If only I’d known enough then to ask…

The older I get, the more often those words come to mind. This time, they are the words I would ask my grandfather, Harry Espy, about Sealand. As far as I can remember — and Papa lived until I was married and brought his great-grandson to meet him in 1957 — he never said “Nahcotta” even when that was the subject at hand. It was always “Sealand.” I regret that I never asked him why.

Sealand and Nahcotta were twin towns. They were located on either side of the Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company tracks, just four miles south of Oysterville. That, in itself, was a burr under the saddle of every Oysterville resident for all the long years (1889 to 1930) the train was in operation. Promises had been pledged. Investments had been committed. Alfred E. Loomis had said that his railroad would end in Oysterville.

Of course, it didn’t. And for a very good reason. The main channel of the bay — the deep one upon which shipping was dependent — was a full mile offshore from Oysterville. On the other hand, four miles to the south that pesky channel veered in a westerly direction, right toward the shoreline. The IR&N Board felt that it would be expedient to locate the terminus of the railway as close to that channel as possible. Transferring freight from boat to train and vice-versa would be important. Freight paid the bills, after all.

My great-grandfather received a gold “train watch” in exchange for his $10,000 investment in the railroad. No telling what Oysterville’s Crellin brothers received or how much they had invested. They had already moved to San Francisco and, rumor had it, had transferred their interests from the export/import of oysters to banking. The descendants of the Espys and the Crellins are still friends. And, to this day, they tend to call the town four miles to the south, “Sealand” and not “Nahcotta.”

End of the line

Track-laying for the narrow-gauge railroad began the second week of June 1888. Things went fairly smoothly until January 1889 when money ran out and work was stopped at Ocean Park. According to Raymond J. Feagans in “The Railroad That Ran by The Tide,” it was at that point that Oysterville’s newspaper, The Pacific Journal, urged the good citizens of the town “to put up the necessary money if they wanted the railroad.”

Perhaps publisher and editor Alf Bowen thought there would be some neighborly outpouring of support for Mr. Loomis and his railroad. After all, until very recently when he had built his grand mansion near Klipsan Beach, Loomis had lived in Oysterville. He had been a friend and neighbor for more than 30 years. But Bowen’s plea fell on deaf ears. I have no doubt that R.H. Espy and the Crellin Brothers felt they had already done their share, especially considering the change of plans favoring Sealand/Nahcotta rather than Oysterville, although that’s another point I wish I’d clarified with Papa.

By mid-May 1889, the very year that Washington became a state, money was found and track-laying northward resumed. Although the 1,700-foot wharf at the terminus had not yet been completed, the first train from Ilwaco arrived on May 29th and I did, indeed, hear all about that from my great-uncle Will Espy (1883-1977) — and more than once over the many years I knew him!

Will’s best friend, Charlie Nelson, was going with his family to see the train’s arrival and six-year-old Will had been invited to go along. However, Will’s father, R. H. Espy, perhaps still chaffing at the final location chosen for the terminus, told his young son, “absolutely not.” Will went anyway, “borrowing” his older brother Harry’s horse for transportation. Afterward, his mother made him stay up in his room, in bed, for two days. Uncle Will, always a man of few words, said of his punishment, “Well worth it. Well worth it.”

Following the railway’s completion, a map of its right-of-way shows the tracks bisecting Sealand, to the north, and Nahcotta, to the south. But the map only told part of the story. In 1889, about the time that Oysterville was red-lined as the railroad terminus, two new towns were suddenly platted: Nahcotta to the south of the newly established right-of-way to the bay and Sealand immediately to the north.

A feud begins

John Peter Paul, a well-known builder in the area, had founded Nahcotta and B.A. Seaborg, a stockholder in the IR&N, had founded Sealand. (And was the “Sea” in Sealand a reference to the tidewaters of the bay or to Seaborg, himself?) While many of the railroad’s stockholders expected Seaborg to give the IR&N control of his Sealand townsite, nothing could have been further from the canny Seaborg’s mind. He had planned to sell a large tract of his town to the railroad for the proposed terminus and, it was later learned, was actually positioning himself to go into the transportation business in competition with Lewis Loomis.

Meanwhile, also in 1889, John Peter Paul had purchased the Donation Land Claim of John Crellin, Jr. (father of the Crellin brothers) and had subdivided portions of it into city lots and blocks. He called his town Nahcotta in honor of Chief Nahcati who, with his family, had lived in the area and had been a great friend to early white settlers. Paul had also created his town in anticipation of the IR&N’s arrival, but with more charitable intentions than Seaborg. When Paul gave the railroad three blocks as a subsidy, Loomis (it was said) was “embarrassed” into accepting Nahcotta for the terminus.

