Three Unique American Lighthouses

by CruiseReady

Lighthouses - each one is unique, really. But, here are brief stories of what it is that makes the beacons at Sandy Hook, Tillamook Rock, and Sullivan's Island especially unique.

Lighthouses are, by their nature, each unique. So, choosing three, and calling them a unique group is a bit of a difficult task.

Each of the three I've chosen for this page does, however, have something that sets it apart.

One, in New Jersey, is the oldest surviving working lighthouse in the United States. Another, on one of South Carolina's barrier islands, was the last manned lighthouse to be built on U.S. soil. In Oregon, they built one on one of the most dangerous locations of any in the country, and, after decommissioning, it served a rather different purpose.

They're not necessarily uniquely American, as appearances mark just one of them as such. What makes each different probably does not do so from a global perspective, either. But, each one has at least one quality that makes it unique among those lights found in the United States.

Here, then are brief stories of what it is that makes the beacons at Sandy Hook, Tillamook Rock, and Sullivan's Island unique.




Sandy Hook Lighthouse

Sandy Hook Lighthouse

 Sandy  Hook Light


Image credit


She's a grand old lady among American Lighthouses.

This 103 foot tall tower on what is now the Jersey shore has been helping sailors to find their way into New York harbor for more years than the United States has been a country.  The Sandy Hook Light was placed into service before the signing the Declaration of Independence. The year? 1764.   (For the first few years, it was called the New York lighthouse.)

Even more remarkable than its age is the fact that it still operates as an aid to navigation! Today, it shines a steady beam through a 3rd order Fresnel lens.  That beam can be seen some 19 nautical miles out at sea.

Of some interest is the way funds were raised for the land and the tower.  Was it through taxes?  No, though a cargo levy on ships entering New York Harbor from the south completely funded early operating expenses.  Then how were the initial funds raised?  Through a lottery.  Two, in fact.  One paid for the land, and a second was held to pay for building the structure.  Lotteries, it seems are not such a recent thing in America.

Over years since being lit, the beacon in the octagonal tower has only been dark four times, each one because of war.  She's been attacked, shelled, and occupied.  And she has survived.  

Still Going Strong

After a Quarter of a Century

She's been refurbished or reinforced on a couple of occasions.  

In 1883, a new keeper's house was built to replace the old one.  Do we still call that one the 'new' keepers house?  I guess so.  It's only been there for a mere 130 years.

On June 11, 2014 Sandy Hook turned 250 years old, and indications are that she's not about to succumb to decay yet.

Sandy Hook Today

Free Tours Are Available


You can tour this piece of American history. It's located at the National Recreation Area in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.

Go during these times:

  • From April through October: Noon - 4:30 pm
  • All of November, and the first half of December: Noon - 4:30 pm
  • July and August:  1 pm - 4:30 pm (weekdays only)

Tours and informative talks are presented by New Jersey Lighthouse Society members.

Best of all, there is no admission charge!




Tillamook Rock Light

Dangerous Build, Dangerous Keeper's Post

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Image credit

The story of the Tillamook Rock Light is fearsome yet fascinating. Many ships had wrecked there over the years.  A beacon was sorely needed.

1878 plans were for a beacon atop Tillamook Head.  However, the 1,000 foot promontory was simply too high.  The area's heavy fogs would all but obscure a light at such an elevation.


Seaside Beach, Tillamook Head and Rock

So, the lower Tillamook Rock was chosen.  (In this picture, the rock appears as a tiny bump on the ocean to the right of the cliff.)

It was a dangerous choice.  On three sides, the rock rises 100 feet straight up out of the sea.   The fourth side begins in a slippery wave washed slope.

But build it they did. Duty was hazardous.  Workmen, were hoisted onto the rock by a breeches buoy.

Tillamook Head - Photo Credit


The light was lit on January 21, 1881, after much hardship and yet another shipwreck.

Two and a half months into construction, a Nor'easter stranded the workers.  They had little shelter and most of their tools and provisions were swept away.  It was 16 more days before help reached them.

Three weeks before completion, another storm struck.  This time, a ship was in trouble.  The workers lit lanterns and bonfires to warn it away from the rock.  The Lupatia still fell victim to the storm, taking 16 men with her.  The lone survivor:  the ship's dog.

"Terrible Tilly" was already earning the nickname by which her keepers would come to know her.


Terrible Tilly's Keepers

Faced Hard, Lonely, and Hazardous Duty

Breeches BuoyFrom the moment a keeper learned he was bound for duty at Terrible Tilly, he must have felt a sense of foreboding.

Even getting there was quite an undertaking.  There was no easy way to get there.  After boating out to near the rock, like the workers who built the lighthouse, the keeper would be loaded into a breeches buoy, and then hoisted up on a rope run between the boat and the rock.  Then, he was there to stay for 42 days.

Though there were always four keepers on duty, there were no visitors.  (How would they get there?) And it was such a dangerous place that no women or children were ever allowed there.

Storms frequently rocked the structure, blew out windows, and flooded the place where they lived and worked.  One such storm knocked out all communications as well as the light.  In water up to their knees, the keepers were able to improvise, and get a light shining again by the second day of mother nature's four day assault.  Then, they turned their attention to building a short wave radio from spare parts.  Only after they got it working were they able to tell the rest of the world they had survived.

Except for that one stormy night, the Tillamook Rock Light shone for 77 years.  No one really knows how many sailors' lives were saved during that time.

