Oysterville: A glimpse of the past on shores of Willapa Bay

Oysterville: A glimpse of the past on shores of Willapa Bay

Oysterville is an anomaly to the remainder of Pacific County, especially in the preservation of its historic structures. The place was frozen in time because of several events in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Although the village remained the county seat and port of entry for Shoalwater Bay, by the early 1880s Bay Center had replaced it and Bruceport as the center of the bay's oyster industry. Then, in 1888, Oysterville lost its bid to become the bay terminal for the peninsula's narrow gauge railroad. Instead, the terminal was built a few miles to the south, at Nahcotta.

In 1892, things worsened: the little community lost its county seat status in an election; then in the infamous courthouse raid, armed men removed the courthouse records to South Bend. Finally, the destruction of the bay's native oyster beds was a cumulative blow, leaving Oysterville without an economic future and cut off from the main artery (the railroad) that connected the Columbia River with the bay.

With a diminished number of oysters of commercial importance, and no courthouse, the major reasons for the town's existence were diminished. For more than fifty years the village languished, although several of the oldest dwellings remained intact.

People who have visited the peninsula, sometimes several times, might not have yet discovered the historic, sleepy little village lying on the lee side of this 28-mile sand spit. To ignore the bayshore, or the estuary that historically produced a bounty of seafood, is to never fully understand the history of this place. It was here, and at Bruceport, across the bay, that oystermen harvested and shipped out the majority of the native oysters that grew in such abundance in the sinkholes and shallow pools amongst the 47,000 acres of tideland exposed at low tide.

Our view of Oysterville is during its heyday, the decade of the 1870s, when the village had reached its peak of importance as a county seat and port of entry. The beginning of Oysterville came in 1854, when Chief Nahcoti led R. H. Espy and I. A. Clark to a proliferation of native oysters along the peninsula's bayshore, and subsequently where the two men established their settlement. Not long afterwards, several others, including a few oystermen from Bruceport, joined them.

The earliest transportation route from the village to Ilwaco was by horseback or stagecoach, traveling the "Weather Beach." (The Weather Beach was the actual ocean beach which made for a wet, but relatively hard surfaced route for much of the distance.) Beginning in 1872 the steamer Varuna was brought to the Columbia River from Puget Sound to replace the smaller U. S. Grant. J. H. D. Gray and George Warren operated the Varuna until 1876, when Lewis Loomis' Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company took over both the boat and route. (Loomis was not alone in this venture-his partners included Messieurs Kamm, Goulter, and J. H. D. Gray.) Once Loomis and his partners took over the route the man in charge of the boat was Captain Al Harris. He was later succeeded by Captain W. H. Whitcomb, and then Captain J. P. Whitcomb. In 1876 the General Canby (built in South Bend in 1874) was purchased to be used on the Astoria to Ilwaco run.

The connecting stagecoach, using either four and eight-horse teams, made regular runs, transporting passengers, freight, and the U. S. Mail. From Oysterville, J. H. Whitcomb, with his sloops Minerva and Pet, extended the route to several stops around the bay, at Bruceport, North Cove, Riverside, and Woodard's Landing (Willapa). Later Bay Center, Naselle, and South Bend were added to the stops.

From a population of about 120 in 1870, Oysterville steadily expanded during the decade of the '70s. For many years two hotels, the Pacific House and the Stevens Hotel, enjoyed a good run of business. There were summer visitors, oyster workers, county officials conducting business at the courthouse, and businessmen and salesmen who made occasional visits to the area. Regular boarders and guests enjoyed fine meals that included the local bounty of oysters, clams, fish, and game. (For some reason Dungeness crab and sturgeon were not early favorites.) A bar also served the guests at the usually crowded hotel, especially during the winter months when many of the loggers made the town their home. Summer vacationers came for the special events, such as the annual regatta, first held in July 1872.

The Carruthers family maintained the Pacific House for several years. The following advertisement, in the form of a letter to the editor, appeared in the Daily Astorian on May 15, 1881:

...We can accomodate forty guests or so if necessary, at $2 per day, or $12 per week. One day's travel from Astoria, 15 miles by steamer, twenty miles by stage, connecting daily. Clams, oysters, etc., kept constantly on hand and served in any style without extra charge, at Pacific House, Oysterville, Pacific County, M. Carruthers, proprietor. Established 1870. Will be ready to receive guests at any time. You may further mention our beautiful bathing grounds in the bay; that there is one now, and will be two steamers on the bay that can be hired at any time, at very reasonable rates, by excursionists for trouting or other sports, or if preferred you can get sailboats.

