Back in the day, before Bruceport fell in, the settlement enjoyed a brief period of fame as county seat. Not the Pacific County seat, however. From 1854 until 1860, the little town on the eastern shore of Shoalwater (now Willapa) Bay served as the headquarters for Chehalis County (which later became Grays Harbor County). It was another boundary situation. In those early days of Washington Territory, the boundaries and the names of areas they contained changed almost as rapidly as the weather.
Of all the early settlements in the wilderness area north of the Columbia River, Bruceport may well have had the most colorful beginnings. Certainly, the most dramatic! It was at three o’clock on a rainy Thursday afternoon, Dec. 11, 1851, that the Robert Bruce cautiously crossed the Leadbetter bar and entered the shallow waters of Shoalwater Bay. She was an 82-foot, two-masted schooner of 129 tons, recently out of San Francisco Harbor.
Aboard were eight east coast fishermen. They had called on Lady Luck in the gold country, but finding her not at home, concluded that their training equipped them better to prospect for oysters than for gold. They had pooled their resources, bought the Robert Bruce, hired a cook named Jefferson, and set off for Shoalwater Bay. The voyage was a troubled one, perhaps because of the demands made upon the one crew member by the eight new owners who all considered themselves “captains.”
The ship lay at anchor all afternoon not far from the mainland shore. Bill M’Carty, the only white settler living permanently on the bay, watched her with interest, wondering why there was no apparent activity aboard. When, at dusk, he saw a man come on deck, throw a bulging canvas sack into the ship’s boat, and row off toward the Willapa River, McCarty became alarmed. And when smoke seeped upward through the deck, he lost no time in alerting his Chinook in-laws who paddled out to the schooner with him.
Below, they found eight men snoring over an unfinished meal, perhaps drugged, it was later speculated, by the disgruntled cook. M’Carty cajoled, prodded, and slapped them into half wakefulness and got them, one by one, up the companionway and into his canoe, and brought them safely ashore where they stood watching and swearing as the Bruce burned to water level. As for Jefferson… he was never seen again.
Stranded but not defeated
Capt. Winant, leaving the others to survive the best they could, took a canoe to the head of the bay, portaged to the Columbia, made his way across the river to Astoria, and caught a vessel bound for San Francisco. There, he hired a second schooner, the Mary Taylor and returned to Shoalwater Bay, where the boys had spent their time piling up more prime oysters than the hold of their ship had space for.
They built a communal lodge on shore opposite the wrecked Bruce near the site of an old Indian village called Wa-Hoot-San or Hwa’hots. The location of the stranded oystermen’s shelter was first known as Bruce Boys’ Camp, then Bruceville, and finally Bruceport, the first white settlement on the bay. In the winter of 1852, except for the Chinooks and one or two other white settlers, the Bruce Boys had their camp at Shoalwater Bay, Lewis County, Oregon Territory, pretty much to themselves. It wouldn’t last for long.
Although the burning of the Robert Bruce led to the establishment of the first white settlement on Shoalwater Bay, it was not the first schooner from San Francisco to arrive on a quest for oysters. It was actually the third. The succulent little native oysters had been introduced to San Francisco by Pacific City resident Charles Russell in the Spring of 1851. He had transported them overland to Astoria and then by mail steamer to the city by the Golden Gate, but the venture proved unsuccessful.
Soon afterwards, Capt. Christian Fieldsted sailed Two Brothers into Shoalwater Bay, hired Indians to gather the oysters, and returned with a full cargo of the dollar-sized bivalves to San Francisco, making him the first to sail directly into Shoalwater Bay. He, too, was unsuccessful in marketing the oysters. The second schooner to enter Shoalwater Bay was the Sea Serpent. It took on a load of oysters and delivered it successfully to San Francisco prompting the men of the Robert Bruce to try their luck.
