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Builders were hard to hire for scary lighthouse job

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By Finn J.D. John
November 1, 2015

THE EIGHT STRANGERS must have been a little puzzled when they arrived in Astoria, in the fall of 1878.

They’d been brought in at considerable expense from far away by the U.S. Lighthouse Board to work on a new lighthouse construction project. But now that they were finally here, they weren’t even allowed to go into town for a drink. They were whisked away, across the river onto the lonesome wilds of the Washington Territory, and put up in an empty lightkeeper’s house at Cape Disappointment.

So, where was the lighthouse they’d been hired to work on? All they knew was that it was on a small, rocky island. But where?

The original floorplan for the lighthouse as originally constructed. Note the absence of indoor plumbing facilities; calls of Nature were answered in a tiny outhouse that hung directly over the ocean at the edge of the bluff. (Image: Gibbs/ Binford & Mort)

More than three weeks dragged by. Finally, when the seas were relatively calm, the revenue cutter Thomas Corwin arrived to take them to the job site. And an hour or so later, their eyes widened with horror as they beheld what they’d signed up to build.

Staring at the tiny speck of granite jutting out of the flying spray and foam, the workers now understood why their employer had been so secretive — and why it had been necessary to recruit them from far-distant cities that had never heard of Tillamook Rock.

The Rock was a fist-shaped hunk of granite shooting straight up out of the sea, a mile and a half away from the coast of Oregon, rising to a height of about 120 feet above the waves. And although the day was calm and the sea fairly smooth, the workers could immediately see that getting onto the rock would be neither easy nor safe. Indeed, as they would later learn, it was word of master mason John R. Trewaves’ death trying to clamber onto the rock — he’d slipped and fallen into the sea and been sucked under before anyone could grab him, never to be seen again — that had made it impossible for the government to find anyone in Oregon willing to work on the job.

Now, looking up at this horrible pile of granite from the thwarts of their surfboat, as the unruly and frothy seas sloshed against the rock, they were about to perform the exact maneuver that had killed Trewaves. They would have to wait for the boat to be in the crest of a wave, leap onto the rock as the boat descended 10 feet into the wave’s trough, and scramble as fast as they could to get high enough that the next wave would not wash them off.

Well, they may have been suckered into taking the job, and they were surely scared nearly out of their wits — but the eight quarrymen were not cowards. They stepped forward, ready to do their best. But only four of them were able to get onto the rock before the surfboat caught a wave badly and smashed into the granite surface, doing substantial damage and sending the boat hurrying back to the cutter.

With a line stretched between the cutter and the rock, they proceeded to load hammers, drills, ringbolts, food, water and canvas tents. And then the cutter retreated, leaving those four men behind, alone on a half-acre guano-covered rock jutting out of an increasingly angry sea.

Those four men were, as a near-certainty, the first humans ever to spend a night on Tillamook Rock. In fact, it was five days before the seas moderated enough to land the rest of the party. And almost as soon as they did, the rock welcomed them with one of the massive gales for which that corner of Oregon is famous. The wind screamed, the seas hit the rock hard enough that the men could feel the stone tremble beneath their feet, and sheets of flying, frothy seawater blanketed the entire island. Everything the men had was soaked through with saltwater.

But they made it through, and soon spectators on the mainland could watch their progress through spyglasses from the point. From the beginning, the locals had viewed the scheme to put a lighthouse on the rock as sheer madness, but now it looked as if they were actually going to pull it off.

But then, there hadn’t really been much of a choice. By the late 1870s it had become all too clear to the U.S. Lighthouse Board that a light would have to be stationed south of the Columbia. There were, at the time, two at its mouth — Point Adams on the Oregon side, and Cape Disappointment on the Washington shore — but these couldn’t be seen far enough out to sea to keep ships from getting into deadly trouble on the shoals and reefs off Tillamook Head, especially on foggy days.

In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]

(Jump to top of next column)

The Tillamook Rock Light as it appeared in 2010 from the mainland. Although it looks close to land in this image, it’s actually over a mile offshore; the photographer used a telephoto lense to expand the depth of field. (Image: Lu, Wikimedia Commons)

So the government allocated $50,000 for the job and started looking for a good place to put it.

It quickly became clear that there really wasn’t one. Tillamook Head seemed a logical place, but it was 1,000 feet high; a light there would be invisible in heavy fog — exactly the weather condition in which a light was most needed.

And then … there was The Rock.

So Tillamook Rock was scouted by district lighthouse superintendent H.S. Wheeler — who managed, after many attempts, to get first himself and then, on a second attempt, his surveying instruments onto the rock in the summer of 1879.

He was almost certainly the first human ever to set foot on the thing.

The investigation proved that a lighthouse could be put on the rock. But it would require a great deal of dynamite to level off its top, and getting on and off the thing was a matter of deadly peril — as was soon demonstrated by the death of John Trewaves.

Still, the only alternative was to accept the loss of dozens of lives and thousands of tons of shipping every year in preventable shipwrecks. That was unacceptable. And so the Lighthouse Board agreed to go ahead with it, and sent emissaries to San Francisco and other faraway ports in search of workers gullible enough to sign onto what the locals considered a suicide mission.

Once there, the crew on the rock worked as quickly as they could, blasting and drilling and chipping out a level surface and laying the massive stone blocks — pinned together with heavy copper rods — of which the lighthouse was to be built. Supplies were at first landed via a cable stretched from the rock to the mast of the Thomas Corwin. This was also the workers’ only way on or off the island; they’d hang beneath the cable in a breeches buoy and, more often than not, get dunked in the sea at least once when a wave hit the ship. Later a crane was built, which picked supplies off the deck of the ship.

It was a job to remember. The days were usually full of hard and tedious work, and the nights were occasionally full of terror and dread. For the entire winter of 1879-1880 the crew was camped out on that tiny chip of granite under siege by an angry sea, first in a tent and later in a rough wooden shack. That first winter, a hurricane carried off the storehouse, and it was several hungry, fretful weeks before the seas were calm enough for the Thomas Corwin to bring the men food.

The following winter would be easier; a summer’s worth of construction had provided them with sturdy stone walls to hide behind when the massive hurricane-driven waves slammed themselves into the granite. It was still very hard to find workers willing to take jobs on the rock, though. There is a rumor that the services of Astoria’s shanghaiers were tapped to fill this need, and, although that seems unlikely, chances are pretty good that the supervisors dealt with sailors’ boardinghouse masters and other shady labor contractors whose men had no choice but to go.

All through 1880 they worked, and by January of the following year the light was almost ready to shine. The workers were given added motivation to move as fast as humanly possible when, on Jan. 6, the 1,300-ton British ship Lupatia sank within sight of the rock, leaving a three-foot section of mainmast jutting out of the water as a silent reminder of just how much depended on their speed. (The only survivor was a dog.)

Finally, on January 21, 1881, the wick of the great lantern was touched to flame for the first time, and the angry North Pacific was lighted for the first time with a powerful beam from the top of Tillamook Rock.

The men had proven that it was possible to build a lighthouse on the least hospitable half-acre of land in the entire continent. Now the question was, could they keep it?

We’ll talk about that challenge next week.

(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Tillamook Light. Portland: Binford, 1979;

TAGS: #TerribleTilly #Lighthouse #FresnelLens #ThomasCorwin #TillamookRock #JohnTrewaves #LighthouseService #USCG #TillamookHead #Shanghaiers #Astoria #Lupatia #Shipwreck #Fatal


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