It was a fateful day on July 8, 1978 when James and Dan Sealy, Gerald Major, and Tillamook Rock Lighthouse owner Max Shillock, set out on the one-mile boat ride from Seaside, Oregon to visit the light. They could never have guessed that they would be reenacting history from almost 100 years earlier when master mason, John Trewavas, lost his life in an undertow while attempting a slippery landing at Terrible Tilly in 1879.
This was only the third time Shillock had tried to visit the Rock since purchasing the lighthouse for $27,000 five months earlier. He had tried to go by boat in June and turned back to shore due to high waves but was finally successful in landing on the Rock using a helicopter in July.
Not many people had tried to set foot on Tillamook Rock since the Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1957. The first private owners came only once after they bought the lighthouse on a government surplus auction for $5600 in 1959. The group from Las Vegas, known as the Academic Economic Coordinators (AEC), expressed the intent of performing research, but it was later said they had wanted to create an exclusive gambling casino at the lighthouse, a rumor they adamantly denied.
AEC listed it for sale in 1964 but it took another nine years before it sold for $11,000 to George Hupman, a New York General Electric Company executive, who wanted to make it his family’s vacation home. Hupman did a week-long clean-up on the Rock a couple of times during the five years he owned it, but the challenge of the upkeep, restoration costs and distance he had to travel to get there proved too great a task; so in 1978, Tilly landed in Shillock’s hands.
In a press release shortly after the sale, Shillock was quoted as saying that he felt “a responsibility to the people of the State of Oregon to preserve to the best of my ability the historic landmark.” But first he had to spend some time there to note what would be required for its restoration.
James Sealy ran a 20-foot boat and offered to take Shillock out to the Rock that July day. His brother Dan still recalls the incident that followed with great clarity. The group was making progress against the rip current that always runs about four-knots past Tillamook Head when they suddenly had engine trouble. So, they decided to scrap the trip and turn back. They were within 75 yards of the shore when a sneaker wave caught them, flipping the boat and tossing all of the men into the frigid water.
Contrary to newspaper reports, James Sealy was wearing a life vest, but had undone it from his waist and had it hanging only from around his neck, not secured to his body, in order to work on the engine. When he went overboard, the life vest went one way and he went the other.
From his position, Dan saw him about 15 yards away but could make no headway swimming against the current to get to him. “Help, Dan!” were the last words Dan heard as his brother was carried away in the other direction. The ocean temperature that day was only around 45 degrees, so after a very short period of time, hypothermia set in as all the men struggled for their lives. They were in the water for about twenty minutes when bystanders on the shore rushed into the surf to pull the three men out, but James was nowhere to be seen.
By this time, the Coast Guard had responded and sent a helicopter out. They eventually found James and fished him out of the water, but it was too late; 27-year-old James Leslie Sealy was never able to be resuscitated. In addition to Dan and his parents, James left behind his wife and two children to mourn his loss.
In a rather bizarre twist of irony, Max Shillock actually had a premonition about the tragedy happening. In a newspaper article published a month earlier on June 2, he was quoted as saying that every 100 years someone was killed on the rock and that he would be sure to stay away from it on the anniversary of Trewavas’ death the following year. Unfortunately, that did not save James Sealy, just a year shy of that 100th anniversary date.
Two years following the accident, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse would become the center of a scandal. Max Shillock was sued by 74-year-old Joy Goolsby for “bilking” her out of the money he had used to purchase it, and then for reneging on his contractual repayments. It came to light during the trial that Shillock had also approached at least two other elderly widows to solicit funds to be used for the lighthouse.
This was all quite interesting considering Shillock’s earlier quoted statements in the Oregon Journal where he maintained that, “I’m very straight arrow, I never sin, I think clear thoughts – I’ve never done anything that would not permit me into heaven.” The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1980 with Mrs. Goolsby being given the title to the lighthouse.
She then sold it to Mimi Morrissette later that year for $50,000, who, with a group of other investors, converted the lighthouse into the “Eternity at Sea” columbarium. Since then, approximately 30 people’s ashes have been interred there. Mimi still legally owns the lighthouse, though the Rock became part of the Oregon Islands Wildlife Refuge in 1994. Currently, the columbarium is not licensed though Mimi is seeking investors to restore the lighthouse using titanium for the lantern which is currently in a state of total decay. She hopes to have the columbarium licensed once again after the lighthouse has been restored.
It seems odd that while Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, like all other lighthouses, was constructed with the idea of safeguarding life, it has become a place noted for death, both in the lives that have been lost there as well as the remains that have been interred. Many lighthouses “die” when they are decommissioned, but few have such a physical association with death as does Terrible Tilly. It appears to be just one more reason she has earned her moniker that will doubtless continue far into the future.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2020 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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