By spring, other ships began coming north for oysters. The schooner Loo Choo (Capt. Nelson) made six trips from to San Francisco carrying away 8,325 baskets of oysters; the Sea Serpent (Capt. Miller), five trips, aggregating 5,600 baskets; the schooner Rialto (Capt. Berse) completed two trips, taking 2,500 baskets; the schooners Columbia (Capt. Phillips) and Tarleton (Capt. Morgan) made one trip each carrying 600 and 400 baskets respectively. The native oysters of Shoalwater Bay had been discovered!
Meanwhile, one by one, the first settlers began to arrive at the Bruce Boys’ Camp where the boys were known for their hospitality, their poker games, and their fondness for a drink or two on long winter evenings. Big Charley Denter, according to historian James G. Swan, “arrived like some old stray spar or loose kelp that had been washed up into the Bay without exactly knowing when, where or how.” Other new arrivals included several former sea captains, a few woodsmen, and young men looking for “an opportunity.”
John W. Champ came late in 1851 and took out a Donation Land Claim not far from the Bruce Boys’ Camp. He hired Washington Hall, a surveyor living over on the Columbia River, to plat Willapi City. According to some accounts, Champ never got around to filing the plat or developing the land but, in fact, the plat was filed in August, 1852, in Thurston County, Oregon Territory. The plat was described as being on Shoalwater Bay, south of the Willapi (now Willapa) River, with blocks, streets, and lot sizes identical to those in Hall’s Chenookville plat. Eventually, part of Champ’s Willapi City plat was used but the residents voted to call the town “Bruceville” much to Champ’s disappointment.
My own great-grandfather, R.H. Espy arrived in the Astoria area in August 1852 and went to work for a sawmill owner he always referred to as “Old Dad.” The following spring, Grandpa was sent to Shoalwater Bay to fell and limb trees for the San Francisco market and it was while he was there that he ate his first oyster and met the Bruce Boys. He fell into the habit of visiting them on rainy evenings and he found them very hospitable… until he expressed interest in their oyster business. Grandpa soon realized that if he was serious about getting into the trade, himself, he’d have to go to another part of the bay. A bit later he did just that with I.A. Clark, and the two of them founded Oysterville in 1854, much to the consternation of the Bruce Boys.
The historic record has made little note of the old Chinook village, Wa-Hoot-San, which was near the Bruce Boys Camp. According to legend, the name meant Fire Owl and was named in honor of Owl who had first brought fire to the Shoalwater Tribe. Undoubtedly, the population of the village varied by season, according to the hunting and gathering needs of the residents and to the workers required by the oystermen of Bruceville. In 1853 when the Thurston County assessor made the perilous journey from Olympia in order to count the occupants of Bruceville, he enumerated twenty-five white residents and made note of the 250 Indian oyster gatherers employed there — a substantial workforce, indeed!
Although the oyster beds were first held by squatter’s right, soon after Washington became a legally constituted Territory, the legislature decreed that the beds were to be treated as private property, subject to purchase, sale, and, of course, taxation, provided only that the owners did not interfere with water navigation. Thereafter, newcomers could no longer work as hired hands in the oyster beds, much less acquire beds of their own, until they had been residents for at least six months. The Indians, when in the area, would willingly work the beds for a nominal fee and owners, themselves, worked diligently between the departures and arrivals of the oyster schooners.
In the mid-1850s, a peach basket filled with oysters brought a dollar in gold on delivery to a schooner anchored in Shoalwater Bay — a schooner which might hold up to 2,000 baskets. That same basket brought $10 on arrival in San Francisco …and epicures in oyster bars and seafood restaurants there would pay a silver dollar for one oyster — an oyster smaller than the dollar! Schooners coming north for oysters carried as ballast redwood lumber and fieldstone and any frippery of civilization, from top hats to prostitutes, that the fancy of an oysterman could conjure up.
Chehalis county seat
In 1854, the year after Washington Territory had been formed, the Territorial government established Chehalis County to the north and east of Pacific County and designated Captain David Weldon’s place “in Bruceville” as the first county seatz. Weldon was elected county treasurer, a job which he retained, though it was soon discovered that Weldon’s place was not in Bruceville after all. The county seat designation was quickly changed to the stockade at Bruceville and, including Weldon, five officers of Chehalis County lived there.
