Oysterville's 150th Birthday: When the oyster schooners came north

A "cheery corner" in the Heckes boarding house, which operated in Oysterville from the 1920s through the late 1940s. The fireplace was built from rocks brought north as balast by sailing ships.

On April 13, 1854, the day after R.H. Espy and I. A. Clark arrived in the area that is now Oysterville, they "began cutting alders for a 10x12 foot log cabin" according the account by R.H. Espy, himself.

I sometimes wonder how they managed that. Did they travel with an ax and a saw? How many tools and how much equipment did they carry with them traveling as they did by canoe and portage trails from Astoria? The details of history fascinate me but, unfortunately, are seldom recorded.

To be sure, whatever amenities of civilization Espy and Clark enjoyed in their first months here, they carried themselves or, more likely, were provided by their friendly Indians neighbors. Shoalwater Bay country of a century and a half ago was a wilderness connected to the "outside world" primarily by the ships that came now and then from California to buy oysters for the gold-rich San Francisco market.

By the time Oysterville was celebrating the first anniversary of its founding, the population around the bay had increased - perhaps to as many as 100 settlers - and ships were coming on a more regular basis. They entered the bay at flood tide and anchored in the channel a mile from shore. At low tide there was a flurry of activity on the tideflats in front of town.

Bushel baskets of oysters were taken from the culling beds where they had been stored and were carried out to the waiting schooners. Every able-bodied person worked, for a peach basket filled with oysters brought a dollar in gold on delivery to the schooner which might take up to 2,000 baskets on a first-come-first paid basis. It was a long way to the nearest bank, and it is said that in the early days Oysterville had more gold per capita than any other West Coast settlement except San Francisco.

Men flocked to Oysterville and the town boomed. With money to spend and not a store in sight, the oystermen gave ship captains their wish lists for everything from building materials and farming equipment to top hats and watch fobs. The goods would be carried as ballast on the ship's next voyage north.

If the ordered items did not make up a sufficient cargo to help steady the schooner on its northward voyage, the hold might be filled with ordinary rocks. Upon arrival in Oysterville the rocks were dumped near shore, free to anyone with muscle enough to haul them off.

When I was a child there was still a large pile of those rocks at the end of Merchant Street, not far beyond the high tide line. By then, they were covered with thick, mossy algae - great for sliding on barefoot if your balance was good - and we children spent countless hours turning them over to see the baby crabs and other wee sea creatures that had taken refuge beneath them.

The Heckes boarding house that operated in the John Crellin house from the 1920s until World War II had a huge stone fireplace fashioned from those ballast rocks. And, like most of the old homes in Oysterville, it was built of redwood lumber milled in California and brought up as ballast. Even the Monterey cypress trees that line the street in front of the Heckes place and beyond were brought as seedlings on the oyster schooners.

The first piano in Oysterville also arrived by ship. It came with Mrs. F.C. Davis who had journeyed from New York state by way of the Isthmus of Panama and San Francisco to join her husband on Shoalwater Bay. An accomplished musician, she brought with her a "grand square piano," according to an account by Viola Stream in the Oct. 18, 1913 issue of the Raymond Herald.

"...many of us look back to our young days when we took our first lessons on this same piano," Mrs. Stream reported. "She taught us more than music, as her influence was always on the right side."

In these days of express mail and overnight deliveries it is hard to imagine the uncertainties of "shopping by schooner" or the anticipation as a ship was spotted entering the bay. Certainly the twenty-first century is more convenient, but one can't help but wonder if it is as exciting as in those long-ago days of isolation when sailing ships connected Oysterville to the "outside."

Editor's Note: Sydney Stevens is the great-granddaughter of R.H. Espy who, with his partner I.A. Clark, founded Oysterville in 1854. Members of the Espy family have lived continuously in Oysterville since that time and, through the years have amassed an interesting collection of anecdotes and memories. We offer them here as a salute to Oysterville's sesquicentennial year.

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