Friday, January 21, 2011

Against All Odds

Magnet # 443:  Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Aerial Photo

Material:  Acrylic

Purchased By:  Me

Few lighthouses can produce such a fearsome image as Oregon's Tillamook Rock Light.  This one actually stands atop a gigantic rock over a mile out from shore and building it was an enormous challenge that wasn't without loss of life.  But it was clear that simply placing the structure on the Pacific Coast at Tillamook Head wasn't going to work - its light would have been obscured by fog there.  So an arduous undertaking was made to construct on the rock and over 500 days went into the task.  At the time of its completion in 1881, Tillamook Rock Light, or "Terrible Tilly" as it's known by keepers and locals, was the most expensive West Coast lighthouse ever built at $125,000.

Congress first appropriated $50,000 for the construction of a lighthouse at Tillamook Head in 1878, but when that area was found to be unsuitable, a survey was made the following year on Tillamook Rock.  It was determined that access to the rock was very difficult, even impossible at times, but the government was undeterred.  For the third survey, John Trewavas, who had assisted in the construction of the Wolf Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall, England, which was similarly perched on a similarly treacherous rock, was brought in.  Even with his experience, Tillamook Rock proved to be too dangerous - while he was attempting to land there, a large wave swept him into the sea.  And though his assistant jumped in after him, his body was never recovered.  The public began to demand the project be abandoned, but Charles A. Ballantyne was brought in to oversee it.  After failing to find any locals willing to work with him, he was forced to bring in a group of quarrymen who had never heard of the Trewavas tragedy.  Ballantyne kept them as far from the locals as possible, hoping they would remain unaware of what had previously occurred at Terrible Tilly.  It wasn't long, however, that they got a taste of the site's horrors for themselves.  In January of 1880, a storm rolled in and the waves began to crash above the surface of the rock.  They claimed most of the men's tools, food, and work spaces, and they were forced to stay in their shelter and huddle together to survive.  Sixteen days later, help arrived and they received the supplies they so desperately needed.   Even after this crisis, work continued and in May, the top of the rock had been leveled enough to make it  possible to begin the lighthouse itself.  All of the materials used to construct it had to be brought in by boat and dragged up the cliffs, so that was a rather difficult task itself.  But the truly awful incidents were over at the rock and on this day in in 1881, the Tillamook Rock Light shone across the waters for the first time ever.  What many had considered impossible was now a reality and the reputation of the lighthouse spread across the nation.  Trewavas was the only death to occur with the structure's creation.

Although it may have had a lighthouse built upon it, Terrible Tilly was by no means tamed.  The team of four keepers assigned to it were forced to be isolated from civilization, live in cramped accommodations, and be exposed to some of the harshest weather conditions imaginable.  When a phone line was installed to connect them with the outside world, it didn't last long until a storm cut it loose.  And with the structure constantly taking a beating from the fierce nearby waters, repairs to it became almost a constant undertaking.  Life there took a toll on workers both physically and mentally.  Feuds arose, and some refused to speak to one another, opting instead to pass notes.  There was even a rumor that one of the men had tried to kill his superior by putting ground glass in his food.  In its first two years alone, it went through four head keepers.  But work there continued on, even after the Fresnel lens was destroyed in one of the worst storms ever in 1934.  All in all, Terrible Tilly was used for 77 years before being deactivated in 1957, when it had become the most expensive lighthouse to operate in the nation.  Two years later, it was sold to Las Vegas investors who just sold it off themselves.  In the 1980s, it was converted into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium, where people could pay thousands of dollars to have their ashes interred.  However, only about 30 urns were placed there before its new owners lost their license.  The fate of the structure remains to be seen.  But this is one site that is nearly impossible to reach - it's only accessible by helicopter, and is off-limits when seabirds are nesting.  So if you want to check it out, having a look at Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park, or a boat on the water may be your best option.  But I have a feeling it's not yet over for this storied lighthouse, whose very existence defies the elements. With all of the lives, effort, and time that has gone into creating and maintaining the Tillamook Rock Light, it almost has an obligation to be around for a very long time, defiant of the fearsome waters that surround it.

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