broker Mimi Morissete bought the lighthouse for $50,000 in 1979. The group had plans to build a cemetery called “Eternity at Sea” where people paid around $1,200 for a space to store their ashes in a columbarium. Around 30 were inturred there, including Nola Eno Bailey.

“That’s how much she loved the ocean,” Bailey’s daughter, Jerry Jeffs, said.

At one point, Tricke said vandals got into the lighthouse and destroyed some of the urns, resulting in a lawsuit. The Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board also investigated, and ultimately denied the owner’s attempt to renew an already expiring operating certificate.

A view of Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, in an undated courtesy photo from Geist View
A view of Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, in an undated courtesy photo from Geist View

Drone video of the lighthouse provided by Geist View showed missing doors and an interior dirty from sea birds and battered by storms.

“I don’t want her sitting there in that awful place to tell the truth,” Jeffs said. “I wish she wasn’t there, you know, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

A number of complaints to Oregon’s Department of Justice followed as families asked for refunds, but getting remains back would be difficult for people like Jeffs. The rock is part of the Oregon Islands Refuge, and visiting is prohibited from March 15 – September 1 because of nesting birds. Trucke said sea lions can also be aggressive.

“I think they had forethought, but they didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get construction people out there to do restoration and maintain the building,” she said. “It’s this mysterious, beautiful lighthouse and it is just falling apart.”

Trucke said there’s not a lot anybody can do. Locals would like to see the “Terrible Tilly” restored, but the sea appears to be winning the battle to reclaim the rock.

Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, in an undated historical photo from the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum
Tillamook Rock, aka Terrible Tilly, in an undated historical photo from the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum