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He’s got a razor! Clamming is fundamental to coastal living

Christmas suggestion: ‘Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest’
Matt Winters

Published on November 28, 2017 2:48PM

Last changed on November 28, 2017 3:01PM

David Berger’s new book about razor clams, including many recipes, just might be a perfect gift choice for dedicated diggers.

UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS

David Berger’s new book about razor clams, including many recipes, just might be a perfect gift choice for dedicated diggers.

Ocean Park Packing Co. was a short-lived operation. This label from a printer’s archive dates from November 1930.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Ocean Park Packing Co. was a short-lived operation. This label from a printer’s archive dates from November 1930.

A large cardboard poster promoted the 1936 Clam Festival in Long Beach.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A large cardboard poster promoted the 1936 Clam Festival in Long Beach.

This razor clam can label was registered with Washington state on March 7, 1906, in the first generation of commercial clam harvests.

WASHINGTON STATE ARCHIVES

This razor clam can label was registered with Washington state on March 7, 1906, in the first generation of commercial clam harvests.

An Epicure Brand razor clam label from 1903 was printed in Astoria.

WASHINGTON STATE ARCHIVES

An Epicure Brand razor clam label from 1903 was printed in Astoria.

Canned clams were once as popular among American consumers as canned tuna is today. This 1941 printer’s file sample was designed for a Spokane grocery chain, but the clams undoubtedly originated from the vicinity of the mouth of the Columbia River.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Canned clams were once as popular among American consumers as canned tuna is today. This 1941 printer’s file sample was designed for a Spokane grocery chain, but the clams undoubtedly originated from the vicinity of the mouth of the Columbia River.

A postcard shows the enthusiastic crowd attending the 1940 Clam Festival in Long Beach.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A postcard shows the enthusiastic crowd attending the 1940 Clam Festival in Long Beach.

The Wilson family canned clam nectar and other shellfish products at their famous Ark restaurant in Nahcotta. This label probably dates from the 1940s or 1950s.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

The Wilson family canned clam nectar and other shellfish products at their famous Ark restaurant in Nahcotta. This label probably dates from the 1940s or 1950s.

Like many shellfish labels from the Pacific Northwest, this 1939 example may only survive in the form of a printer’s sample found in Oakland, Calif.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Like many shellfish labels from the Pacific Northwest, this 1939 example may only survive in the form of a printer’s sample found in Oakland, Calif.

An extremely rare Willapa Brand clam label printed in 1910 for Pacific County’s A.A. Getty makes reference to the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

An extremely rare Willapa Brand clam label printed in 1910 for Pacific County’s A.A. Getty makes reference to the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

A commercial razor clam digger on the Washington coast in 1938 demonstrated his digging method for a newspaper photographer.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A commercial razor clam digger on the Washington coast in 1938 demonstrated his digging method for a newspaper photographer.

Vignettes from a century-old recipe booklet printed for Warrention Clam Co. show the stages of harvesting, processing, selling and serving local razor clams.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Vignettes from a century-old recipe booklet printed for Warrention Clam Co. show the stages of harvesting, processing, selling and serving local razor clams.

One of the Pacific Northwest’s earliest commercial clamming operations, this label from Peter Halferty’s Sea Beach Pickling Works dates from about 1894.

OREGON STATE ARCHIVES

One of the Pacific Northwest’s earliest commercial clamming operations, this label from Peter Halferty’s Sea Beach Pickling Works dates from about 1894.

This century-old promotional brochure for the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad is an artifact from times when the recreational harvest of razor clams was considered to be one of the defining characteristics of the seashore immediately south and north of the mouth of the Columbia.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

This century-old promotional brochure for the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad is an artifact from times when the recreational harvest of razor clams was considered to be one of the defining characteristics of the seashore immediately south and north of the mouth of the Columbia.

Sea Beach Packing Works (this is their letterhead from the 1920s) was perhaps the largest of the early clam-canning operations.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Sea Beach Packing Works (this is their letterhead from the 1920s) was perhaps the largest of the early clam-canning operations.

Wiegardt Brothers canned clams, beef, peas and salmon, in addition to their main product of oysters. This 1925 label may be one of a kind.

PAT JACOBSEN COLLECTION

Wiegardt Brothers canned clams, beef, peas and salmon, in addition to their main product of oysters. This 1925 label may be one of a kind.

The red version of Mast-Er Brand razor clams is one of the rarest surviving Wiegardt shellfish labels. Its central design is based on the shipwreck of Alice off Ocean Park.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

The red version of Mast-Er Brand razor clams is one of the rarest surviving Wiegardt shellfish labels. Its central design is based on the shipwreck of Alice off Ocean Park.