John W. Champ was named Justice of the Peace with Charles W. Denter serving as constable. Law and order had a decided “frontier” flavor and the “oyster boys,” as they called themselves, were inclined to settle disputes, not in a court of law but with a good old-fashioned fistfight. “And then the trouble was over,” according to their neighbor, historian James G. Swan, who documented their trials and tribulations in book, “The Northwest Coast or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory.”
But, once they had a “squire,” as Champ was called, the good citizens of Bruceville attempted to do business in a lawful manner. Accordingly, Champ’s chicken coop was designated the county jail and many a culprit was sentenced to do time there. In her Raymond Herald column, “Echoes from the Past,” Ruth Dixon wrote in 1965 that Champ, himself, was once held prisoner there, “but not by the lock — by a bulldog.”
According to Dixon, “When Capt. T.J. Foster made is 75th trip across Willapa Bar on July 26th, 1905, in a reminiscent mood he related this incident: In those days the oyster schooners were the only means of communication for the people of this bay with the outside world, and I was always loaded with commissions when I sailed for San Francisco. There was one old fellow at Bruceport, by the name of Champ, who wanted me to bring up his winter supplies on one of my trips, and what do you suppose the supplies consisted of? Why, just a tin of matches, a caddy of tea, a barrel of whisky, and a bull dog. Well, I brought them up, bulldog and all, and the next morning bright and early myself and men and “every inhabitant of the place, except Champ, went to the beds to gather oysters.
“The first thing Champ heard when he got up was a wild racket in his hen house. When he got out there, he found the bulldog had the chickens all picked clean and treed on the top-most roost, where they were voicing their indignation in clarion tones. He undertook to chastise the bull dog and the next moment he was up among the hens and glad to get there with a whole skin.
“This was early in the morning, and from that time until we arrived shortly after dark, he remained on the roost, cursing the dog in his choicest vocabulary and during that time the dog never took his eyes off Champ and the chickens for one moment. I don’t know what became of Champ.”
Bruceville name change
Although the U.S. Postal Service established the “Bruceport” post office on April 29, 1858, with Mark Winant serving as first postmaster, the town name was not officially changed from Bruceville to Bruceport for two more years — just about the time that an act of the legislature, on January 13, 1860, moved the county boundary (between Pacific and Chehalis) north. The Chehalis county seat was moved to Scammon’s Place (now Montesano) and the commissioners of both Pacific and Chehalis counties were ordered to meet and decide where Pacific County’s seat of government should be located. Their decision was to keep Oysterville as Pacific County’s seat which it had been since 1855 and, although Bruceport’s political importance diminished, the town’s prominence as an oystering center did not.
Soon known as “The Shoalwater Trade,” the commerce in oysters between Bruceport and San Francisco was so large that several ships were engaged exclusively in carrying oysters. There was no packing industry in Washington and all of the oysters were shipped in the shell in 100-pound sacks, or in baskets holding about 32 pounds. Some of the oysters were collected from extensive natural beds in Washington by Indians who then sold them to Americans engaged in the business. Others were collected under the direction of Americans who organized the collecting to insure a steady supply. They tonged oysters from permanent bay channels and transplanted them to prepared beds on higher tidal flats where they were readily available.
By 1855, the Bruce Boys had serious competition from the new settlement of Oysterville across the bay and it wasn’t until the fairer sex took a hand that the rivalries between the two groups were put to rest. In particular, it took the young women of the Oysterville Crellin family to solve the rivalry problems through the bonds of matrimony.
The Crellin family consisted of mother, father, four daughters, and five grown sons, two of whom, John and Tom, formed Crellin Brothers and Company and began shipping oysters from Oysterville in 1858-59. Their principal rival was John Morgan of the Morgan Oyster Company of Bruceport. When John lost his heart to Sophia, one of the Crellin girls, the two companies joined forces and became Crellin & Company in 1863-64.
