The sea is a dangerous mistress, changing and untamable. Her storms have claimed ships and sailors by the score, making those stout enough to brave her temper a rare bunch. From the shores, jutting from angry waters, a single rock is seen marking where man tried to tame the sea, her angry waves giving testament to her will. And though the light in the tower no longer burns, the house on the rock has many tales of death and tragedy to tell, all in the name of trying to tame the sea. And while the building no longer houses the living, the dead and drowned still visit, their souls forever tethered to the rock that, in one way or another, claimed their lives.
Lighthouses have long been the symbol of hope and guidance in a sea of troubles. Some lighthouses, however, hold different images, as they were born of tragedy and their histories are littered with death, hardship and insanity. That the building still stands is a testament of engineering, but one only needs to look out from the safety of the shore to see that the ocean has not stopped trying to rip the lighthouse from the rock. It is little wonder, then, that those who lived within its walls, and died on its meager shore, never left. It could be that the sea simply won’t let them leave.
Long before the white man came to what is now Oregon, Native Americans regarded the rock at Tillamook as an evil place, where underwater caverns were the home to spirits and demons. When settlers began shipping to the shores at Tillamook, it was planned that a lighthouse would be built on the 1000-foot high cliff called Tillamook Head, but when it was decided that the light would shine over fog banks, and therefore be useless to ships, the idea was rethought. Engineers chose a small lump of an island, Tillamook Rock, as a possible replacement site. Although the site would need blasting to level the top, and the treacherous waters around it made a run out to the rock near suicide, plans proceeded.
From the very beginning, Tillamook began claiming lives. The first was the man who designed the lighthouse, John Trewavas. On his first trip to the rock, he slipped while trying to go ashore and was swept out to sea by an angry wave. His terrified assistant dove in after him, and very nearly drowned himself. He was later rescued, but the body of Trewavas was never recovered.
So famous were the treacherous conditions that, by the time Charles Ballantyne took over the job, no local laborers would even attempt working on the project. Blasting began with only four men stranded on the rock. They endured not only heavy seas, but even a hurricane in the process of getting the lighthouse built. Three weeks before construction was completed, a British ship, the Lupatia, crashed while attempting to come into port near Tillamook, killing all sixteen of her crewmen. Only the ship’s dog survived.
Once construction was complete, a complement of four lighthouse keepers were stationed on the island at all times. Because of the rough conditions, the keepers were required to live for three months on the rock, with an all-too-brief respite of two weeks at the end of each tour. Such conditions created quite a strain on the keepers, both physically and mentally. Bouts with madness were reportedly common, and “Terrible Tilly,” as the lighthouse became known, became the subject of rumor and whispers. A newspaper of the time period published a report about a “Keeper Bjorling” who was removed from his duty after, in a rage, serving his fellow keepers ground up glass in their meals.
On September 1, 1957, Keeper Oswald Allik locked the doors on the lighthouse for the last time, signaling the end of an era. The lighthouse passed through many hands over the next twenty-three years, until, in 1980, it was purchased by a private firm who formed “Eternity at Sea” Columbarium. For a fee, people can have their cremated loved ones placed to rest in the old lighthouse.
There are several ghosts that are reported to haunt the old sentinel, more of which have been added in the years since becoming a repository of human remains. While few venture out to the old rock anymore, the old stories are hard to ignore, and many tell of strange goings on in the craggy little island.
One of the souls said to inhabit the rock is the earliest recorded man to have died there, John Trewavas. According to the old keepers, he was often heard walking up the stairs to the old light, and could be heard moaning outside in the wave spray. Another eerie apparition is that of the ill-fated Lupatia, the ship that crashed just three weeks before the light was first lit. Many have claimed seeing the ethereal vessel drifting the waters near her final resting place. Still others claim to hear the ship’s dog barking in the night, just as he did when his masters were killed.
There are other spirits said to haunt the old lighthouse, not the least of which is that of the mad keeper, who ground up glass and served it in food. But others look toward the lighthouse fondly, remembering those whose ashes are interred there. If they haunt the house, it is because of their love of the sea.
Those interred at the lighthouse are referred to as “Honorary Keepers,” and come from all over the world. Response has apparently been overwhelming, because new “keepers” are not being accepted at this time. However, there is a waiting list for those interested in the possibility of having a place in the lighthouse.
Because the sea around it is so treacherous, the lighthouse is not open for visits. It can, however, be seen clearly from the coast. As for the phantom ship, it most often appears during severe storms, making sightings difficult for anyone who doesn’t like being caught in the final throws of a Nor’easter. It is best viewed from the shores of Ecola State Park, north of Cannon Beach.
See you in two weeks!
– Scott A. Johnson