Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Honorary Lighthouse Keepers Wanted

By Robert S. Scheyer

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Oswald Allik, the last keeper to serve at ...

“Honorary Lighthouse Keepers Wanted,” the advertisement for Eternity by the Sea reads. “We are currently not accepting new keepers, but you can add your name to the waiting list. . .”

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Aerial view of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse taken in ...

It is interesting to me that, to this day, that Oregon’s Tillamook Rock Lighthouse remains rather selective about her occupants. Although, I always found that a bit of a mystery in and of itself, because me and that lighthouse, well, we always got along just fine for nearly twenty-years.

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Unidentified keeper and others climbing the ...

If you know anything about the history of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, then you’ve no doubt heard about me, and if not, I’m Oswald Allik, keeper of Pacific lighthouses. But please, do call me Ossie, I don’t stand much on formality.

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Unidentified lighthouse keeper cleaning the lens ...

It has been said that I never smiled much. Perhaps that is because inside, I was always beaming.

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As shown in this late 1930s photo, landing at ...

But you’re not here to find out about me, now are you? No, you want to know about my favorite lighthouse. That solemn sentinel of light and hope that stood proud and firm in that part of the ocean known as The Pacific Graveyard.

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Many early keepers arrived and departed Oregon’s ...

The rock island upon which the lighthouse is built is nearly a mile off shore and the island itself is just big enough to hold a lighthouse tower, keeper’s quarters; and some mighty strange goings on, without much room to spare.

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This image looking up at Tillamook Rock ...

It is quite visible from land and to the uninformed, the lighthouse tower looks like a seagoing vessel riding on the tide. The waves between it and the shore give the white tower an illusion of a ship out to sea which is neither coming into shore nor going out with the tide. Not unlike a ghost ship must look like. And I was assigned not as an honorary keeper, but I kept that tower lit up on a regular basis. I didn’t really think of myself as a keeper at all. No, I thought of myself more like the captain of that ghost ship.

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Close up vintage view of the Tillamook Rock ...

I suppose if she had a name painted on her stern, it would read “Tilly the Terrible.” Word has gotten back to me that people nowadays call her “Terrible Tilly,” but me and the crew that were stationed there never thought of her as such. No, most of us were rather fond of the place and just liked to call it “T.R.”

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Waves crashing up at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in ...

Like any object of affection, she seemed to take on a personality all her own. And that personality was like the Siren’s Song to some: the allure was great, but it was best to stay where you were at, because death, destruction and madness could find you there when you least expected it. Even today, standing on the seashore looking out across the ocean waves at her stately form, the pristine tower reflecting through the sea mist beckons you to come, come.

Best to stay safe and sound on shore, though. As alluring as she looks, and as was previous brought out, that island has always been rather picky about her occupants. Why, the very first man to set foot on that island to survey it for building the lighthouse, slipped from the rocky shore, was taken under by the waves and never found again.

Well, I don’t mind telling you that this death started quite the uproar in the nearby town of Seaside. So much so, that not a single man from that town wanted to work on that rock island or build the lighthouse. Yep, T.R. kept them at a distance right from the get go. The company had to hire people from another state and then kept them hidden until it was time to go out to the rock and begin building the lighthouse for fear of a riot.

Those workmen began blasting away the top part of the island, leveling it off for the lighthouse’s foundation. One of the island’s features is a deep ravine that slices the island into two unequal parts. The ditch is very deep, and when the waves were just right, it threw a spray of saltwater way up and over the island, drenching everything to the leeward side of the wind. One of the workmen got the idea to put the rubble from the blasting into the ravine, thereby shutting down the spray that often confounded the work. So, a couple three or four tons of rock went into that crevasse and plugged it up, pretty as you please.

That ol’ island proved to have a few ideas of its own, though. Next good gale force wind, guess what happened? Yep, T.R. threw most the rock right out of the ravine and back at the workman, injuring a few in the process. I, myself, personally think it was because of all the animal life that was being displaced, like the colony of sea lions, sea birds and such, from all the blasting and building that started going on. Many of the supplies and workmen were swept off the island, but no one ever drowned again.

