A mile offshore of Tillamook Head in the very northwest corner of Oregon, between Seaside and Cannon Beach, squats the 100-foot-high basalt monolith called Tillamook Rock. Back in the days of sailing ships, when navigation instruments were crude and could easily be misread, when inbound ships were much smaller than today’s industrial vessels and traveled closer to shore, the rock was a navigation hazard, a cement barrier in the middle of a nautical highway.
On June 20, 1879, the U.S. Congress appropriated $50,000 for “constructing a first-class light-house on Tillamook Head.” In a nod to the difficulty of the work, on June 16, 1880, they appropriated an additional $50,000. On March 3, 1881, “for completing the erection of a first order light-house and steam fog-signal on the rock off Tillamook Head, Oregon,” Congress appropriated an additional $25,000.
While government reports are not often fun to read, this one: “The Construction of Tillamook Rock Light Station, Sea Coast of Oregon,” by G. L. Gillespie, Major of Engineers and Bvt. Lieut. Col., U. S. A., Light-House Engineer, 13th District. It’s a doozy.
“A thoughtful study” of Tillamook Head, wrote Maj. Gillespie, “convinced me [of] the inaccessibility of the Head by sea, which necessitated the opening and maintenance of a road 20 miles long, a part of which would be through a difficult and almost unknown country,” which would mean a horrid time delivering supplies for a lighthouse over ground given to frequent landslides. In addition, the elevation of the site was too high for mariners to see a light above the region’s regular fog and thick weather.
Gillespie then looked at the rock offshore and was “desirous of being allowed to make the attempt” to use the place for the light-station.
The first step was to survey the rock. “This duty was confided to John R. Trewavas, an excellent master mason of Portland, who had been employed at one time upon the construction of the Wolf Rock light-house, off Land’s End, England.” Trewavas and a sailor, Mr. Cherry, were sent out on a revenue cutter, and took a properly manned surf-boat to the rock itself.
Sailor Cherry leapt ashore and, “as Trewavas stepped quickly upon the wet slope, he slipped and fell, and was almost instantly swept off by a receding wave.” Cherry tried to save him, as did the surf-boat’s crew, without success. “His body was not recovered.”
The disaster alarmed the public “against the project of even attempting to land upon this sea-swept rock,” and it “became necessary, after the death of the foreman, to act vigorously before the public mind [became] so diseased by frequent discussions of the dangers” as to interfere with being able to hire workers for the project.
Mr. A. Ballantyne was appointed superintendent and charged with hiring “eight or more skilled quarrymen.” He was instructed to “make a lodgment upon the Rock, to prepare comfortable quarters for his men, and to lose no time” in blasting and chiseling enough rock off the crest to create a flat building space at least 50 feet square.
It was now late in September 1879—“the southwesterly winds of autumn had already commenced to blow, and the seas outside [on the ocean] were so high that the [Revenue Cutter Corwin under my orders] could not cross the bar until Oct. 12.”
In the meantime, to keep the hired laborers away from the gossip of the town and the inclination to desert, Gillespie had them transferred to the “old light-keeper’s dwelling at Cape Disappointment,” thereby isolating them.
On Oct. 21, “four men were landed, together with hammers, drills, iron ring-bolts, stove, provisions, and an abundant supply of canvas to form temporary shelter for themselves and supplies.” The rest of the crew, supplies, and a small derrick were landed five days later; that’s when Gillespie dated the start of the project.
“As the establishment of the light-station was dependent upon the occupancy of the Rock and the erection of the appliances for making the future landings with safety and dispatch,” wrote Gillespie after all the work was done, “it will not be without interest to note here the successive steps which led to the happy consummation of the plans.”
The major then described the rugged rock and its irregularities, its “tough and unyielding matrix”; its permanent supporting chorus of sea lions — “at first they showed a decided disposition to hold their ground … but eventually retired to rocky resorts farther … southwest,” and its watery surroundings, the waves which could roar over 200 feet into the air, topping the rock. Whales liked to scratch their barnacled hides against the rocks at sea-level.
“For the first fifteen days … , the efforts of the party were directed towards providing shelter for themselves and supplies. The Rock had no deep recesses into which they could take refuge, and shelter against the driving rains could only be obtained by cutting up the canvas and making small ‘A’ tents, which were held down by rope lashing, passing through ring-bolts let into the rock. These gave safe coverings, but they were neither dry nor comfortable. …
“As soon as an indifferent substitute for quarters was completed, a site for the main derrick was leveled nearby, on a slightly lower level, a rude pathway was excavated up the face of the rock from the landing at the 30-foot level ….” Occasionally the men were required to work “upon staging suspended from bolt attachments let into the crest of the rock,” like high-rise window washers doing their work in a winter gale.
