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Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Anchors Wildlife Refuge
by Walter Ham, U.S. Coast Guard HQ - July 14, 2016

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Precariously perched on a rock in the Pacific Ocean, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse a mile offshore from Tillamook Head, Oregon ... braved 30-foot waves and 100 mph winds during its 77 years in service.

June 10, 2014 - Tillamook Rock Lighthouse sits a mile offshore from Tillamook Head, Oregon. (U.S Coast Guard photo by Lt. Paul A. Garcia, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir)
June 10, 2014 - Tillamook Rock Lighthouse sits a mile offshore from Tillamook Head, Oregon. (U.S Coast Guard photo by Lt. Paul A. Garcia, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir)

The deactivated lighthouse still towers over a rock island more than a mile offshore from Tillamook Head, Oregon, about 20 miles south of the entrance to the Columbia River.

Construction workers toiled for 575 days to build the lighthouse on the rock. When it was lit in 1881, the Tillamook Rock Light was not only the most expensive but also the most exposed lighthouse along the Pacific Coast. Even at 130 feet above sea level, the protective glass around the lantern room was occasionally smashed by incoming rocks.

Due to the danger, difficulty and expense of operating the lighthouse, it was closed and replaced with a lighted whistle buoy in 1957.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is part of the Oregon Island National Wildlife Refuge and one of nine lights honored in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Lighthouses from the Coast Guard's nine districts have elevators named after them.

The waters around the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse are covered by the Seattle-based 13th Coast Guard District, which ensures the safety, security and stewardship of Pacific Northwest waterways.

“The lighthouse looks just like the stacks of a ship poking up from the horizon,” said Chief Petty Officer Christopher Sheppard, who routinely sailed past it when he served on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cowslip (WLB-277) in the late 1990s.

Sheppard currently leads the Astoria, Oregon-based Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) that maintains 316 Aids to Navigation (ATON), including 291 fixed aids, 22 buoys and three lighthouses in the area.

Together with the Coast Guard Cutter Fir (WLB-213), the 225-foot buoy tender that maintains navigational aids in the coastal waters around Oregon and Washington and on the Columbia River, the ATON team helps to keep mariners on course in the Pacific Northwest.

The navigational aids are among the 48,000 buoys, beacons, ranges, sound signal and electronic aids that the U.S. Coast Guard maintains across the nation. Marking 25,000 miles of coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways, the U.S. ATON system enables the safe movement of $8.9 billion worth of goods and commodities through U.S. waters daily.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Curtis S. Dewey, the officer in charge of U.S. Coast Guard Station in nearby Tillamook, Oregon, said navigational aids are critical in the waters around the Pacific Northwest.

“Everything is weather dependent,” said Dewey, a native of Corrales, New Mexico, who has commanded the station for the last two years. “With our coastal bars and the requirement for (search and rescue personnel) to run our lifeboats during a great portion of the year, weather dictates everything.”

“We monitor weather more closely here in the Pacific Northwest than any other place I've been stationed,” said Dewey. “Properly working ATON saves lives and have saved mine, I'm sure. When it is dark and the seas are large, knowing where safe water is at is paramount.”

The cold, choppy and stormy waters around Oregon and Washington are also well traveled.

In addition to military and recreational vessels, Sheppard said Pacific Northwest waters are traveled by log ships, container ships, car carriers, bulk carriers, fishing boats, survey vessels, construction tugs and barges.

Originally from Fountain Valley, California, Sheppard has served three tours in Oregon and calls the Pacific Northwest home.

The chief has seen the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse from land and sea.

Sheppard recently hiked through Ecola State Park up to Tillamook Head, an area visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. About half a million people visit the park every year and see the place that U.S. Army Capt. William Clark described as the “steepest, worst and highest mountain I've ascended” during his storied 18-month expedition with Capt. Meriwether Lewis to map the Louisiana Territory.

Of the view from the top of the 1,000-foot cliff that overlooks the Pacific, Clark said, “I behold the grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed."

Sheppard said the brave and industrious construction workers who built the Tillamook Rock Light demonstrated the same pioneering spirit as the famous explorers who mapped the area.

“It's always amazing to me what could be built with the available tools and the conditions that the construction team had to build with back in 1881,” said Sheppard.

By Walter Ham, U.S. Coast Guard HQ
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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