A 1930s postcard celebrates the shellfish and other attractions of Ocean Park.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A 1930s postcard celebrates the shellfish and other attractions of Ocean Park.

Solomon Packing Co. canned razor clams in South Bend. This advertisement dates from about 1909.

PACIFIC COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Solomon Packing Co. canned razor clams in South Bend. This advertisement dates from about 1909.

Smile Brand clam labels like this example have for some reason survived in considerable numbers. Even so, they are difficult to find today.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Smile Brand clam labels like this example have for some reason survived in considerable numbers. Even so, they are difficult to find today.

A dump truck of razor clams is delivered to Warrenton Clam Co. in Nahcotta in the 1930s.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A dump truck of razor clams is delivered to Warrenton Clam Co. in Nahcotta in the 1930s.

Professional clam diggers advance along a Washington beach in this 1938 photo.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

Professional clam diggers advance along a Washington beach in this 1938 photo.

Donna Magnuson, second from right, visited Long Beach in about 1962 to dig clams with her siblings and cousins. She is married to Observer editor Matt Winters.

WINTERS-MAGNUSON FAMILY PHOTO

Donna Magnuson, second from right, visited Long Beach in about 1962 to dig clams with her siblings and cousins. She is married to Observer editor Matt Winters.


My cousin Bob Bell, who lives in Naselle, reminded me last week that clam digging meant something entirely different growing up in the Rocky Mountains than it does for us nowadays on the Washington coast.

As boys, it seemed every summer weekend was spent in the high country — the mountains and desert. At the southern end of the Wind River Range, the two kinds of terrain blur into one another, a sagebrush sea lapping along a rocky upland “shore” covered with wind-scoured lodgepole pines. Between poor soil and a miserable climate, the ground surface is often naked of vegetation, exposing evidence of distant times — everything from dinosaur bones and bison skulls, to surplus objects abandoned on the Oregon Trail and long-lost Indian arrowheads. Compared to our coast where abundant plant life swiftly covers anything that stands still too long, Bob and I grew up in literally a happy hunting ground where many summer walks were rewarded with interesting finds.

The most mind-altering discovery any observant person makes in the high desert is that vast forces of time heave and ripple and tear our planet — folding it up, plunging it down and lifting it up again, over and over. Continents experience a geological tide in which mornings and evenings are separated by eons invisible to short-lived creatures like ourselves.

Viewed on a godlike timescale, “solid ground” is anything but. Vast seas rise where once there was land, and then run away as enormous mountain chains are born. Pebble by pebble, these erode away and sink once again, the highest peaks worn away to nubs before sinking beneath a new sea.

Anyone can observe the signs of endless this transformation all around in the highlands of the interior West. Seashells are among the most obvious clues.

Fundamentalist settlers — Bob and I honor several among our ancestors — must have had to do some clever “splainin” to talk their way around the presence of ocean clamshells 7,500 feet above the nearest ocean. Even today, one doesn’t have to look far to find those who thoroughly believe the earth was created somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago. But fossils attest to the far more complicated truth, one that Bob and I learned from our Uncle Tom Bell, who was both a sincere Christian and a deeply rational scientist.

Clams are thought to have first appeared more than half a billion years ago. Their shells lend themselves to preservation in a recognizable shape, so it comes as no surprise that their fossils are found all over — from the loftiest Himalayas to the Willapa Hills. There are places in Pacific County where living clams live nearly side-by-side with fossilized distant ancestors many millions of years old.

Besides simple clamshells eroding out of badland gulches, we used to find numerous other forms of ancient sea life — among them fossilized brain corrals, the carapaces of squid-like creatures that we called “petrified pencils,” and spiral-shelled sea snails with their flesh replaced with translucent agate. Ancient oceans were diverse habitats that can be explored on foot today, as though walking through corral reefs millions of years old.


Toxic interruptions


After becoming editor here on the coast nearly 30 years ago, one of my first big stories was the West Coast discovery of domoic acid, a marine toxin that began complicating razor clam seasons in 1991.

At first, I had no concept of what a big deal clam digging is for the people of this seashore and adjacent cities. The urgent tones of my staff at the time caught my attention. There was serious upset. Being informed they might not be allowed to dig clams on the public beach would be as if my grandparents had been told they couldn’t cut firewood in the National Forest, a social activity that for them bordered on religious mania.