Before very many years had passed, two of Sophia’s sisters entered into the holy state of matrimony with two of the partners in Crellin & Company’s major rival — Espy & Company. Susan Crellin married Isaac Doane and Matilda Crellin married Henry Gile. Doane and Gile, along with Espy and three other men, had formed their oyster firm in 1866. With Crellin sisters in both major oyster camps, cooperation was assured and it was not long before hostilities on Shoalwater Bay became a thing of the past. More or less.
By the time the 1860 census was taken in June, there were 47 people living in Bruceport — 25 men, 7 women and 15 children. Among the men, were 12 who listed their occupations as oystermen, 4 sailors, 3 farmers, 1 farrier, 1 blacksmith, 1 merchant, 1 seaman and 1 physician. There may well have been a fair number of Indians living in Bruceport as well, but if they were not living among the general population they were not counted.
Only one Indian is named in the 1860 Bruceport census. She was Ophelia Stewart, wife of Charles W. Stewart who is listed as one of the farmers. (The Stewarts were the forebears of several prominent Pacific County residents including their son, Wallace Stewart, State Representative 1908-1911, and their daughter Adelaide Stewart Taylor, whose name is still associated with the Taylor Hotel in Ocean Park.
In the early 1860s, brothers Valentine and John Riddell had established themselves as merchants in Bruceport. Valentine had long wanted to build a steam sawmill and had explored the possibility first in the area where McGowan later built and then in the Cementville/Knappton area. The brothers finally built their wharf and mill north of Bruceport, about four miles up the Willapa River where the channel made a big swing to the south for almost a mile, then swung slowly back toward the north, almost opposite to its previous course.
The Riddell brothers continued to live in Bruceport, retaining their merchandising business and running the mill at the same time. At first, the Riddell mill was operated seasonally as a lumber camp, the crew coming from the bay area and returning to their homes when orders were filled. The lumber camp had six buildings — the mill, a mess hall, and four rude cottages built behind the hill in the ravine. As mill workers began to arrive, homesteaders came along with them and took up land along the river, above, below, and across from the mill site. This small settlement was later to become known as “South Bend,” named for the south-curving bend in the Willapa River the sawmill’s site.
By the 1870 census, Bruceport boasted 25 families, two hotels, a saloon, two stores, and a school. Oyster harvesting was still the main source of employment with twelve listed as “oystermen” — actually a deceptive figure since Indians were still not listed in the U.S. censuses and most historic accounts credit the Indian labor force with much of the work during the busy times that schooners were being loaded. The census listed mill workers as a close second to the oyster workers with ten men finding their employment in the Riddells’ steam sawmill.
Front yard was the bay
According to descendants of the Frederiksen family who were Bruceport residents in the 1880s, villagers lived in Cape Cod style cottages strung along the shoreline, facing windward and the open bay. The bay was one’s front yard with each man’s oyster beds extending directly out from in front of his house to the rim of the bay. There were clams the size of a man’s fist, and the world’s finest salmon choked the bay in silver.
Typical of the homes was the one belonging to Ane Marie and Frederik Ole Frederiksen. It was oblong in shape, having a porch extending across the front and a window which was long and narrow. The living room ran back to the lean-to kitchen where the red brick fireplace joined the flue.
Two bedrooms were on the east side with a connecting door and windows to let in the morning sun. A woodshed at the rear had a raised platform that led to the kitchen. Another door led to the backyard, lush and green and filled with fruit trees of many year’s growth. Along the whitewashed picket fences separating these trim homes were planted gooseberry and currant bushes.
The Frederiksen family lived next to Capt. John Riddell’s house and store, and his brother, Valentine’s home, while on the other side lived Jens and Neilsine “Sine” Frederiksen. Then came the Fishers, and a house to which Jens and Sine later moved, when it became vacant, next to the Wiegardt’s. After this came the schoolhouse built in the yard belonging to a Danish family with four children. Next to the Danish family lived the widow Hawks and Joe McBride. Further up the beach lived Joe De Roos with a grown family, and beyond them the Popes who later moved to Oregon. Sandwiched between the cottages were the houses of the Indians.