Along with the hotels, Oysterville boasted of several businesses. As the seat of government for Pacific County from 1855 to 1893, the village had between 30 and 40 homes, the courthouse, a Methodist Church (the Baptist Church came later), a butcher shop, a blacksmith shop, the Swan Restaurant, Dan Rodway's Saloon, Abe Wing's Bar, the Clark-Sperry Store, and the I. S. Jones Store, where a person could purchase dry goods and general merchandixe.

Several oyster companies were organized and reorganized throughout the decade. Among the leading oystermen were John Crellin, Thomas Crellin, R. H. Espy, Issac Doane, W. C. Doane, Issac Clark, and others. The 1870 census documented that 35 male oystermen called Oysterville their home. John Morgan, former leader of the Bruceport contingent, had married Sophia Crellin and moved to San Francisco to oversee the operations of the growing Morgan-Crellin Oyster Company. (At Oysterville it was called Crellin and Company, and at San Francisco it was called Morgan and Company.) There were smaller oyster companies, some with absentee owners. Familiar names who later came to Shoalwater Bay to work in the oyster business included Meinert Wachsmuth and Heinrich Wiegardt.

Lacking a deep water moorage, Oysterville was without a wharf until 1884, but was nonetheless full of marine activity. At low tide, schooners were either anchored in the channel or their bows were grounded against the mud, refloating at every high tide. F. C. Davis, who made his living as a farmer and tanner, also served as customs officer. Using oxen to pull his wagon, Mr. Davis would, on occasion, ride out on the firm tideflat to conduct customs business with a visiting schooner. One captain later confided to the owners of his vessel that he had witnessed an amazing sight at Oysterville: a customs officer who tied his oxen to the anchor chain while visiting the boat. (Thanks to Willard Espy for that story, Oysterville, pp. 78-79.)

Edwin Loomis, Thomas Crellin, and other leading citizens of Oysterville and the peninsula organized the Shoalwater Bay Yacht Club in 1871. The members of the club held their first annual regatta on the Fourth of July, 1872, and the winner of the first sloop race was Ed Loomis, with the Artimesia. Thomas Crellin, and his sloop Humming Bird took second place, with Issac Smith, of North River, in the Lib Smith, taking third place. The championship was rewarded with a silver goblet, lined with gold. During the decade both the Artimesia and Lib Smith won several races.

Around The Bay: Astoria to Unity (Ilwaco) to Oysterville, 1872

(The writer has used an imaginary family - the Millers - to be the passengers on the sloop Minerva.) During the late summer of 1872 the Miller family (Elijah, Susan, and son Tom) and two other passengers, both oystermen, boarded the small steamer Varuna at Astoria for the Columbia River crossing to Unity. There was no wharf at Unity, but.the passengers were told to relax - neither Oysterville nor Bruceport, the two largest communities on Shoalwater Bay, had wharves. The stagecoach, drawn by four large horses, was backed into the water to await the dinghy bringing the passengers to shore.

From Unity the stage carried the five passengers on a bumpy ride to the ocean beach, which the driver called the "Weather Beach." Somewhere during the middle of the trip, as the sun fell lower in the western sky, the driver stopped at Lewis Loomis' barn to drop off the horses for two fresh teams. There had been a constant breeze during the trip, with the roar of ocean surf for the entire distance.

Upon reaching Oysterville the Millers had a choice of either the Pacific House or the Stevens Hotel, and sometimes both could be filled to capacity, especially during the summer months. After finding rooms for two nights at the Pacific House, the family had a comfortable stay, and were awakened both mornings with the distant roar of the ocean in their ears. For their one evening meal the family had a fine meal of razor clams and fresh garden vegetables.

The Millers' journey was not yet at an end. Their destination was Woodard's Landing, where Susan's sister and brother-in-law lived on a farm. To reach Woodard's Landing they would ride in the Minerva, a large sloop (called plunger by the local oystermen), which was operated by Captain James H. Whitcomb and his son, George. George actually sailed a second sloop, the Pet, as the mail, freight, and passengers sometimes required two boats. The first stop on their trip was Bruceport, the first community founded on the bay. The scond stop would be Lighthouse (North) Cove, which in 1875 had a few residents, the Shoalwater Bay Lighthouse, and a school.

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