In the 90 years that have passed since Robert Gerlof, head keeper of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, was laid to rest at Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton, Oregon, it is doubtful that anyone has ever visited his gravesite to pay their respects or leave flowers as a token of remembrance. Gerlof never married and had no family. His marker is what the government paid for as part of his death benefit - just his name, date of birth, and date of death on a plain slab of stone. No epitaph, loving tribute, or artistic embellishments were added to infer that he would be missed or that he had any type of exceptional life.
Yet, of all the 115 lighthouse keepers who served at “Terrible Tilly” over its 76-year operational history, keeper Gerlof gave more of himself in time, dedication, and devotion than any other keeper who was ever stationed there. That is why Lighthouse Digest felt it was important to hold a grave marker ceremony on May 19, 2019 to honor him and pay tribute to his faithful service.
Co-sponsor Columbia River Maritime Museum also joined in the recognition of Gerlof’s remarkable achievements and helped to plan as well as participate in the event. Capt. Bruce Jones, who is the Deputy Director of the museum and currently serving as the Mayor of Astoria, was a program participant in addition to personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, Marine Safety Unit Portland, and the Aids to Navigation Team Astoria.
Audience members came from as far as Portland, Oregon and Westport, Wash-ington, which are both over two hours away, to contribute in honoring keeper Gerlof and expressing appreciation for his service. Among them were owners and directors of lighthouses and museums, and three descendants of other Tillamook Rock Lighthouse keepers. All who were there enjoyed the ceremony greatly in acting as honorary family for this exceptional keeper.
After the opening of the ceremony by the Presentation of Colors and the National Anthem, the audience joined in singing “The Keepers Legacy.” This was followed by opening remarks from master of ceremonies Debra Baldwin, Historian for Lighthouse Digest. Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Dixon Whitley of the Marine Safety Unit Portland next gave a brief recap of all that the Coast Guard does currently within the district to maintain the six lighthouses, 280 primary, and 270 secondary aids to navigation that encompasses over 400 miles of waterways to Lewiston, Idaho.
LCDR Whitley mentioned that the U.S. Lighthouse Service keepers did not just protect and save lives, but took part in building the water highways that allow the ships from commercial fisheries and global trade to transport their goods safely today. The eight trillion dollars of cargo that come by ocean every year affect 40% of our current U.S. economy, so maintaining these aids is still a top priority.
LCDR Whitley ended by making some comparisons between the work the keepers did 100 years ago by hand and the technological advancements of today, but stated that Robert Gerlof was a Coastguardsman through and through.
Nate Sandel, Education Director at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, next spoke and shared some of the history of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Nate gave some facts about the building and lighting of the light and then recited the famous final logbook entry from 1957 which reads, in part, “. . . not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements. You, one of the most notorious and yet one of the most fascinating of the sea swept Sentinels in the world – long the friend of the tempest tossed mariner . . . May your sunset years be good years. A protector of life and property to all, may old-timers, newcomers and travelers along the way pause from the shore in memory of your humanitarian role.”
Debra Baldwin then gave the biographical sketch of Robert Gerlof. Beyond giving details of his exceptional service record, she spoke of his character and kind-hearted nature. According to 17th Lighthouse District Superintendent Robert Warrack, who knew him well, “He was generous to all on the Rock and many an assistant was indebted to Gerlof for his daily meals for long periods on the Rock. Some paid- but many a time Gerlof “wrote off” as he said he could better afford to lose the money than take that required for the support of some assistant’s family ashore. He was one of the most faithful keepers in the Service.”
Warrack also declared that Gerlof’s “love for the Rock was remarkable.” It was said that the lighthouse served as wife and family to him, so much so that he desired to live the rest of his days there after his retirement and be dropped off the end of the Rock in a weighted bag upon his death.
Sadly, his poor health forced him to end his local appellation as the “Grand Old Man of Tillamook Rock” at age 67. A note written by him in his official personnel file stated that, “I think the time has now come, am too old to give satisfactory service. I am therefore obliged to resign my position.” A month before his retirement in August of 1928, a newspaper article quoted him as saying, “I do not want to leave my rock. I have no family. The sea is my friend.”
Following the recap of Gerlof’s life, Mayor Bruce Jones read a poem written by Tillamook Rock Lighthouse head keeper Rasmus Petersen that was composed on the Rock sometime between 1887 and 1894. Rasmus spoke for all the keepers who ever served on Tilly when he penned this stanza:
And then there’s the lonely keepers,
That live on that Sphinx of the sea,
Like castaway Robinson Crusoes,
Though confined, but contented, they be.
When the mighty storms are raging,
They stand by their duty like men,
Though the waves in their greatest fury,
Breaks over their home on the sea.
A floral tribute was then placed on Robert Gerlof’s grave by Chris Hayward, grandson of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse keeper Orlo Hayward who had served under Gerlof in the early 1920s. When Orlo’s son, Joe, was born in 1927, Gerlof sent him a $20 gold coin to start his “bank.” It was very fitting that the Haywards could return the gift almost 100 years later by placing flowers on Robert Gerlof’s grave.
The Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Astoria then placed the marker and flag at the gravesite and offered salutes to Keeper Gerlof. The Color Guard retired the colors and the playing of Taps brought the wonderful ceremony to a close.
There are at least another dozen U.S. Lighthouse Service keepers and personnel buried in Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton. It is hoped that one day in the future, all their gravesites can be marked to show with pride their contributions to our nation’s great Lighthouse Service heritage.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2019 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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