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Lighthouse was built 18 days too late to save sailing ship’s crew

The construction crew had knocked off work for the night, and outside the building the blustery January weather raged. Then, over the roar of wind and surf, the crew heard a terrified voice from below shouting, “Hard aport!”

A drawing of the lighthouse from the Annual Report of the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1881, just after Tillamook Rock Light had been built. (Image: Library of Congress)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in July 2009, which you’ll find here.

The third of January, 1881, was a typical winter day for the construction crew working on the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. That is to say, it was awful. A terrific gale was blowing out of the southwest, the sea was high and gray and menacing, and they were facing it from the top of a big chunk of rock jutting a few dozen feet out of the angry whitecaps, a mile away from shore.

But, it could have been worse. In fact, it HAD been worse. Before the crews got the lighthouse itself finished, they’d had to sleep in temporary shacks built on the lee side of the rock and anchored to it as best they could by eye bolts. They’d had to fall asleep every night knowing they could be swept off the rock by a rogue wave at any moment. Now, at least, they had the unfinished lighthouse building, with its 18-inch-thick stone walls pinned in place with copper rods, to sleep in.

And they also had something to look forward to. The lighthouse was almost finished. Just another few weeks and they would be able to line up on the derrick pad for the terrifying process of being taken off the rock — which involved being lifted by a crane out over the water and deposited as gently as possible on the deck of a moving ship. Most of the men couldn’t wait.

Now, though, huddled around a glowing fire in the cookstove in the partly built structure, they were just focusing on toasting off the soggy chill of one workday and getting ready for another.

Then the construction-crew foreman, whose name historians Lewis and Dryden give as “Captain Wheeler,” came inside in a state of high excitement. He had, he said, heard voices on the wind.

It was pitch-black outside, and the entire crew was gathered around the fire, and they were on the top of a rock in the middle of the ocean. If there really were voices out there, the speakers had to be either in Wheeler’s head, or in really big trouble.

The men, wondering if the boss had lost it, came out of the building to investigate. Peering out into the foggy night, they saw, to their horror, a running light — just a few dozen feet away from the base of the rock. And up from below, over the howling wind and crashing surf, they distinctly heard a terrified voice shouting, “HARD A-PORT!”

A drawing of the lighthouse from the Annual Report of the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1881, just after Tillamook Rock Light had been built. (Image: Library of Congress)

The men broke into action. Wheeler sent several scrambling up the unfinished light tower with lanterns to hang in windows. Others he sent out onto the front of the building with wood and tinder, and in just a few minutes they had a bonfire roaring there, shedding a little light on the sea and warning the sailors that danger was very near.

Meanwhile, others watched the red running light as it came about and made for the open sea — praying for a miracle to save the sailors on that ship. The thing was, Tillamook Rock Light was not the only keel-ripping basalt outcropping sticking out of the sea in that general area. The unknown ship would need a good deal of luck to get past them.

As the light and the voices faded into the blackness of the foggy night, the construction crew members knew that they had done all they could do to save those sailors’ lives.

But the next morning they learned that it hadn’t been enough.

Confused and disoriented in the fog and darkness, it seemed the crew of the doomed ship had sailed not out toward the open sea and safety, but inward toward the shore. In any case, the crew could plainly see, a few hundred yards away near Tillamook Head, the mizzen topmast of a sunken freight barque, sticking up out of the frothy sea.

No one even considered the possibility that anyone could have survived — not in the pitch blackness of a stormy night on an unfamiliar coast bounded mostly by jagged rocky outcroppings.

“God! If only the light had been shining, those poor devils could have gained safe waters,” said the master mason, looking at the mast. Then he turned and looked at the unfinished lighthouse. “Back to work, men,” he ordered.

From that time on, the construction crew raced to complete the project. And less than three weeks later, on Jan. 21, 1881, they were able to look on in satisfaction as the big lamp behind the great Fresnel lens was lit for the first time.

By that time, they had names to go with the voices they’d heard shouting frantically in the night — names, and bodies. The ship had been the 1,200-ton British barque Lupatia, a member of the grain fleet, bound for Portland from Hiogo, Japan, in ballast to pick up a cargo of wheat. The Lupatia’s captain had died on the voyage, and the ship was under the command of the first mate; a total of 16 men crewed her, and all 16 drowned that night. The only survivor was an Australian shepherd puppy, found shivering and crying among several bodies that had washed up on shore.

The lighthouse had taken 575 working days to build, and cost roughly $123,500 — a vast sum in 1881. But it was there now, ready to prevent the next shipwreck.

The real struggle, though, was just beginning. The blasting that had been necessary to prepare the site to build the lighthouse had shaken many chunks of basalt loose, and throughout the life of the lighthouse these chunks never stopped coming loose during heavy storms to be hurled at the building by great waves. Every winter ended with thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to be repaired.

Still, the Lighthouse Service (and, later, the Coast Guard) paid the costs and made the repairs, knowing that the costs of not having the lighthouse perched on that improbable little chunk of rock would far outweigh whatever it cost to keep it there.

Finally, in 1957, the Coast Guard replaced the old lighthouse with an automated buoy, and the last lighthouse keeper made his way ashore for the last time.

Today, the lighthouse still stands atop Tillamook Rock, but just barely. It’s been 60 years since anyone has fixed any of the thousands of dollars’ worth of damage the sea does to the place every winter. Several times the lighthouse has been sold to people who tried to do something with it; however, it remains almost impossible to get on and off the thing in all but the mildest of weather, and the building is in terrible shape. The most recent attempt to do something with it was to make it a columbarium — a sort of mausoleum for cremated bodies. This plan foundered in 1999 when the state mortuary board revoked the columbarium’s license, citing inadequate facilities.

(Sources: Gibbs, James Jr. Tillamook Light. Portland: Binfords, 1979; Wilson, Elleda. “In One Ear: Lupatia’s Sad end,” The Daily Astorian, 30 Dec. 2016)