Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2017

The Terrifying Tale of Terrible Tilly’s Perfect Storm of the Century

By Debra Baldwin

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Appearing like an impregnable fortress upon the ...

To say that Oregon’s Tillamook Rock Lighthouse experienced extreme weather conditions is a gross understatement. While it was a regular occurrence to have 135-foot waves crest over the top of the lighthouse tower and heavy rocks catapult from the adjoining crevice to pierce the roof of the dwelling and shatter both lantern panes and lens prisms, the storm of October 21, 1934 topped them all.

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A sobering view of the destroyed cast iron ...

According to modern-day meteorologists and published climatology studies, this “may have been the most powerful storm of this track type in the 20th century,” with peak wind gusts of 109 miles per hour recorded at North Head Light Station. It actually has been classified as an extratropical cyclone and one of the most devastating storms ever to hit the Pacific Northwest, from Waldport, Oregon all the way up to the Canadian border.

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Six feet of the rock overhang broke off during ...

The destruction to the lighthouse was horrific, as was the tale the keepers told of what they endured. It really was miraculous that head keeper William Hill, first assistant Henry Jenkins, fourth assistant Hugo Hansen, and substitute keeper Werner Storm survived. In one account, as the lighthouse was shaking and groaning, the keepers clasped hands and shouted to one another above the noise of the storm, “Goodbye, and may God have mercy on us!” They fully expected to meet their deaths momentarily and be swept away with the lighthouse into the raging sea.

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These two photos show what remained of one of the ...

According to transcribed notes from a phone interview with keeper Henry Jenkins, “At 10 PM October 20th, a fresh southeast wind was blowing with light rain. During the night, the wind increased to gale force and changed to southwest. About 3 AM October 21st, seas were extremely high. At 9:30 AM, I was awakened by a sudden jar and water completely covered me, all my clothes and bedding completely wet. The seas at this time had started over the entire tower, pounded against the window shutters of my room until the catch let go, opening them and flooded the room.” When the water receded from the wave, keeper Jenkins found he had been washed into his bedroom closet and his legs were tangled up in the rungs of his chair.

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These two photos show what remained of one of the ...

The whole of the downstairs was flooded waist-deep with water that circulated through the rooms. In the kitchen, the stove had been pushed off its foundation and the cold water coming into contact with the heated surfaces caused cracks in the metal top and sides. The heat system piping in the basement was irreparably damaged, and plaster was dislodged from the interior walls due to the sea water forcing its way through the foundation-level wooden shutters.

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According to Assistant Superintendent Merrill’s ...

Up in the tower, things were desperate. Catapulted rocks had broken 16 of the 5/8” thick, 28” x 39” glass lantern panes. The keepers were swept off their feet in swirling water literally up to their necks as they struggled to bolt the emergency wood shutter panels over the openings. With waves completely submerging them every three minutes, they felt they were in real danger of either drowning or being washed out into the ocean storm through the empty pane openings before they could accomplish their task. With every surge, the tower filled with dead fish, seaweed, broken pane glass, barnacles, and other debris that would be carried down the tower stairs into the dwelling as the water receded in-between. Fourth assistant Hugo Hansen cut his hand on a flying piece of broken glass.

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The submarine telephone cable from Tillamook Rock ...

At some point during the height of the storm, which lasted for three hours, six feet of the rock overhang on the western end broke off and plunged into the sea. Keeper Jenkins thought that the resulting wave must have been the one with sufficient force to sweep the entire derrick and boom away. The smaller boulder fragments from the breakage, up to 60 pounds in weight, were slung at the lighthouse by the rough waves, doing a tremendous amount of damage to the iron railings, shutters, windows, and lantern.

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First assistant keeper Henry Jenkins sits on the ...

By now the light had been extinguished and the lens was inoperable and badly damaged by the flying rocks. The foghorn was also out of commission due to the resonators being chock full of rocks and sea debris. The lighthouse was now virtually mute and in darkness for a period of 24 hours as the storm continued on. Concerned for the safety of those who might possibly be riding the gale out on open sea, the keepers focused on installing an emergency 5-day lens lantern up on the lantern deck. Its fixed white light would at least provide some type of warning beacon until they could receive help to get the first order lens operational again.

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Substitute keeper Werner Storm ascends the stairs ...

But how could they let anyone know of their predicament? The storm had taken out the submarine phone cable and they had no emergency communications backup. First assistant Henry Jenkins had been a qualified radio operator for years. He possessed the knowledge and ingenuity to be able to construct a shortwave receiving and transmitting set composed of parts from a standard broadcast receiving set, the useless telephone receiver, dry batteries, and odds and ends of wire, tinfoil, brass, wax paper, and other fittings that were laying about the lighthouse.

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This newspaper photo shows the 1934 “Storm Crew” ...

Within another day, on the evening of October 23rd, Keeper Jenkins was able to reach a ham radio operator: Henry Goetze, in Seaside, about seven miles distant. Goetze then relayed the message to another ham operator, Merrill Peoples, in Portland, who then notified the Lighthouse 17th District Office of the events. Over the course of the next several days, messages were relayed via this method as both Tenders Rose and Manzanita were dispatched to render aid. Both ham operators received praise from the District Office, which stated that “This service was invaluable under the circumstances and preserved the morale of the station personnel in a very trying and unprecedented situation at this station.”

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By March of 1935, all repairs from the storm ...

When the storm totally subsided, the keepers busied themselves in making what repairs they could until early morning on October 27th when the Tender Manzanita arrived, carrying the necessary items to get the station operational once again. It was two days later that the original characteristic flash pattern was once again exhibited at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. However, because the lens had suffered so much damaged that it was considered lacking in effectiveness and efficiency, it was replaced by a double-tiered aero beacon shortly thereafter.

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By March of 1935, all repairs from the storm ...

Seventeenth District Assistant Supervisor, E.C. Merrill, was also aboard the Manzanita on that first visit and spent a long time inspecting all the damage done by the storm as well as interviewing the lighthouse keepers about their experiences. His report included the photos he took that accompany this article, and his list of recommended repairs came to a staggering $16,000. In November, a repair crew was brought out to hasten the process, and by March, all work was completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

In concluding his October 27th report, Merrill proposed, “It is thought that the conduct and attention to duty and resourcefulness of the station personnel as well as the valuable assistance rendered by assistant keeper Jenkins and amateur radio operators Goetz and Peoples is worthy of commendation and should be brought to the attention of the Bureau.” While the four keepers did receive official commendations and the well-deserved praise and notoriety that followed, it probably did not lessen the terrifying memories and impact of what they all had endured those October days in surviving the most Perfect Storm that Terrible Tilly ever witnessed.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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