‘Terrible Tilly’: Abandoned Lighthouse Became a Not-so-Peaceful Resting Place for the Dead

Tillamook-Rock-Lighthouse-abandoned (Image: US Coast Guard, public domain)

When the Tillamook Rock Light was officially lit on January 21, 1881, it was the most expensive lighthouse ever built on the West Coast of the United States, and one of the most dangerous. Finally decommissioned in 1957, the structure stood in darkness for over two decades until it was repurposed as a resting place for the dead.

But Tillamook Rock was never a peaceful spot. Precariously positioned on a tiny Pacific island off the Oregon coast, the lighthouse became known as Terrible Tilly due to its treacherous location and windswept, wave-battered environment.

Tillamook-Rock-Light (Image: Abhinaba Basu; cc-3.0)

In 1980, the facility was bought by a group of investors and turned into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium. But after placing about 30 urns in the decommissioned lighthouse, Eternity at Sea lost its license and a 2005 reapplication was ultimately rejected.

According to the New York Times: “A state board says the owners have not kept accurate records of people placed there and that because urns sit on boards and concrete blocks, not in niches, the lighthouse does not even qualify as a columbarium.

“Two urns were lost years ago when vandals reportedly broke open the doors. Birds quickly flew in and built nests before the doors were repaired.”

Tillamook-Rock-Light-Terrible-Tilly (Image: US National Archives, public domain)

Access to Tillamook Rock was always restricted due to the weather. Nowadays the only practical way on or off the island is by helicopter. And because it falls within a state wildlife reserve, even the owners are denied access during spring and summer months due to nesting birds. Terrible Tilly, a name well earned, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 and is part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As of 2013, the Lighthouse remains off-limits.

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