Two journals totaling 477 pages. That’s how much it took for Rasmus Petersen to record his life as a lighthouse keeper for six years at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in Oregon and nineteen years at Willapa Bay Lighthouse in Washington between 1888 and 1913. Rasmus’ journals were a private affair, perhaps written as a backup station log, but with the emphasis on happenings rather than just the daily weather report.
In fact, Rasmus did not write every day – only when he had something to say; and many entries were just a longish paragraph per month that gave the highlights on different dates of activities at the lighthouse or in his personal life. However, he also dutifully reported whenever a lighthouse tender or inspector visited, who came or went on leave, the name of an occasional ship passing by and details regarding severe storms, squalls or wind conditions that resulted in unusually high seas or damage to the lighthouse.
His first journal year of 1888, which was actually a year after he had become a keeper and started serving as 4th assistant on Tillamook Rock, was written in Danish, and was only four pages long; so, it wasn’t until the following year when he switched over to English that he began to really record his daily life as a keeper. What follows are snippets of his entries over the years that give a glimpse into the lives of the keepers during that era, types of things that happened, how they spent their time and the real difference between being stationed at a stag light on a rock offshore versus a family station, close to towns and social activities. For Rasmus Petersen, being a keeper was a good life, and as he frequently wrote at the end of a month or year, “All is Well.”
Being stationed at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, it is understandable how a visit from a lighthouse tender would be big news. Rasmus recorded every visit in detail: what time the tender came, what it brought to the lighthouse, whether coal, supplies, food, lumber or people, and even what time it left.
A typical delivery included 15 tons of coal, incoming mail, the district inspector who performed his formal inspection in under two hours by the time the tender was finished unloading, and workmen or a keeper coming back from leave to swap out with one going.
Sometimes, there were even special visitors, which contrary to common modern belief, included ladies! In July of 1893, Rasmus’ entry stated: “Manzanita came here on the 11th and brought supplies and oil 10AM. The assistant inspector J B Blish and six ladies landed on the rock together with Capt. Gregory of the tender and another gentleman. The ladies all enjoyed the visit and the inspector inspected the station with satisfaction. The steamer left again at 3:30 PM for Astoria.”
But the tender’s visits didn’t always go without a hitch. On May 1, 1894, Rasmus wrote: “Columbine brought mail and stores and took mail – rain showers with heavy sea running and we got everything wet besides lost 25 pounds of coffee overboard from the cage on account of the rough sea.”
Beyond attempted deliveries of supplies, building materials and food, in April of 1889 and 1891, the Manzanita landed 20 sacks of soil for creating a garden space of some sort. Rasmus doesn’t mention where the garden was set up or how well it produced, but since it was done more than once, the keepers probably had some minimal success with it in the summer months when the waves didn’t wash over the Rock as they did during the winter storms.
Other activities were put on a regular yearly rotation as well. Like clockwork, every April was painting month, always starting with the inside of the tower and lantern, followed by the other rooms in the dwelling part of the building, then moving to the outside of the lighthouse by May, and finishing up with the hoist house, water tank and railing surrounding the walkway.
Work crews, including the “boylermakers,” came out to the Rock when the weather was more seasonable for landing large supplies, such as new boilers, derrick legs, and fog horn trumpets; and when repairs, replacements and maintenance could be performed on the light, engines, boilers, fog horns, derrick and even building a new transport cage. The yearly supply of oil was delivered every summer and the keepers would spend days hauling the 2500 gallons or 100 cases up to the lighthouse from the derrick landing platform.
In their free time during the summer months, the keepers could launch the station dory off the Rock, the weather being “fine and the sea smooth.” They would row over to Clatsop or Elk Creek to send mail and retrieve extra food, like potatoes and butter. They frequently went fishing and Rasmus often wrote of the good “mess” they were able to catch which included large groupers and small black bass.
They also tried to keep chickens and in January of 1892, Rasmus wrote: “From the 7th to 16th we built a chicken house on front part of the rock and in front of dwelling to have our chickens safe from the sea.” Rasmus also wrote about swallows having a nest in the front hall of the lighthouse and coming yearly to sit on eggs that hatched in June; And twice in the six years Rasmus was on the Rock, he wrote of capturing a young seal and taming him to have as a pet. He also had a dog named Jack, but the only time he mentioned him was to say that the Manzanita had come to take him off the Rock in June of 1890.
While the summers were very active and spent with a lot of comings and goings and pleasant days on the Rock, the winter months were intensely difficult and it was a matter of hunkering down in some of the worst weather imaginable. The storms were fierce, and many times Rasmus noted that the seas rose and waves broke over the top of the 134’ lighthouse.
The winter of 1890 seemed particularly bad. In January, “On the 7th we had strong winds and heavy gales all through the month, with rain and hailstones, but on the 15th we had the heaviest sea running and all day the sea broke over our roof and throwed [sic] rocks over the building of which one came on the roof and made 3 holes in the iron sheathing. The rock weighed 62 pounds but no serious damage done to the house.” A few days later, the Manzanita came by on its normal coal run and “Capt. Charles Richardson came on the Rock to pay us a visit and he took the 62-pound rock on shore with him as a curio.”
There were also times when the tender couldn’t keep its expected rendezvous and keepers were down to their last stores of food. At these times, they had to flag down a passing ship as in October of 1890 when they “boarded steamer Augusta and got stores.” At the end of that same October, the tender Manzanita still had not come and Rasmus recorded over two days: “We had fog and we burned the last of our coal . . . we sawed up all our wood and lumber for siren to keep signal going.” The next entry wasn’t until five days later when the Manzanita finally did show up with 10 tons of coal and food. Who knows what all made of wood was sacrificed during that time to keep the fog horn running.