In retaliation, Seaborg severed relations with Loomis and the IR&N and finally, in 1891, brought a suit against Loomis. When all was said and done, however, another IR&N stockholder, Jacob Kamm, bought Seaborg’s railroad stock and the suit was settled out of court. Although Seaborg was more-or-less out of the picture, problems continued to plague Loomis. Now, Jacob Kamm and his brother-in-law, J.H.D. Gray, also a stockholder in the company, controlled a major share of the stock and Loomis shifted his animosity toward them.

Sealand and Nahcotta, however, continued to co-exist side-by-side. While the business offices of the I.R.&N remained in Ilwaco, Nahcotta was proud be known as “the working end” of the railroad. It was there that the freight and passenger depots were located, as well as the locomotive barn, the wharf, the turntable and the railroad’s shops. Equipment not in use was stored there and most of the crew lived nearby.

Rival towns coexisting

Soon, other businesses sprang up and both towns began to take shape. John Morehead, once a driver for the Loomis Stage Lines, had become proprietor of Morehead’s General Merchandise in Oysterville. He lost no time in moving his business to Nahcotta and soon built a fine house not far from his store. The house has changed hands a number of times over the years but is still recognized as one of the most prominent buildings in town.

Alf Bowen, on the other hand, moved his Pacific Journal newspaper, building, presses, and all, from Pacific Street in Oysterville to a location on the only north/south road in Sealand, somewhat distant from the railroad tracks. The building, now known as the “Murakami House,” is still there and is known for its exterior shingles of varying shapes applied from roof to foundation. Interestingly, Bowen, too, had connections with Loomis. He had arrived in Oysterville in 1883 through the encouragement of Loomis, but apparently felt no longstanding “loyalty” when choosing to relocate in Sealand rather than Nahcotta. Later, Bowen moved the business (but not the building) to Ilwaco where the paper merged with the North Beach Tribune.

Even the ubiquitous “travelers’ hotel,” found near railway depots everywhere, appeared in duplicate near the end of the IR&N line — Sealand’s Bayview Hotel directly across the tracks from the Nahcotta Hotel. It didn’t surprise to me to learn some years ago that my Aunt Medora Espy had chosen the restaurant at the Bayview to take visiting school chums from Olympia in July 1914.

Although Medora tragically died just two and a half years later at age 17, one of those friends, Elizabeth Ayer (who would become the first woman architect in Washington), stayed in touch with the Espy family throughout her long life. In the 1980s, she gave me a letter she had written home to her mother describing her arrival on the Peninsula:

We met Medora half way up the wharf. She is the same good-natured good-for-nothing that she was last winter. We took dinner at the Bayview Hotel, Nahcotta. Had a three-minute steak. Everybody stared at us…. The hotel is kept by a family of 14 or 16 all of whom dressed up in honor of our presence. Medora said it was the first time in her life she had seen them dressed up. Drove to Oysterville behind Coaly…

As far as is known, only the U. S. Post Office could not seem to make up its mind between the two towns. The Sealand Post Office was first established on Oct. 16, 1889 with hotel owner James R. Morrison as postmaster. Just three months later, on Jan. 18, 1890, the Nahcotta Post Office was established with Charles H. Burch as postmaster. That post office was discontinued on April 30, 1890 and the mail went to Sealand… for a while. Perhaps it should be noted here that Charlie Burch had also been a stage driver for Lewis Loomis.

The matter is settled

On Jan. 4, 1901, the rival town situation seemed to be settled when this small article (with a big headline!) appeared in the South Bend Journal:

SEALAND SOLD

J.A. MOREHEAD NOW OWNS THE TOWN AND HOTEL MORRISON

THE END OF A TOWNSITE RIVALRY

J. A. Morehead of Nahcotta is in the city and this morning is understood to have closed a deal with C. C. Dalton, as attorney for B. A. Seaborg, whereby the Morrison hotel building and practically all of the Sealand townsite becomes the property of Mr. Morehead. This deal definitely ends the old rivalry between the townsites of Nahcotta and Sealand which in boom times was decidedly sultry but of late has cooled off, Mr. Loomis having had control of Nahcotta property and Mr. Seaborg of the Sealand property.

Many men have founded towns and many have had towns named after them, but not so many buy a town ready-made. Although John Morehead did buy Sealand, he didn’t promote it as such. Part of his purchase became Morehead Park, part became Camp Morehead and part became the right-of-way for the Port of Peninsula which he donated “for the good of the public forever.”

As for the name “Sealand,” once the post office changed the name back to Nahcotta in 1894, Sealand just slowly faded away. And, once the tracks were removed after the train was discontinued in 1930, the “town across the tracks” lost its meaning as well as its name. Except, that is, among certain members of my family and, perhaps, some descendants of a few other Oysterville residents who still felt miffed at the treatment given them by their old neighbor and friend, Lewis Alfred Loomis.

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