She once stood as a beacon of light about a mile offshore, guiding ships through the rough waters of the Columbia River Bar. But over the last 142 years, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse has undergone some magnificent changes.
The lighthouse’s owner, Mimi Morisette, has grand plans for her beloved ‘Tilly.’ Since she purchased the building for $50,000 in 1980, the real estate investor has worked tirelessly at her dream to turn the deactivated lighthouse into a columbarium, with the capacity to hold the cremated remains of roughly 300,000 people.
Being raised near the Cape Florida Lighthouse, Morisette grew up with an admiration for the sea, and also for the structures that guided the boats to shore. “They were not only a symbol of light, they actually saved a lot of lives, one of their most important jobs was functional. They defended in war times,” she pointed out.
Morisette hopes that by turning ‘Tilly’ into a columbarium, she can give hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to find their final resting place in a location that represents the perpetuity and vastness of the ocean. But, there’s also more to it.
The data demonstrates the industry has taken off. Back in 1975, the cremation rate in the United States hovered just over 5%. As of 2021, it reached approximately 58%, and is forecasted to climb even more over the next few years.
“I can pretty much tell you that there are at least one million people that are related to those people that are going to want to come to the Oregon coast or they’re going to want to buy things from Tillamook Rock,” Morisette explained. “The economic fusion that is going to happen to the north coast, I think the coast is going to be shocked.”
Morisette’s mission can’t be achieved without a brave crew of volunteers. The last time a crew cleaned up the lighthouse was in 2019. A trip planned for late March will be aimed at painting the building, making small repairs, excavating retired materials for art souvenirs, and evicting the sea lions who have kicked through the doors and are enjoying a rent-free stay in the building.
Of course, this expedition is no luxury vacation. Morisette must be very careful with the volunteers she selects, noting that camping on an isolated basaltic island less than an acre in size can feel like “being in a third world country.”
Yet, when it came time to look for eight volunteers for her upcoming clean-up trip, Morissette was immediately swamped with requests from people wanting to help. The trouble has been building a strong team that consists of experienced and physically-able individuals.
Some people have expressed concerns over the lack of utilities on the rock, unpredictable weather trends and potential exposure to disease.
Liz Scott, the Outreach Manager at Cannon Beach History Center, notes that a trip out to Tilly has been a dangerous feat since her conception, especially back when crews were stationed on the rock for extended periods of time.
“Originally, a lighthouse keeper that was assigned to the rock spent three months on and two weeks off,” Scott explained. “The assignment was changed to 42 days on and 21 days off, because conditions proved extremely harsh on both the physical and mental stability of the keepers.”
Over the years, two of Tilly’s patrons lost their lives. In 1979, a mason tumbled into the ocean, and in 1911 a painter lost his footing on a ladder, succumbing to the rocks below him.
Scott added that unpredictable weather was a particular fear for visitors. One storm that occurred in 1934 caused the waves to go over the tower, destroying the original Fresnel lens. “It is extremely impressive that Tilly has lasted as long as she has mainly due to the amount of storms this coast has seen,” Scott noted.
The historical center believes that the lighthouse is not only a piece of the past, but also has a place in the future. “Even people that are afraid of the ocean can’t help but daydream about ‘Tilly.’
It is important to Cannon Beach in the same way that Haystack Rock is, and it’s a rare treat that we can stand on our shore and see her,” added Andrea Suarez-Kemp, the Center’s Development Manager.
‘Tilly’s’ owner hopes to keep that memory alive, and believes that March is the best month to do it.
Morisette assures that the safest time to make a trip out to the island is just after the Winter storms have passed. When it turns towards Spring, the decent weather makes for smoother waters.
Plus, Morisette predicts that many Cannon Beach visitors will want to take a piece of ‘Tilly’ with them to commemorate their trip to the coast. She is hopeful that the turbulent tides of January and February have left behind some historical raw materials that she can bring back to local Cannon Beach artists for rejuvenation. She believes that “there’s a lot to salvage.”
In addition to the unstable conditions of the sea, others fear what lies on the inside of the lighthouse.
Since the building has been abandoned for quite some time, it is likely that it has been overtaken by a massive sea lion haul-out.
Melissa Janicek, who is a licensed Veterinary Technician and has spent years working with marine rescue organizations in Maine and Oregon, is particularly worried about Leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease that occurs in mammals and can be transmitted to humans.
“We do know here in Oregon that the animal with the most Leptospirosis cases that people and animals come into contact with is the California Sea Lion population,” Janicek noted. She explained that the virus can be contracted through skin abrasions, but it can also be inhaled, depending on the environmental factors.
According to Janicek, there are “pretty serious precautions” to take when coming into contact with sea lions that could carry the disease. “So, having untrained volunteers, exposing themselves to those things, to me seems pretty risky,” she confessed.
If it was up to Janicek, she would be using “all the personal protective equipment you can get,” including gloves, rubber boots, rubber jackets, and eye, mouth, and nose coverage. “If people are going to be doing that as volunteers, I really think that they need training, some pretty serious safety training, and also they need to be made very clearly aware of the risks.”
When asked about her position of Leptospirosis prevention, Morisette admitted that she had not heard about the virus, but she does plan to take necessary steps to protect the crew.
“It will take about 24 hours to air out the building, and I am looking at probably getting some masks, like some repository type of masks, to prevent what you’re talking about right now for anybody that’s working in the building that feels they need the mask,” she responded.
Morisette added that she has already selected three of the members of the crew who have already been on the island and are accustomed to taking safety precautions.
More than anything, the aspirational lighthouse owner hopes that the March trip can be treated as a starting-point for future long-term repair projects. “Everything will eventually be replaced with titanium, the windows, the doors, this little trip is just the prequel to what we will do in October.”
Morisette points out that there are many memorial sites in ruins across the world, and the cemetery industry does not want to stand behind the lighthouse columbarium plans unless the building is brought back into good shape. Morisette is set on making it happen, “I want longevity.”
She admits that not all people are on board with her idyllic plans. “People either get it or don’t get it.”
But in her eyes, the project will be worth the price of putting up with the so-called ‘high maintenance girl.’
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.