After the lighthouse tower was built, ‘ol T.R. became an engineering marvel, with walls three feet thick and the moorings into the island rock solid as you please. Nothing was going to budge that lighthouse from its foundation, and nothing ever has to this day. And it wasn’t long before the usefulness of having a lighthouse there became apparent.

I recollect it was the first of January, 1881, New Year’s Day, twelve days before the light was first to be turned on. A British frigate got caught up in a gale force wind at night, and was headed right for T.R. The crew working there could hear the boat’s crew from a distance in the darkness, and yelled at them to veer off, but the captain couldn’t see well enough to figure out where the ship was headed. It came crashing right into some nearby rocks, killing all sixteen British sailors on board. A border collie from the ship managed to swim to shore, where some of the workmen rescued her the next day.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse seemed to succumb to her fate after that. It proved to be a first rate lighthouse, but that Siren Song drew some men to the point of madness. No doubt about it, from time to time, that ol’ rock island T.R. took on a mind of its own as to who would stay, and who would go and still didn’t like the idea of men getting on and off her.

Several contraptions were thought up and proposed for the landing of supplies and men on the island because a boat dock wasn’t feasible. What they finally ended up with was a called a “breeches buoy” system.

It consisted of a lifesaving ring fitted with some old pants, cut off at the knees. The ring was attached to a thick line by a pulley and the line was strung from ship to shore. The arriving crewman (some thought of themselves as “inmates”) was put in the ring and slid on the line to get to the rocky shore safely. Trouble was, the boat had a difficult time remaining stationary, and the man being transferred would often take a few dunks in the icy water before making it to dry land. The island must have found some humor in that.

So, after getting a good dunking, what did the crewman have to look forward too? Long hours of isolation, endless routine maintenance and boredom so oppressive, for them anyway, that they’d nearly go mad. And some did. Or so they said, but I be tellin more on that in just a bit. When the weather was nice, or even when it t’wernt, the light station was a beautiful, majestic place. From the light tower itself was the most spectacular view. A Siren’s Song though, because then that fog’d roll in and I think it were the fog more than anything that drove some of the men to want off the rock, and never come back.

Now, mind you my good fellows, I never once believed that these men actually went mad. I think most of them were just faking it, trying to get off such an isolated outpost.

Who could blame them, though? That fog would roll in there, thick as pea soup, and those foghorns blew and blew, that low mournful sound, not unlike a dog howling, mourning over the dead. This could go on for days, even weeks sometimes.

Then there is a legend that Native Americans knew of an underwater tunnel from the shore to the island. Word had it that their dead were laid there, and that is why the island resented man’s intrusion. Least that is what the men on the verge of madness would start babbling about from their saliva flecked mouths. That they heard these voices of the dead from underneath the island. They didn’t really say if they were the Native Americans or the sailors from that shipwreck. Course, mostly because they weren’t quite in their right minds anywhatever.

And, it wasn’t just the occasional mentally unbalanced that told me this. No, once in awhile, a perfectly sane keeper, walking up the circular stairs at dusk to light the tower’s lamp, said he heard chanting or drums or some such nonsense. Why, I’d even admit to it myself as at times I did hear some unusual sounds, but I just thought it to be the wind blowing over the rocks, making peculiar kinds of noises, as the wind is wont to do at times. ‘Twas a bit scary sounding at times, though.

It didn’t help matters that boats couldn’t always come out and relieve us with supplies because of the thick fog or the water got too choppy. The isolation was pretty near petrifying at times.

Dinner time could prove pretty terse, I’m telling you. By the end of four or five days of fog and foghorns, we’d all be a little nerve stretched, and not talking to one another. During those times, we all agreed to passing notes at supper time to tell whose shift it was to do what. We could tell by the notes who needed to get off the island first, once the weather broke.

Were they mad? I Ossie Allik don’t really think so, but I guess it depends on what your definition of mad is. Did they want off the island bad as you please? Yep, that certainly proved to be the case.

Now, if the goings on in and around the island weren’t enough for the occasional excitement, one of the former keepers tells of a ghost ship that went sailing by one day. It is perhaps best expressed in his own words. A man by the name of Jim Gibbs wrote the entire thing down not long after it happened.