Gillespie continued, “As soon as a bench was made of a sufficient width for safe communication [i.e., they could stand on it], the parties were concentrated on the leeward side, and the [removal of rock] was pushed towards the center, gaining at each step … a better working face. The outer surface of the rock was covered with thin scales and chipped off rather easily, with moderate charges of black power. The nucleus was very firm and tough, and the black power could make but little impression upon it, but by opening the mass with giant cartridges, and then using large charges of black power, the rock was blasted with much better success.”
‘The coast was visited by a terrific tornado’
Then came January’s storm: “Notwithstanding their constant exposures to danger, and the many discomforts of their rudely constructed quarters, the little party of honest, courageous quarrymen labored diligently throughout the winter, and no complaint was made of hardships endured, though early in January, as if they had not had already trials enough, the coast was visited by a terrific tornado, which caused the waves of the sea, after rebounding from the face of the rock and filling the chasm on the south side, to be thrown by the winds entirely over the rock at every point continuously and uninterruptedly for many days, carrying away, by their impetuous descent down the opposite slope, the supply-house on the 30-foot level, and endangering even the quarters of the men. The storm reached its maximum during the night of the 9th, when the men were in their bunks. To the heroic conduct of Mr. Ballantyne at this time may be ascribed the safety of the party. By his determined action he arrested a panic which had seized upon them, and prevented them from deserting their little house for an apparently securer refuge on a high level, an attempt which would inevitably have led to their destruction, as the darkness was intense and the wind most violent. [That storm carried away the supply-house.] Fortunately [Mr. Ballantyne] had stored in the [men’s] quarters plenty of hard bread, coffee, and bacon to last with economy for several weeks.
“For more than two weeks after the storm had subsided, the [supply tender] could not cross out over the bar [due to rough water] ... to render assistance.”
By May 31, 1880, the rock had been lowered by about 30 feet, and the crew had removed 4,630 cubic yards of solid rock. They now had a flat surface on which to anchor a lighthouse, which would hold a first order Fresnel light. It would take another nine months or so to build the structure.
Just days before that light was lit, during a winter storm, a ship on the way to its doom passed alarmingly close to the lighthouse. “The Fated Lupata,” wrote The Morning Astorian on Jan. 9, 1881, “… came in there last Monday evening about 7 o’clock in a most terrific storm, so dark and thick that her lights only could be seen from the [Tillamook] Rock. The weather was so fearful that the sea broke over the rock 90 feet in height.
“‘Probably not a soul was saved, as nothing could live in the fury of waters such as that,’ ” the newspaper quoted Capt. Wheeler of the lighthouse crew as saying. “‘When first seen from the Rock the Lupata was coming direct to the Rock apparently from shore. She then changed her course, bearing toward Tillamook Head, and passed on northward, between Tillamook Rock and the main land, till she struck where she now lies.’
“We quote,” the Astorian continued, “from Capt. Wheeler’s memorandum …‘At about 8 p.m. (Monday, Jan. 3, 1881), loud shouting was heard upon the water. On going out of our quarters the lights of a vessel were seen not more than two hundred yards from the southeast point of Tillamook rock moving in a north easterly direction. I immediately had a bon-fire built on the rock, and placed a lamp in the light-house lantern. In about 25 minutes from the first seeing her lights we saw them for the last time, close under Tillamook head, and in two or three minutes they were obscure again. The wind had been blowing strongly from the southeast and it was so thick and dark that nothing but the vessel’s lights could be seen.’ “
Disaster at sea
The Astorian of Jan. 6, 1881 called attention to pieces of wreck, hard bread, charts, etc., washed up on the beach below the Grimes [Seaside] house.
“Fragments of the charts were left at this office by Mr. Grimes, showing that they had not been long in the water. That day Capt. A. D. Wass left for Clatsop beach to make an investigation, and forwarded to Capt. Flavel a small piece of the wreck, accompanied by the following note, which was received yesterday morning: ‘Clatsop, Jan. 6, 1881. Capt. Geo. Flavel. Sir: I have found several pieces of the wreck, and articles from her, such as buckets, barrel head, etc., all branded “Lupata.” A portion of the upper deck about 12 feet square, with two iron beams broken off at the ends, sill of house fast to it. Small pieces still coming ashore. I think the wreck is sunk not far off. Yours Respectfully, A. D. Wass.’ The Lupata has been twice to this port [to ship wheat]. She was an iron ship of 1,025 tons, British, built in 1875 at Harrington, England ….”
