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Owner to sell historic ‘Terrible Tilly’ lighthouse

Sea lions roam the waters around Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. The historic, notorious lighthouse has been used as a columbarium for decades, but is now for sale. / Photo courtesy of Tiffany Boothe/Seaside Aquarium

Terrible Tilly, the 141-year-old Tillamook Rock Lighthouse near Cannon Beach, is for sale. 

Owner Mimi Morissette has listed the property for $6.5 million. She once hoped to turn the lighthouse into a large columbarium, a place to store people’s cremated remains. There was room, she said, for up to 300,000 urns. 

But Morissette’s plan never took off like she hoped. 

Forty-two years later, the ashes of only 31 people, including Morissette’s parents, have been laid to rest at the lighthouse. Morissette, who is 77, has concluded it is time for someone else to take over.

“It is time for me to pass the baton,” she said. 

An ad went out this week and Morissette is confident she’ll find a buyer.

“I think it’s a given,” she said. “I think I’ll sell it and I think I’ll close it by the end of the year.”

She traveled this week to a conference in Las Vegas to seek out buyers. She told KMUN she connected with a large cemetery brokerage and consulting firm that has several potential buyers in mind.

Morissette bought the property with her business partners in 1980 and began selling spaces for urns. But cremation was less common at the time. Then, the columbarium lost its state license in 1999 and, despite a fight, Morissette was unable to renew it. 

She was also dogged by consumer complaints filed with the Department of Justice about how remains were stored in the lighthouse and issues with refunds. Some families told the New York Times in 2007 that they felt misled by promises made by Morissette’s company, Eternity at Sea, Inc. In the 1990s, vandals reportedly broke into the lighthouse and made off with two urns.

Morissette says when Eternity at Sea Inc started selling spaces in the columbarium, they hadn’t realized the metal they were using to house urns could not withstand a maritime environment. Then there was the issue with the state sales license that dragged on for years. Morissette says she pushed pause to regroup.

Infamous Terrible Tilly
Whoever buys Terrible Tilly will be taking on a difficult-to-reach island property that — besides acting as a home to the dead – shelters seabirds such as cormorants and common murres on its basalt crags. Sea lions haul out on the rocks below. In fact, the last time Morissette tried to visit the island, she couldn’t leave the helicopter because there were too many sea lions blocking the way. 

Terrible Tilly was built in the 1880s and became notorious for being dangerous as well as expensive to operate. It was decommissioned in 1957.

Today, the lighthouse exerts a strong pull on amateur and professional artists and photographers and can be seen from various viewpoints within the popular Ecola State Park.

The lighthouse is a privately owned part of the federal Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds a conservation easement over the property. According to Brent Lawrence, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Morissette has agreed to only visit the island at certain times of the year to avoid disturbing birds during the breeding season.

While cormorants and common murres roost at the property, they no longer appear to nest there like they once did historically. Black oystercatchers, however, have been documented breeding there. The oystercatcher’s global population is small and citizen scientist volunteers closely monitor nesting activity near Cannon Beach.

‘Something that we all have to face’
Morissette says she was raised around lighthouses and her first priority for Terrible Tilly has been to ensure its preservation. If the lighthouse sells, she is dedicating $1.5 million of the proceeds to put back into repairs and cleanup at the property. Morissette plans to retain a 3% royalty on future urn niche sales. 

Though her plans for a columbarium were not as lucrative or straightforward as she had hoped, Morissette does not regret her purchase.

The lighthouse is an important part of American history, she says, and she’s proud to have had a hand in keeping it standing.

Then there are the 31 urns. The families of the people whose ashes are stored inside Terrible Tilly cannot visit them. But this is how Morissette sees it: You can ride a horse down the beach. You can throw a flower to the waves. You can hike to viewpoints in Ecola State Park, maybe hold a family reunion at the park. You can go salmon fishing nearby and take time to say hello to a loved one in the lighthouse. 

“So in other words,” Morissette said, “I’ve been able to take something that we all have to face and sort of take the macabre out of it.”