Terrible Tilly, Oregon’s Legendary Lighthouse, Is for Sale

From afar, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse looks like a real estate investor’s dream. There are views of the Oregon coast from the tower, perched on a rugged island a mile offshore. Much of the time, the solitude is broken only by the sound of crashing waves and the isolation by nesting birds and sea lions.

After more than a century of weathering storms, guiding ocean sailors, harboring wildlife and serving as a repository for cremated human remains, the lighthouse known in local legend as Terrible Tilly is being readied for its future owners.

But first, they’ll need $6.5 million, a single vision, and a way to get there.

The island is a steep basalt rock that rises out of water so choppy that boats cannot dock. It’s only accessible by helicopter, and even those sometimes have to circle around until the sea lions leave the landing area, said Mimi Morissette, director of Eternity at Sea, the company based in Oregon who owns and sells the lighthouse.

The building and the lantern tower need to be renovated. Sea lions and violent storms have come through the gates. The windows are boarded up. Breeding birds have surfaces covered with droppings. Urns containing remains, including those of Mrs. Morissette’s parents, are hidden inside.

Ms. Morissette introduced Terrible Tilly to the businesses she thinks might be best suited for her next stewards: the industry of death.

Photographs of the lighthouse and brochures were displayed at the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association’s annual convention in Las Vegas in March. Some cemetery owners balked, thinking customers wouldn’t want to store remains in a facility they couldn’t visit, she said.

“My response was that we know our project is not for everyone,” she said. “I have a request from a local helicopter company, which could be a perfect match for a death care business.”

In 300 years, more than a thousand lighthouses have been installed in the United States, guiding sailors from shores crushing ships.

Some have been destroyed in natural disasters or replaced by automation and turned into residences, inns and museums. Up to five lighthouses are sold each year in government auctions.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse’s beacon and foghorn were activated in 1881. As the only light off Oregon, its inauguration was overshadowed by tragedy, three weeks after the British ship Lupata rammed a nearby headland in fog on January 3, killing all on board.

For 76 years, Tilly guided ships through the Columbia River shipping lanes until it was decommissioned in 1957, replaced by an electronic buoy, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the tower, soaring 136 feet above sea level, continued to inspire tales and visions, despite appearing only a distance from Oregon’s beaches.

It became locally known as Terrible Tilly because of the isolated and stormy conditions workers endured while maintaining it, said Andrea Suarez-Kemp, director of the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.

“Everyone likes to tell stories of lights and mysterious figures, especially during and after a good storm,” she said. “People often come to the museum asking if Tilly is really downgraded, because they could swear they saw lights.”

In 1959, the United States General Services Administration put the lighthouse up for sale. A group of Las Vegas investors bought it for $5,600, possibly to set up a casino, then sold it for $11,000 in 1973 to George Hupman, a General Electric executive in New York, who wanted to use it as a summer retreat, according to the Register.

The Hupman family rented a helicopter for $260 an hour, carrying three passengers at a time. They found the one-acre island overrun with birds and the stench of excrement.

“Of course it’s run down,” Mr Hupman told KGW in 1978, in video recorded on the island as his family tried to clean up.

“The paint is peeling, and it’s a mess inside and out,” he said. “But this structure is going to be there for a long time, one way or another. And, I don’t know, it’s an exciting and strong place in the middle of a shifting and turbulent environment. It gives you a great feeling to be here.

After a few trips, he sold it for $27,000 to Max Shillock Jr. of Portland, the record said. He eventually deeded the property to his lender, The Oregonian said in its report last month.

Ms. Morissette and her partners bought it in 1980 for $50,000 to use as a columbarium, state records show. He lost his license in 1999 and was rejected for a new one in 2005 due to violations that included poor record keeping and improper storage, records show. Ms Morissette said it was shut down for a technical violation, The Times reported in 2007.

This month, Ms Morissette issued a call on her Facebook page for volunteers to “become part of the history and salvation of Tilly” and fly in to help clean up the island after the summer. Because it is a nesting sanctuary, visitation is not permitted from April to September, she said.

“Part of the cleanup is to evict the sea lions that knocked on the corroded front door, which will be replaced with a permanent titanium door,” she said in an interview.

The plan is for the lighthouse to be an alternative to scattering cremated remains at sea, enclosing them in titanium urns in a row of niches.

David Adams, a funeral business consultant with Johnson Consulting Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., who is negotiating the sale, is aiming for a formal presentation by Memorial Day.

“Someone is going to have to be entrepreneurial,” he said.

The cremation rate in the United States was low when Ms. Morissette, a 77-year-old Oregon resident with a background in real estate development, purchased the lighthouse more than four decades ago. The rate reached 56% in 2020 and is increasing, the Cremation Association of North America said.

“I find it intriguing that some people still love the romance of scattering ashes at sea: ‘Dad’s in the ocean and Mom’s still floating with sharks,'” Mr Adams said.

“While romantic in many ways, it’s somewhat definitive. There really isn’t a place to focus and go back and commemorate,” he said.

The lighthouse, he added, “gives them a specific focal point”.

Whether entrepreneurs or dreamers, new owners will inherit a structure where years of dramatic history have unfolded.

There have been two deaths: a mason fell into the ocean in 1879 and a painter fell from a ladder onto the rocks in 1911. “It’s a mysterious place and a bit macabre,” said Brian Ratty, the author of “Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: History and Tales of Terrible Tilly.”

In 1944, James A. Gibbs Jr., a coast guard, was deployed to the lighthouse as one of four keepers. A small boat carried him to the island, where he rode in a harness that was lowered from above and hoisted by a rope, suspended above the waves crashing against the rocks, he wrote. in his memoir, “Tillamook Light”.

“Everywhere I looked, the place took on more aspects of an insane asylum instead of what I had imagined to be a beacon,” he wrote.

The men worked eight-hour shifts and took turns cooking. The seas surged 134ft to the top of the Lantern Tower, shattering the windows and filling it with rocks and debris. The foghorn was deafening. A moaning “ghost” haunted the 77-step spiral staircase. The light itself was like a “monstrous diamond” that beamed 18 miles offshore to warn ships.

“What had I gotten myself into? ” he wrote.

In a 2009 interview, Mr Gibbs, then 87, said it was a mystery how the lighthouse and its keepers had withstood so many years of spirits and storms. “I often thought about jumping off the rock when I got there,” he said.

On September 1, 1957, Oswald Allik, one of Mr. Gibbs’ fellow keepers, wrote a farewell message to the lighthouse in the last entry in his diary.

“Guardians have come and gone; men have lived and died; but you were faithful to the end,” Mr. Allik wrote. “May your sunset years be good years.”