“The Doomed Crew. The sea gives up its dead, and the certainty is now fully established that not a soul survived the loss of the Lupata …. At low tide last Sunday Mr. Cloutrie, the mail carrier, passed under the cliff of Tillamook Head and there found the ghastly remains of 12 men. Five in one heap, and seven in another. They were all divested of clothing, and the probability is that before leaving the vessel they prepared to take the best advantages possible of the last chance of saving their lives.
“But alas, the place where they came in was the most forbidding spot along the whole coast, an almost perpendicular cliff of rock, against which possibly, if living to reach it, they were dashed to death or perished in their futile attempts to get away. … The bodies will be given Christian burial, and a sharp look out will be kept for the others.” (The Morning Astorian, Jan. 11, 1881.)
“Ten of the unfortunate men off the Lupata were buried by a party from the Sea-side on Wednesday. It was a work of mercy performed under the most trying circumstances. The party consisted of Messrs. Wm. Hobson of this city, two Messrs. Eberman, Messrs. Austin, Morrison, Clayton and Stanley. They were six hours in getting two miles. …If she had struck half a mile to the southward a landing might have been made upon a sandy beach, or half a mile to the north, upon a cobble beach. Two of the bodies were not recovered …The Oregonian’s item about the dog [which was said to have survived] from the Lupata is ‘a romance of the wreck.’ “(The Morning Astorian, Jan. 15, 1881.)
“Six additional bodies were washed ashore last Sabbath near the wrecked ship Lupata. Their features were so mutilated by beating against the rocks that descriptions are impossible. Seventeen bodies have now been recovered. (Albany Democrat, Jan. 28, 1881.)
“Mr. Grimes, mail carrier from Sea-side, informs us that another body was found on Clatsop beach by Mrs. Shepherd, who procured the necessary assistance and had it buried. Probably this was one of the Lupata unfortunates which had washed ashore among the rocks with others and been left there unburied and perhaps floated off again. … County court, Hon. Judge Bowlby presiding, is still in session … The claim presented by the parties who buried the sailors washed ashore from the wrecked ship Lupata was allowed, the acting coroner received $19.40 and each of the men $14.40 for their time and trouble, making the total amount allowed by the county $122. Considering the toil and danger incurred the money was well earned by the recipients.” (The Morning Astorian, Feb. 10, 1881.)
“Would that we could satisfactorily answer the piercing words and pitiful implore of the writer of the following letter; … Perhaps some readers of The Astorian may be able to contribute a word of comfort to that poor mother’s heart; if so, we shall be glad to communicate it to her: ‘Stockholm, March 8th, 1881. Editor Astorian: Sir: Excuse my troubling you, unknown as I am, with a private affair, but as I know no other to apply to and it is of a very serious matter to me … My stepson Carl Peterson sailed on board the English ship Lupata, which was wrecked off Tillamook rock 3d of January last. I heard of the wreck lately and wrote to the secretary of Lloyd’s for information and he gave me what he knew, which, however, was very scanty, and further sent me a letter from the managing owner of the ship. From this I learnt the date of the wreck and that the whole crew were lost, together with other particulars …. As I, however, want to know more about my ill-fated son’s end, as you easily can imagine, and my poor wife, the boy’s mother, still more wants it, I have thought that you perhaps would be kind and give me the particulars about this unhappy accident you cannot but possess. I, therefore, beg that you kindly would tell me all that you know about the wreck, the situation of the place and whether all the bodies—there were twenty-three on board—have been found. My stepson was twenty-four years old, with oval face, large nose and of a goodly shape. For my probably bad American and for my importunity, I once more beg your excuse. In hope of an answer from you, I sign with greatest respect, your most humble servant. Per Cederborg, Chief of Detectives, Stockholm, Sweden.” (The Morning Astorian, April 10, 1881.)
Pacific? No way!
“The sarcasm of calling the ocean that beats on the Oregon coast ‘the Pacific’ was never better shown than in the recent storm, when waves dashed over the top of the Tillamook lighthouse, 100 feet above sea level. … the Tillamook light was put out for several days because of the breaking of the glass [which is five-eighths of an inch thick] in the tower.” —San Francisco Chronicle 1888.