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Keeping Tillamook Rock Light running was hard, and expensive

Tillamook Rock gets the worst weather in the state — weather that drives waves that sometimes break over the top of the lighthouse. When they do, they sometimes carry with them boulders torn off the basalt bluff below.

The Tillamook Rock Light as it appears today, as seen from a helicopter flying just west of it on a calm day. (Image: U.S. Coast Guard)

Quite often, during his precious days of shore leave, lighthouse keeper James Gibbs Jr. would meet people who envied him his job.

“Must be nice,” they would say, “to have such a cushy government job. Relaxing at the coast, surrounded by scenic beauty, nothing to do but trim wicks and make sure nothing breaks ….”

It’s tempting to wonder how long such critics would have lasted on Tillamook Rock Light, where Gibbs was stationed at the time.

When the lighthouse closed for good in 1957, only one person had ever been killed on it — British master mason John Trewaves, who slipped off the rock in 1879 while scouting the site for the lighthouse. But the number of people who, at some time while on the rock, sincerely believed they were about to die — that number is considerably larger. In fact, it’s probably very close to 100 percent of everyone who ever set foot on the tiny island. Conditions there were frequently terrifying.

After the lighthouse started working, in 1881, the sea wasted little time in trying its best to wipe the stout little lighthouse and everyone inside it from the face of the craggy bluff. In 1883, a huge gale tore a big chunk of basalt loose from the bluff and hurled it through the roof of the foghorn house; three years later, another mammoth storm ripped out a half-ton hunk and lobbed it into the lighthouse yard — a full 100 feet above sea level.

In 1887, the biggest storm yet slammed into the light. Waves were reported continually breaking over the top of the light, 134 feet above the sea; most likely this meant not that the waves were 134 feet high, but just that the spray hurled over the light by the waves’ violent impact was heavy enough to look like solid water.

These drawings appeared in the Pacific Coast Pilot in 1889, showing the  lighthouse from various angles and in geographical context. The heavy overhang shown in the upper left drawing fell into the sea during the 1934 hurricane. NOTE: This image is very large (3600 x 2469 pixels). (Image: Binford & Mort)

But the waves weren’t the real hazard to lighthouse keepers, tucked securely behind their walls of two-foot-thick stone blocks, pinned together with copper rods and anchored securely to the rock. No giant wave could dislodge it, although it did tremble disconcertingly with each coup de mer during the big storms. No, the real hazard was the flying boulders.

Most likely these were chunks of the bluff that had been loosened just a bit by the blasting that had been required to level off the construction site for the lighthouse. So when the weather got really heavy, the waves would slam into them and finish the job, then pick them up in their crests and hurl them over the top of the bluff with tremendous force, directly at the lighthouse.

If these flying boulders struck the stonework, all would be OK; the fortress-thick walls could take it. But every few winters, a couple of storm-driven stones and boulders were hurled through the heavy windows at the top of the light, sometimes letting colossal amounts of seawater into the building to douse the light and flood the place.

Of all the storms that struck the lighthouse, none would ever top the great Pacific gale that stalked across Oregon and Washington on October 22, 1934.

According to Gibbs, the seas were so colossal on that day that they literally submerged the entire station. The winds were recorded at 109 miles per hour, and were probably considerably higher on the rock itself. On that day, the boulders hurled at the structure weighed well over 100 pounds — including one that was driven like a cannonball through the glass lantern window at the top, shattering the priceless French-made hand-ground Fresnel lens into a thousand pieces and putting out the light.

The lightkeepers worked all night, struggling to keep the auxiliary light burning and protected, just in case any ship might be out in the hurricane — and dodging as best they could the rocks and giant boarding seas that constantly thundered into the broken-out window panes, filling the lantern room with seaweed and small fish.

Meanwhile, chief keeper William Hill was trying to get through on the station’s telephone line so that ships at sea could be warned that the light was out. No dice: the storm had torn out the wire.

Luckily, one of the assistant keepers, Henry Jenkins, was a sort of gadget wizard. Scavenging bits of the broken telephone and pieces of the foghorn apparatus, he built a primitive radio transmitter that could be tuned to shortwave frequencies, and started trying to reach a ham radio operator on shore.

 

Exactly why Henry Goetz of Seaside was operating his shortwave radio set at the time isn’t known, but most likely he was searching for any sign of ships at sea caught in the storm. The gale had caused tremendous damage all over the state, ripping roofs from some houses and toppling trees onto others, killing 22 people. It wasn’t hard to imagine what might be the fate of any mariners caught out on the open sea during that storm.

But Goetz didn’t hear from any ships. Instead, he found himself talking to a lighthouse — and then calling the Lighthouse Service in Portland to let them know the light was out.

The main light stayed out for five days — the only time in the lighthouse’s operational history this happened. The storm damage came to more than $12,000. Plus, the loading boom was broken, so the supplies had to be landed using a taut hawser and a bo’s’un’s buoy — a zipline, basically. And the seas were still enormous, and another big weather system was on its way in.

Somehow, the crews got it all done. They replaced the now-irreplaceable Fresnel lens with an electric beacon protected by a heavy metal cage around the windows. Although this didn’t always keep the rocks from breaking the windows, it kept the rocks, seaweed and fish from actually entering the lantern room.

Nonetheless, the lighthouse suffered so much damage over the years that repairs and maintenance formed an outrageous expense — more than $15,000 a year throughout the 1950s. So in 1957, when it was finally possible to duplicate the lighthouse’s protection with an automated buoy and radio beacon, the Coast Guard jumped at the chance to walk away from the whole thing.

And at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 1, 1957, the last head lighthouse keeper threw the switch and the old lighthouse went dark, for the first time since the storm of ’34 … for real this time.

The lighthouse and rock were auctioned off as surplus two years later, and snapped up for deceptively small amounts of money by several buyers in succession, all of whom eventually realized the extreme limits of its usefulness because of its exposure to the weather and inaccessibility. Eventually it was bought by a company intending to make of it a columbarium — a final resting place for the ashes of cremated bodies. Currently, the lighthouse holds the remains of several dozen people, but the state revoked the operator’s permit in 1999, citing some needed improvements to the facility; as of late 2015, the situation hasn’t yet been resolved.

(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Tillamook Light. Portland: Binford, 1979; Noble, Dennis. Lighthouses & Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014; Portland Morning Oregonian: 22, 24 and 25 Oct. 1934)