Unfortunately, some keepers did not handle the stress of the inclement weather and confined life on the Rock very well and needed to be removed. In March of 1890, 3rd assistant Louis C. Sauer, who had been serving there for a little over a year, became demented. Rasmus wrote: “At 12:00 midnight on the 27th Mr. L.C, Sauer became insane and raving so we had to tie him with cords as he threatened to kill all hands with his rifle and we had to stand guard over him day and night. On the 28th we spoke to Steamer Rosie Olson who reported us in Astoria to the Capt of Tender Manzanita. On the 29th Manzanita came here and took off Mr. Sauer and bought him to Astoria for treatment.” Poor Mr. Sauer died in the Oregon State Insane Asylum only ten months later.
Sauer’s replacement, keeper Henry C. Cook, arrived in April but lasted for only seven months. The other keepers, including Rasmus, waited until keeper Cook went on leave at the end of November and four days later, sent in letters of complaint to the district office via a passing steamer. They reported “ill behavior” by Cook but Rasmus gave no details in his journal of what Cook had done. However, the district inspector must have believed them because a little over two weeks later, the Manzanita came and “took off the effects belonging to H.C. Cook,” who never returned to the station again.
But for the most part, the keepers endured their solitude well, though there were a few times that it was obvious they felt overly isolated if the lighthouse tender didn’t come for weeks. In December of 1890, there were no visits of any kind, but the keepers did celebrate Christmas in style that year. Rasmus recorded: “This month begins with strong south and SW winds with barometer very low and heavy sea running and continued so all though the month, we had no communication with the mainland this month but we had a 10-lbs turkey for Christmas besides 4 chickens so we spent a very good Christmas according to circumstances on this desolated Rock of Ages; and the month as well as the year ends well.”
And in February of 1892, Rasmus wrote: “During this month, we have had a good deal of fine weather, but no outside communication with the world. In the later part of the month we got short of provisions and 3 of us got sick. But we had to grin and bear it as the saying is.”
However, it wouldn’t be long before Rasmus’ lonely life took a dramatic turn for the better. It was during this time period that he began another type of communication.
Courting from Tillamook Rock
When Rasmus Petersen went to Tilly in 1887, he was a single man, age 34, having spent several years on sailing ships and even, reportedly, on the tender Manzanita at one point early on. But there is nothing like being isolated out on a rock in the ocean to point out that life is bleak without a family.
So, at some point, most likely after he had been promoted to head keeper in January of 1892, Rasmus applied for a mail-order bride and began to write to Charlotte Mair, who lived over 2600 miles away in Mooresburg, Ontario, Canada. When it finally came time to meet and marry her in July of 1892, Rasmus took an extended leave of six weeks from Tilly to go get her. It took him twelve days just to get there.
Rasmus penned: “I signaled the steamer Harrison and I left station for Astoria at 10:00 AM . . . on the 22nd I left Portland for Chelsey in Ontario Canada over the Northern Pacific RR and arrived in Chelsey on the 28th where I met my love and from there we went together to Mooresburg her home where we arrived in the evening and was [sic] well received of her parents and with them I stayed the remainder of the month and all well.”
Rasmus sped up his courting and not even three weeks later married Charlotte, undoubtedly because as head keeper, he had to get back to the lighthouse as soon as possible. He recorded: “On the 16th of this month I married Miss Charlotte B. Mair at her home in Mooresburg, Grey County, Ontario, Canada and on the 17th we started for Portland, Oregon where we arrived on the 23rd all safe and well… I left Astoria on the steamer Augusta and landed on the Rock again on the 28th at 6AM…Weather, fresh north wind and rough sea but all is well at the end of the month and everyone happy.”
This is probably the only time the word “happy” was ever written to describe life on Tillamook Rock, but it was totally understandable since Rasmus was in a haze of wedded bliss, having only been married twelve days at that point; and in December of that year, Rasmus ended his yearly entries by writing: “And the best of all that the Sinners on the Rock is well and is [sic] welcoming in the New Year with joy and hopes of Future Prosperity.”
Rasmus Petersen truly was hoping for future prosperity through a transfer to be keeper at Umpqua River Light two weeks later in January of 1893. In fact, he got as far as Portland before he found out that “the station was not ready for me and my orders to go there was [sic] revoked so I had to return to the Rock again and assume charge until further notice.”
Rasmus resumed his duties in February and whatever disappointment he felt at the change in plans did not make it into the journal, but this was the year that the six ladies visited the Rock in July which gave Rasmus an idea. A month later, on August 14, Rasmus brought his wife, Charlotte Petersen, to live at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse for an entire month!
The Manzanita came by after about two weeks to check on her and maybe bring her back home, but she stayed on, quite happy to be with her husband, wherever that might be in the world, including on a hunk of basalt out in the ocean. Besides, the keepers probably really appreciated having a woman there to do the cooking for them during that time.
Rasmus stayed on the Rock for almost another full year, but finally his transfer came through for a family station at Willapa Bay Lighthouse in Washington, where he could be with Charlotte full-time. He had his bags packed in June, ready for the arrival of the Manzanita to take him off the Rock for the last time, but unfortunately, he couldn’t leave that day as planned. He disgustedly wrote: “Manzanita came here on the 3rd at 12:45 PM but did not land on account of strong south wind and rough seas and left again for Astoria at 1:20 PM to the disappointment of all here on the Godforsaken Rock.”
The tender returned eight days later and a joyful Rasmus Petersen could finally, and permanently, depart Tillamook Rock Lighthouse for the last time on June 11, 1894, looking forward to his “Prosperous Future” at long last.
To Be Continued . . .
This story appeared in the
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