In the years following that initial domoic scare, the toxin has left swaths of years unaffected, while in others it has ranged from nuisance to near-disaster for the citizens and merchants of Pacific County. So far in the 2017-18 season, clamming dates have been scarce due to near-term concerns about clam abundance, but the toxin has left us alone. We can only hope it stays that way. For the future, I worry that a warming ocean might become more friendly to the marine plankton that for mysterious reasons sometimes produces domoic acid. As such an important part of local heritage, it will be tragic if clam digging ceases to be safe.


Local heritage


Calling clamming a heritage is no exaggeration. I recently helped provide a few illustrations for David Berger’s fantastic book, “Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest.” In what is surely an ideal Christmas gift for any clam fanatic, Berger explains the traditions and enduring appeal of razor clam harvests on the Washington coast.

“People discover the activity, taste the primal joy of abundance, and invite family and friends on a regular basis,” Berger writes. “During a recent season, people harvested more than six million clams, enough to pile a hundred clams on every seat in the Seattle Seahawks’ football stadium. It’s not too unusual for folks to display some razor clams at home or in the garage as trophies, or to read in a coastal newspaper obituary, ‘So-and-so loved to razor clam and took pride in always getting a limit.’

“The phenomenon thrives despite the proliferation of video games and computer screens, cable television and professional sports. A turn away from nature? Not to the men, women, and children who flock to the coast to clam. … Sea, sky, and razor clam shows leave little room for other thoughts. The beach is wild, the undertaking elemental. It’s challenging, and yet most who try meet with success. Razor clamming is the people’s activity, an often-ritualized experience enjoyed over and over. You dig with shovel and tube, and hands. You perch on the coastal rim where sand, sky, sun, and water edge together. You brave the elements and accompany the clams on the rough journey from this special place to foodstuff. You know where your dinner comes from; you harvested it just a few hours before.”

Berger closes his book with the fun suggestion that Pacific and Grays Harbor county school kids mount a campaign to convince legislators to designate an official state clam, joining the official state tree (western hemlock), state amphibian (Pacific chorus frog), state vegetable (Walla Walla sweet onion) and state endemic animal (the Olympic marmot).


Commercial clamming


As anyone who has read my columns over the years will know, all kinds of industrial history are a main fascination of mine, and so it is with commercial clam harvesting and canning. I first learned what a big deal it was here from the great Noreen Robinson, the dazzlingly smart and energetic founder of the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum. (What a grand woman she was!) I bought some razor clam can labels at the museum gift store, among the first acquisitions in my now-ridiculously huge collection of local shellfish artifacts and paper items.

Why collection such stuff? Aside from its importance to local culture and economy, I came to realize that it represents a continuation of my boyhood interest in seashells — fossilized and otherwise. Some of those ancient ones I collected in the desert as a boy still sit on my windowsill at work, along with new ones picked up on beach trips around the world. In bowl at home is a spiny spider conch murex seashell Aunt Lucille bought for me on a trip to Seattle Center when I was 10. They are, in other words, an obsession — a tangible connection to the sea and to creatures that are wonderfully adapted to unique habitats.

Writing of the first generation of commercial digging a decade on either side of 1900, Berger says, “Soon, most every hamlet in Washington and Oregon near a razor clam beach had a clamming operation, or several, as large-scale utilization of the resource took off. From the early 1900s on, razor clam canning was a thriving industry and the goods, generally chopped or minced, were as favored and ubiquitous as canned tuna is today. In 1915 Washington produced more than three million pounds of canned razor clams, a high-water mark. Labels were distinctive and colorful. Some assured customers that the cans were packed by white labor, a nod to the anti-Chinese sentiment of the time. … Diggers were preoccupied with the price paid by the buyers and also the exploits of champion diggers, who occasionally collected six hundred or even a thousand pounds on a good low tide, if they were skillful and found a productive bar, and dug like demons.”


Clues to the past


At some point, possibly post-retirement, I hope to put out a book of my own with photos of many things pertaining to oystering and clamming here on this coast. As with salmon can labels — a much more frequent and popular area of collecting about which I’ve published earlier books — in many cases there are few traces of the processing facilities where local people worked hard to support their families.

The naive artwork on things like labels and letterheads were among their first attributes that attracted my eye 25 years ago. A sample of them are included with this article. I wish I could be encouraging to anyone hoping to start a collection of their own, but most are excruciatingly difficult to find.

But much more than their rarity and interesting appearance, I think it is what they symbolize that means the most to me: Northwest families spending time in the outdoors enjoying the thrill of clam digs, and workers braving the Pacific’s cold water and rough surf to support their families.

Clamming represents much that is enduring and endearing about life on the coast. I hope it’s a tradition that continues long into the future, some way or another.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest,” is published by University of Washington Press. It sells for $26.95 in hardcover and can be found or ordered at local bookstores.





































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