Background photo is an image of Highway 395 on the shores of Abert Lake, made by F.J.D. John in 2016.
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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.