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The most isolating lighthouse on the Oregon Coast still stands proudly on the rock on which it was built. For decades, the light guided sailors to keep from running aground on the Tillamook cape. The only way to access it is by boat, but the ocean would rage in the tempest around the rock. Lightkeepers went insane, died, or both throughout its long history. Finally closed in 1957, the lighthouse still sits stoically in the bay, waves crashing against it as if to knock the building from its pedestal. Today, we’re exploring the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, and the dark history it lived through. 

The lighthouse was originally built over the course of a few years, finally having the light turned on in 1881. A crew of four men would be stationed on the rock, keeping the light burning to save ships from the rocky coast. Many workers refused to go to the rocky island, owing to local legends about the rock being cursed. A popular urban legend says that local Native Americans considered the island cursed by their gods and filled with the souls of evil spirits. To combat this, light keepers from further away were ferried onto the island and kept sequestered so as to keep the rumors of hauntings from spreading. 

Unfortunately, the lighthouse would claim its first victims shortly after its construction, when a construction worker building the lighthouse was washed away in a storm, his body swallowed by the depths and never seen again. Still more tragedies occurred, when workers would have to be carried off the rock in straight jackets. It’s horrific conditions earned it the name “Terrible Tilly.”

Is it the maddening location and isolation that caused the former light keepers to see supernatural events in the lighthouse, or are the evil spirits making themselves known among those working on the desolate rock? Regardless, the reports of hauntings are numerous and varied. One worker once claimed to be chased up the stairs by a particularly nasty apparition. One legend says that all four of the lighthouse workers watched a ghost ship in the water before it vanished in front of their eyes. Still more reports are made that low, pained moans can be heard reverberating off the stone walls in the keeper’s quarters. 

One particularly friendly ghost in the building was that of a former light keeper who loved the rock so much, he asked to be buried there. He’s not the only spirit of former employees of the lighthouse, as one malicious ghost seems to attack his replacements in a fit of fury, slamming doors and throwing objects with an unseen hand. The man who reported the ghost chasing him up the stairs would later be carried off the island in a straight jacket. 

The lighthouse was decommissioned and the light turned off in 1957, replaced by newer technology to keep ships from running into the rocks. That didn’t end the spooky story of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, as the island building was purchased by enterprising undertakers who wished to turn it into a columbarium, a type of cemetery where urns and ashes are stored. About 30 urns still remain on the island to this day, not counting the two who were stolen by vandals and never seen again. The undertakers warned families that their loved ones could potentially be buried at sea if the storms became too much for the columbarium. It seems appropriate that the only residents now, decades after its 77 year run as a beacon to sailors, are the cremated remains of lives cut too short. 

The lighthouse is inaccessible to tourists, owing to the difficult waves and impracticality of a ferry to take tourists to the rock. Instead, if you want to visit, you have to get special permission from the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and charter a helicopter to the island. The rock is currently a home of a rare, endangered bird and thus is closed off to the public. The lighthouse, however, is still a beloved sight on the Oregon coast, visible from many vantages and standing tall and proud after over 100 years of history seeping from the stone walls and causing chills for those who visit it today. Hopefully no one else steals the urns that call the rock their final resting place. 

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