Several seasons of poor oyster harvests plus severe shoreline erosion began to take their toll on the little village of Bruceport. By the 1890s, the beachfront was eroding so severely that families began to move away, some to Bay Center, some to South Bend, and some across the bay to the North Beach Peninsula (now known as the Long Beach Peninsula.) Although the post office was not discontinued until July 31, 1895, Jean Hazeltine (Shaudys), in her book “Willapa Bay, Its Historical and Regional Geography,” says simply: “This village persisted until approximately 1900.”
Old stories persist
Though the last vestiges of the village have been gone for many years, stories of old Bruceport persist to this day. One involves the first sawed lumber ever exported from Shoalwater Bay. In 1870, when the barkentine C. L. Taylor came to unload a cargo at Portland, she was met by Captain John Riddell, who piloted her back to his company’s mill dock on the Willapa River. In those days, there were no tugs on the bay, nor was the bay even buoyed.
Lumber in the amount of 380,000 board feet was loaded for delivery in Callao, Peru, South America. According to an interview with John Riddell published in the Willapa Harbor Pilot June 26, 1903, the crew of the C.L. Taylor mutinied to a man while here, though it is unclear whether the mutiny took place before or after the cargo was loaded. The ship’s captain and cook were aided by Riddell and three of his mill hands in sailing the vessel to San Francisco. For this service, Riddell received $100, the mill man who had once been a sailor, $60, and the other two $50 each.
Another story told frequently over the years, is of the merchant who made a fortune (some say “a quarter of a million dollars!”) by selling penny pencils for ten cents each. His gimmick: with each pencil purchase went the bonus of a trip to the back room where the merchant kept a barrel of “tangle-foot.” Whatever the concoction, the “beginner” could take but a sip and remain standing and it was a matter of pride for the seasoned drinker to manage more. Though the law was clear concerning no liquor sales to Indians, the rules of this unscrupulous merchant were the same for everybody — buy a pencil and win a trip to the back room. Presumably, the good citizens of Bruceport looked the other way.
Another favorite story concerns the only physician in the Shoalwater region, Dr. James Johnson, who settled in Bruceville with his family in 1854. Across the bay, near Oysterville, lived retired cooper John Douglas with his Chinook wife Jalek and their daughter, Mary. An attack of measles when she was an infant had left 14-year-old Mary blind, and when her father learned of Dr. Johnson’s arrival, he arranged for Mary to stay with his family for a short time.
Mary’s clothes were packed in a tiny trunk decorated with bright nailheads — a gift her father had brought from San Francisco — and the only familiar object the young blind girl took with her. That night as she went to bed at the doctor’s house, she was lonely and disturbed, wondering how she would manage in the morning in a strange place where she could not see or find her way by touch.
When she wakened, though, a miracle had occurred. During the night Dr. Johnson had treated her eyes and she could see again! In later years she married Frank Garretson, one of the original Bruce Boys, and lived in Ocean Park. When I was a girl, their daughter, Irene Garretson Nelson, lived in Oysterville just south of the church. She still treasured the little trunk with the bright nailheads that her mother had taken with her on that miraculous journey to Bruceville all those years ago.
Perhaps an article in the Sept. 7, 1967 issue of the Raymond Herald, provides a fitting postscript to the many old stories of Bruceport. “Remains Gone Into the Sea?” told about Bruce Dennett, a Raymond scout working toward an Eagle Scout ranking, who went on a quest to find the location of the old blockhouse at Bruceport. “My thoughts were of building a replica if possible; if not, to put up a marker showing where it had been,” he said.
His search took him to Montesano to look at the old courthouse records and then led him to interview a number of “old-timers.” He found nothing helpful. Finally, at Pauline Sine’s house, he was shown where the town once was — covered by her oyster beds! A walk out at low tide revealed three remaining piling — “not much proof of a town once being there…” young Dennett remarked. “I couldn’t even mark the spot because it seemed from the evidence the area had been washed away by the sea.”