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Tillamook Lighthouse “ghost” greeted new keeper on first night

Somewhere in the inky blackness of his little room, miles away from shore, James Gibbs awoke to hear stealthy footsteps, getting closer and closer. And then something brushed his throat ...

This hand-tinted postcard is from a U.S. Lifesaving Service photo showing Tillamook rock Light, as seen from the south, taking a heavy sea in the early 1920s. The sky was most likely not blue when this picture was taken. (Image: Postcard)

One grim winter morning, near the end of the Second World War, a Coast Guard seaman named James A. Gibbs, Jr., was looking apprehensively out over an angry sea from the rail of the 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph. Far out over the field of towering pyramid-shaped waves, a tiny speck was just coming into view — his destination.

“Tillamook Rock,” the boatswain muttered, as a seasick Gibbs silently fought to hang onto his breakfast. “I wouldn’t take that duty on a bet.”

Gibbs might not have either, but he didn’t have much choice. That tiny, lonely speck in the middle of an angry gray ocean was his new duty station: Tillamook Rock, a half-acre hunk of granite with a lighthouse perched dubiously upon its crest in the middle of the open sea, known to the initiated as “Terrible Tilly.”

In his book, written many years later, Gibbs referred to Tillamook Rock as a “pint-size Alcatraz,” and indeed, his transfer there had a lot in common with a prison sentence. It was widely known that assignments to Tillamook Rock were given as a punishment for troublemakers, and Gibbs fit that profile pretty well. His record with the Coast Guard was, as he puts it, “checkered.”

Gibbs’ trouble had started one night very early in the war, when he was on beach patrol duty. His patrol dog, Pluto, had fallen off a bluff while chasing birds, and was injured. In trying to call for help, Gibbs and his partner had gotten the codes mixed up and accidentally sent a message that an enemy force had landed.

An undated postcard image of Tillamook Rock Light as seen from the north. It is likely that the boat seen apparently attempting to land was artificially added to the image by a darkroom technician. (Image: Postcard)

As if that weren’t enough, while waiting for the help they thought was coming for poor Pluto they doctored him up a bit with a few nips from a bottle of whiskey that they claimed (with, shall we say, less than 100-percent believability) to have “found on the beach.” (Gibbs doesn’t mention, specifically, whether he and his comrade “shared” Pluto’s whiskey, but anyone who thinks they didn’t probably still believes in the Tooth Fairy.)

All of this wouldn’t have ordinarily been a problem. But because of the mixed-up radio codes, their call for help was being answered not by a friend with a Jeep and blanket for Pluto, but by a massive detachment of Army soldiers ready for a firefight — all of whom were furious when they learned the truth. They’d been rousted out of their warm bunks and turned out locked and loaded to do their heroic bit — only to learn their mission was just to rescue two bumbling Coast Guard mopes and their drunk dog.

This incident had humiliated the Coast Guard in front of the Army, and Gibbs’ part in it earned him some special attention from his supervisors — attention that he’d responded poorly to. One thing had led to another, and by early 1945 he’d racked up enough minor and major disciplinary infractions that he was on every commanding officer’s “Usual Suspects” list, and was actually worried about getting a dishonorable discharge.

Instead, he found himself assigned for duty on Tillamook Rock.

Gibbs’ arrival on the island was a punishment all by itself. The motor lifeboat stood off several dozen feet from the sheer rocky cliff face, rising and falling a good 10 feet with each swell it rode through. Gibbs, wearing a breeches buoy — basically a pair of big heavy pants with a life ring around the hips, attached to a heavy cable with a hook at the end — stood on the boat’s deck while the boatswain’s mate maneuvered it to within grabbing distance of a big ring dangling from the end of a crane. The terrified Gibbs had to grab the ring and hook it, whereupon the crane picked him up off the deck of the boat and swung him over sea and rocks and down onto the cement landing pad.

It was the beginning of a new chapter in Gibbs’ life, and one that would change him in a hundred ways — an experience he wouldn’t have given up for anything. But before he could enjoy those benefits, he had to get through his first night on the rock — the roughest night of his life.

The thing was, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was haunted. Or at least, so Gibbs’ three fellow crew members assured him over dinner that night. They spoke darkly but matter-of-factly of mysterious footsteps, and unexplainable noises in the tower.

Convinced this was nothing more than an attempt to razz the new guy, Gibbs finished supper and retired to catch a few hours of sleep before his midnight watch started. Opening, for ventilation, the heavy porthole of storm-battered inch-thick glass that served for a window, he climbed into his bunk and went to sleep.

He awoke with a start several hours later. What had that noise been? He peered out, but the blackness in the lighthouse, a mile and a half away from shore, was absolute. The light switch was by the door; he’d have to get out of bed and cross the room to flip it on.

There it was again! A footstep. And another, and another — heel, toe; heel-toe. And they were coming closer.

“For some reason, I just couldn’t move,” Gibbs recalled in his book. “I grew rigid and tried to call out, but the utterances seemed to choke in my throat. After hearing two more steps, I knew that whatever it was, was standing next to my bed. Then came that terrifying moment when something passed near my throat, so close that the breeze fanned my face.”

Now, at last, Gibbs’ paralysis passed. With a desperate roar, seizing the pillow and holding it before him, he charged his attacker — tripped over something — went sprawling to the floor at the foot of the light switch — scrambled to his feet and flipped it up. There, before him, stood the “ghost”:

“A mammoth goose with a broken wing sat in the middle of the floor,” Gibbs recounted. “Evidently blinded by the beacon, it had flown through the open porthole and broken its wing en route.”

Gibbs picked the goose up and hustled it out of the lighthouse, stowing it in a sheltered spot outside. (The goose’s wing was most likely just bruised, not broken, since it was gone the next day.) Then he climbed back into his bunk and tried to go back to sleep.

When he reported for his watch an hour or two later, the keeper he was relieving stared at him. “What’s the matter with ya?” he asked. “Ya look like you seen a ghost.”

It was to be a long and dreadful night for Gibbs. His nerves, already keyed up by the goose incident, were not helped when an unearthly moaning started coming from a nearby empty room. Seeking some reading material to take his mind off his fears, he soon found himself reading a maritime magazine — with an article about a haunting at the Navassa Lighthouse in the Caribbean. The story ended with the lightkeeper going mad and being carried from the lighthouse in a straightjacket.

And all the while, that weird, never-to-be-explained moaning was going on in the other room.

“It was one of the longest nights of my life,” he wrote.

(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Tillamook Light. Portland: Binford, 1979; Smitten, Susan. Ghost Stories of Oregon. Edmonton: Ghost House, 2001; www.atlasobscura.com)