In the past century, there have been two famous Old Men and the Sea. One was a fictional character in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by Ernest Hemingway in 1951. The other was a real-life lighthouse keeper who spent 25 years at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse on the Oregon Coast.
Born on November 11, 1860, Robert Gerlof started his career as a seafarer in his native Germany at age 18. After immigrating to the United States in 1882, he continued his vocation by working on the Portland waterfront until he joined the United States Lighthouse Service as a seaman on the Columbia River Light-Vessel 50 in the late 1890s. He was on the Columbia when she broke her moorings in the intense gale of 1899 and was stranded on Cape Disappointment. He then worked as a carpenter on the tender Columbine for a couple of years before he transferred to his new post as 4th assistant keeper at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse in 1903.
Gerlof worked his way up the ladder, being promoted every few years until finally becoming head keeper in 1919 until his retirement in 1928. He was the longest-serving keeper in the 76-year history of the light, and during his final years, he came to be known by local old-timers as the “Grand Old Man of Tillamook Rock.”
All this sounds like a relatively normal career for any long-time veteran of the United States Lighthouse Service, and there were several other men who spent decades assigned to Tillamook Rock. But what makes Robert Gerlof so famous and sets him apart from all other keepers who served there was the intensity of his love for the Rock and his professed personal attachment to it. According to one friend who knew Gerlof well, “His only objective in life was Tillamook Rock, his beloved light which was wife and family to him.”
Even the former 17th District Superintendent Robert Warrack, who had known Gerlof for years, officially recorded that Gerlof’s “love for the Rock was remarkable.” It makes it all the more interesting to consider that Tillamook Rock has come to be known in modern times as “Terrible Tilly” which even personifies it more as a living thing of feminine gender. Had Gerlof lived in our day and age, he probably would not have been surprised in the least by this moniker, both on the account of the incredible storms that regularly occurred there and his own love affair with her through the many years of his service.
A very revealing document from the 17th district office files sheds some light on Robert Gerlof’s character and disposition. It was penned by an unknown officer of a lighthouse tender who was a close friend of Gerlof. The document was apparently written in 1930 when the new district superintendent, Ralph R. Tinkham, needed some information about Gerlof to write up a formal announcement of his death for the Lighthouse Service Bulletin.
“In answer to the Superintendent’s inquiry relative Mr. Robert Gerlof Keeper of the Tillamook Rock Light Station, the following is submitted for his information:
”Mr. Gerlof, as you undoubtedly know, was a very shy and retiring individual with a deep distrust of people he did not know very well, but would give everything he had to anyone he liked or had confidence in.
“I recall that he had an aversion to having any photos or snapshots made of himself and on one occasion when he had the Fox or Pathe News Reel filming landing on the Rock, Bob suspected that the cameraman had taken his picture, therefore he purposely dropped the basket from about 12 feet in the air onto the Rock. He explained to me afterwards that he wanted to smash the camera.
“His shore-going outfit was an ancient double-breasted long black coat and a black flat-topped wide-brimmed felt hat of the type worn by ‘Amish’ farmers. On his shore leave, he would often come to the house asking me to drive him to Seaside, Oregon where he would sit on the benches along the North end of the promenade from where he could see the light.
“I often kidded him about it but he was very serious and wanted to be sure that the light came on shortly before sunset. He would know immediately if his assistants were having any difficulty and at all times the light did not seem to be just as it should be and that maybe he should be out there, etc.
“On his few visits ashore, which in his last few years were solely to have his teeth attended to, his mind was in a continuous state of turmoil worrying about the light and whether those he had left in charge during his absence would tend to it properly.
“He often discussed with me his doubts as to whether anyone would look after the light while he was away and also the fear he had of his approaching retirement. In fact, about a year before he did retire, he asked me if “THEY” would let him live on the Rock after he retired, as he did not want to ever leave it and had wished to die there.
“I told him to take it up with Mr. Warrack, who was the Superintendent at the time but I did not think his request would be granted. I also told him that I thought he would want to get so far away from it when he retired that it would take an army to get him back but he was horrified at such a thought. Whether or not he discussed this with Mr. Warrack, I do not know, but he did state the above to me as well as to Mr. Morris, the machinist at Tongue Point Depot and others.
“About a month after the above incident, which was on his return to the Rock from shore liberty, he again came to me and asked if I would make him a sea bag. So, at that time I told him it looked like he was going to leave the ship and he said, ‘No, No, the bag is for ‘me, myself’ to go in, you know, that I expect to die on the Rock and I want you to put me in that bag when the time comes, weighing it down and slide me off the West side of the Rock, you know, where it is the steepest as I always want to be near the Rock.’
“I had the Boatswain Hans Tarven made a suitable bag and on the next visit of the tender sent it ashore to Bob. What has become of it I do not know, as at that time of death, as always, seemed in the far future.”
In addition to this document, another memorandum was written by former superintendent Robert Warrack to current superintendent Ralph Tinkham to use for the Bulletin announcement submission as well. Warrack echoed much of what the tender officer had written and added a few more details based on his long association with Gerlof.
Warrack recounted, “During his long service as a keeper he was conspicuous by his devotion to the Service - he insisted that everything be done exactly right and if he could not succeed in having his assistants do things the way he thought they ought to be done, he would do them himself, no matter how much time and labor fell to his share in having things done right.
“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…. and probably the saddest day of his life was when he bid the Rock goodbye.”
When that dreaded day finally did come on August 31,1928, Robert Gerlof had a very difficult time adjusting to retirement and shore life. A newspaper article reported that “this old man of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is more lonely in the city’s hurried throngs than in all the 25 years he spent out there a mile from shore with naught but his light and the Pacific’s restless boom beneath him.”
Gerlof did not last very long away from his beloved Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. He lived for at least a year in a hotel on Broadway in Portland. According to a newspaper interview with Robert Warrack in December of 1929, “He’s going back down to the seashore to live soon. Says he thinks he needs salt air. Mr. Gerlof is getting pretty well along in years and he has been poorly since he came to Portland to live. I think the salt air will do him good. It’s quite a step, you know, from living out there on a rock all those years and then coming here to live in a hotel.”
Robert Gerlof passed away August 7, 1930 back in Clatsop County somewhere, probably near the seashore as he desired, and while he did not get his wish to be buried at sea near his Rock, he is resting within a few miles of it at the Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton, Oregon. There could not be a more fitting name for his burial place.
Earnest Hemmingway could not have written a better epitaph that summed it all up for this Old Man and the Sea than was quoted in an interview Gerlof gave in 1928 a month before he retired. “I do not want to leave my rock. I have no family. The sea is my friend.”
Editor’s Note: You can learn more about the history of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and the life of the lighthouse keepers who lived there in the new book, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse by Debra Baldwin.
The book is loaded with many rare and historic photos, some that have never before been published.
When purchased from Lighthouse Digest, we will also include as a special insert, a page featuring the music “Keeper’s Dance, Song of Tillamook Rock,” plus each book will be autographed by Debra Baldwin.
The book can be ordered from Lighthouse Digest as item #2209 through our web site, LighthouseDigest.com or by calling (207)259-2121.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2018 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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