Here’s his rendition:

“Leaping out of bed and into my pants, I was outside in a flash and “Swede” was waiting for me, all wrought up as if his blood was boiling in his veins. He pointed to the dim outline of a vessel parting the strands of mist less than a quarter of a mile away - its dull gray silhouette blending with the sky and sea and hinting of mystery.

“Through the glasses one could tell that she was an old steamer that boasted a chronicle of long and hectic years - her seams had opened and the oakum had baked out through a series of summers. Badly hogged, her decks had grown sodden from rain and sea water, and the rigging hung limp from her fore and main masts, like a broken spider web, against the dismal sky. The dingy paint was peeling from her sides, and streaks of rust from iron fittings had left tell tale marks. The davits swung empty, the pilot house was partly stove in, and the cabin portholes creaked open and shut with the pulse of the ocean.

It was clear she was headed toward the rocks, and the crew radioed for a Coast Guard cutter to respond. But it was soon obvious that one wouldn’t make it there in time to save this old ship. As the seemingly lifeless ship drifted closer to the rocks, she suddenly became motionless even as a rip tide cut through her hull, and as if there was a skilled navigator at the helm, spun around, sparing herself from disaster. The wooden rudder did strike the rocks during this maneuver, and broke free as the derelict ship continued on her way, disappearing into the mist.

“An air and sea search was conducted by the Coast Guard, but they could find no trace of the ship or the wreckage. Until a few weeks later, during a bad storm, the waves deposited a load of flotsam and jetsam (parts of a boat’s wreckage) at the base (of the island). The lost wooden rudder was there. The crew and I desperately wanted it as proof, so I allowed myself to be lowered down on a lifeline to retrieve the rudder. Just before I reached it however, a huge whitewater wave came crashing ashore, inundating me and everything in its wake. As the water receded, I watched helplessly as the rudder was swept back out to sea, never to be seen again.”

I, Ossie, thought the tide was playing tricks with an old barge that had somehow escaped its moorings, but it was a little odd that the ship, or any of its pieces, was never seen or heard from again.

Spirits, isolation, getting on and off the island and the occasional ghost ship weren’t the real dangers out there in that vast ocean though. No, I’m telling you that the real dangers came from the hurricane force winds and ocean swells that happened about every decade or so. You just never knew when that gentle breeze would turn into a wind so fierce that it made waves taller than the lighthouse tower that tried to take the island, and its spirits, back to the depths.

I never experienced a really savage storm myself, but several of the keepers before me did. Time doesn’t allow me to say too much about their heroics. I suppose if that island wanted you to stay, and you kept your sanity, then she did all she could to protect the inhabitants, alive or dead.

Well, there did come a parting of the ways between T.R. and myself, at least in the physical sense. An automated beacon buoy was set up in place of the light that shone twenty-miles in all directions for all those years. During a bright cloudless day on a calm sea and with a heavy heart, I made this one last entry in her guest book, because really, we were all just guests on that island:

“Farewell, Tillamook Rock Light Station. An era has ended. With this final entry, and not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements. You, one of the most notorious and yet fascinating of the sea-swept sentinels in the world; long the friend of the tempest-tossed mariner. Through howling gale, thick fog and driving rain your beacon has been a star of hope and your foghorn a voice of encouragement. May the elements of nature be kind to you. For 77 years you have beamed your light across desolate acres of ocean. Keepers have come and gone; men lived and died; but you were faithful to the end. May your sunset years be good years. Your purpose is now only a symbol, but the lives you have saved and the service you have rendered are worthy of the highest respect. A protector of life and property to all, may old-timers, newcomers and travelers along the way pause from the shore in memory of your humanitarian role.”

Since then, it has been said that when the sun is setting and the reflection off the ocean shines just so, or there is a storm approaching, you can see a keeper in the tower, lighting the lamp.

So, as that advertisement for the Eternity by the Sea reads, if you want to be an Honorary Lighthouse Keeper, you only need be dead and have your remains cremated, and there is a little niche for you here. Although there have been some questions raised about whether the current accommodations are suitable for even the dead. Yes, she continues to be rather selective about who stays and who goes, but either way, I am happy to be your captain.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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