In 1957, the last head keeper, Oswald Allik, left, extinguishing the light as he did.  A red whistle buoy is now anchored a mile away.

What became of Terrible Tillie?  She was put up for sale, and changed hands several times.  

Astonishingly, owners who took over in 1980 turned her into the Eternity at Sea Columbarium, a final resting place.   Though their license has not been renewed, they reportedly still have plans to 'resurrect' the project. At last report, there were about 30 urns of ashes residing there.

 Credit illustration of a breeches buoy, above


Gargantuan Pacific Waves

Made Terrible Tilly a Frigjtening Place

The following video is only seconds long, but will give you a sense of what the lighthouse keepers at Tillamook endured from time to time.  After seeing it, you'll understand why being posted here frightened even the bravest of men.

You'll also understand why the windows, which were shattered more than once, were eventually covered over with concrete, and smaller portholes  installed instead.

Today, Tillamook Can Be Viewed

Only from a Safe Distance

For obvious reasons, no one can visit Tillamook Rock and its lighthouse.  It is now, just as it was  then, simply too dangerous.

On a clear day, you can, however, get a clear view of it from a nice, safe 1.3 miles away, at Oregon's Ecola State Park, which is open year round.  Admission to the park is $5.00.

If you are in good physical shape, and would enjoy a mile and a half uphill hike, you can climb Tillamook Head at Indian Beach, for an even better view.  

In any event a good pair of binoculars might come in quite handy.

A pair with a zoom feature is a nice choice.  The first number in tells you how many more times closer than normal the object being viewed will appear.  So, for example, if the numbers are 8 - 16 x 35, then the distant object will appear as if it were 8 to 16 times closer (8 times "unzoomed," and 16 times fully zoomed.).

 At 1.3 miles from Tillamook, the 8x setting would bring it to a 'like' distance of roughly 1/6 of a mile.  But, hold on!  If you zoom to 16x, you'll be seeing the famous rock and light as if it were less than 450 feet away.  That's close for something that big!




Charleston Light on Sullivan's Island

Oh. So Modern!

Sullivans Island Lighthouse

Image credit

As lighthouses go, this one certainly doesn't have a traditional look at all.  First of all, it's triangular shaped.  And secondly, its daymark ( way is is painted) is a little odd... not so traditional, and hardly beautiful, but certainly easily remembered. Thirdly, it's pretty high tech as lighthouses go. But, it does have at least three other things to recommend it.

First, there's its shape.  The Charleston Light, also sometimes referred to as Sullivan's Island Lighthouse because of its location, has a rather unique shape. It is triangular.

This particular beacon also represents the end of a line.  It was the last manned on shore lighthouse built in the United States

Morris Island Light


It was begun in 1960,  a time when new beacons weren't being built as as often as they once were.  However, there was a reason: The Morris Island Light (at right), which had once been on shore, now stood completely in the water, and could no longer be manned.


An on shore replacement was needed, and the Charleston Light was it.


Morris Island Light By Rageousgtx  - PD

Then, there's one more thing that makes this one unique among American navigational towers.  Well, two, actually. 

It's the only one in the United States that is equipped with air conditioning and an elevator!

The 163 foot high Charleston Light was first illuminated on June 15, 1962, and shines out over the waters for 26 nautical miles.  Though no longer manned - it was automated in 1975 - it still guides ships today.

Visit Sulllivan's Island, South Carolina

to See the Charleston Light

Responsibility for the site was transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service in 2008.  At that time, the tower was closed to the public.

However, the grounds still remain open, and, as you can see the tower does make a striking subject for a photograph at sunset.

Here are the directions to the lighthouse, from the Lighthouse website:

From Highway 17 on the east side of Charleston Harbor, take the Highway 17 business route to Highway 703. Follow Highway 703 onto Sullivan's Island. Where Highway 703 turns left, continue straight to I'on Avenue. Turn right onto I'on Avenue and travel 0.5 miles to the lighthouse.

Would You Like to Visit One of these three American lighthouses?

Are you intrigued enough by the introduction of these three lighthouses to want to visit one of them? Which One?

More Reading

for Lighthouse Lovers
Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

Written by a noted authority on lighthouses, you might not expect it to be a compelling read, but it is!

View on Amazon

Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter: The Remarkable True Story Of American Heroine Ida Lewis

The story of Ida Lewis, who tended the Lime Rock light when her father became too ill to tend his duties, and continued to do so after his death. She was responsible for saving the lives of at least 18 people

View on Amazon

Morris Island Lighthouse, The:: Charleston's Maritime Beacon

The fascinating story of the old Charleston light - the Morris Island Lighthouse - that was replaced by the modern one on Sullivan's Island.

View on Amazon

Updated: 06/04/2016, CruiseReady
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DerdriuMarriner on 09/13/2017

CruiseReady, Do you know if it was the depth, the distance or the precariousness (since none of those conditions appears to have gotten in the way of Tillamook Rock Light for 76 years) that made the Morris Island Light unusable? How is it doing these days? A program on Edward Teach, as part of the Secrets of the Dead series, mentions the ever-shifting geography and oceanography off the Carolinas. How effective and permanent would any stabilization be in the light of such impermanence?

CruiseReady on 05/09/2015

You can view it from the land, but to get to the lighthouse itself, you might have to charter a helicopter.

Nelda_Hoxie on 05/09/2015

I would love to see the Tillamook Lighthouse. It's location is so dramatic and beautiful. Although I couldn't imagine going through a storm there!

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