It was late in the nineteenth century. No woman or child was allowed on that godforsaken rock. Or maybe no woman or child was fool enough to go. But give a certain kind of man a chance to be a jackass, and he is bound to try.
The Oregon coast south of the Columbia was a danger to sailing ships at sea. A lighthouse was out of the question because the Tillamook Cliff was so high it was shrouded in fog much of the time. This is, after all, the Pacific coast we’re talking about, where early explorers were so miserable in the weather, they left behind names such as include Dismal Nitch and Desolation Point.
Nonetheless, ships were flailing against the cliff and seamen were perishing. Something must be done. If the cliff was inaccessible for a lighthouse, what about basalt rock at its base?
“That would work,” said government engineers who were landlubbers from far, far away.
The locals knew better. In fact, the first surveyor dropped on the rock in 1879, took a look around, slipped, plunged into the waves and was never seen again.
“Told you so,” said the locals. From then on, crews brought in from elsewhere were sequestered from the Oregonians and their tales of doom.
We can only assume it was a surprise to these poor souls when they found themselves strung on a line between a tiny ship and an enormous rock. To make the transfer, one after another climbed into a contraption made from a life ring attached to an old pair of cut off pants. As the ship bobbed, the line whipped high and low, plunging the woebegone workers deep under the swells on the downswings. When the first of them arrived, soaked and terrified, their nightmare was not yet done. They had to fight off the thousand pound sea lion bulls who thought of the rock as their familial pile. Krakens or sea serpents could hardly have been less welcoming.
In time, after appalling deprivation and desperation, the Tillamook lighthouse did get built. Just days before it was lit, the crew heard another ship throw itself against the cliff. They listened to the cries of sixteen seamen until all were lost. Only the ship’s dog survived. It is said you can still hear its mournful howl on nights when the sea is calm.
From that night ’til now, the light has been known as Terrible Tilly. You can see it as you drive south along the coast although It was decommissioned decades ago. But the story doesn’t end here.
The cremains of some thirty dead souls are out there because for a limited time, the lighthouse became a columbarium for families who thought Uncle Fred might like to spend eternity at sea. But Terrible Tilly rejected that idea, proving humans were as unwanted dead as alive. The place has been damaged by violent wind and wave … and now all those Uncle Freds are spending eternity covered in tons of murre and cormorant guano. It’s now off limits most of the year as part of the National Wildlife Refuge. So the columbarium idea has pretty much gone to shit.
Give a certain kind of man a chance to be a jackass, and he is bound to try. Terrible Tilly is waiting there for the next one with a bright idea to happen along..