Only briefly did there exist a thriving town named Chetlo, located on a forested peninsula on the shore of the Naselle River. Long ago it disappeared into the misty memories of time, along with many other once thriving boomtowns with descriptive names such as Sunshine, Diamond City, Stringtown, Bruceport and others.
The word Chetlo, in Chinook Jargon, means oyster. These were once growing in great abundance in the surrounding mud flats and waters of Willapa Bay. The tribe had originally encamped in this location long before recorded time in order to partake of the oyster's rich bounty. Much later in history the area was homesteaded, property sold and bought until finally the town was born. Development soon followed. A dock was erected, streets were laid out, houses built, orchards and gardens planted, a school and a hotel came to life. A wonderful future was anticipated with oysters, logging, salmon fishing being the source of livelihoods for this new town. But sadly the town lived and thrived but briefly. The decline in production of the native oyster was one factor that led to the town's demise. The pretty little school was used only a few years. Slowly family by family and one person after another, abandoned dreams of a prosperous life and moved on, until finally no one was left.
In this part of the country where rain and fog is the dominant weather the better part of the year, it didn't take very long at all for nature to work its magic. The ensuing years of abandonment devoured homes and buried them with the omnipresent blackberry vines, alder trees, thimble and salmonberry bushes, mosses and other vegetation that nature provides in this part of the country. Varmints and insects, looking for shelter, gnawed away at remaining structures. Years took their toll and the town gradually eroded and tumbled away to begin slowly sinking into the rich damp earth, to again return to the elements of God's creation.
Years later my grandfather purchased some of this abandoned property at a tax sale, constructed a dock and found safe haven here for his fishing boat as well as a prosperous location for a fish trap. This was constructed down river near the confluence of a nearby stream. One small house could, with a little hard work, be restored and safely used and this my grandfather did. He and his hired help cleared enough land, cultivated the soil and planted strawberries as a means to a livelihood and raised geese to keep slugs and bugs in abeyance. He lived a hermitic life at Chetlo, but on weekends he would return to his home and family who lived in town.
My childhood memories begin while I was a student in second and third grades. My family came looking for a place to live to tide themselves through a period of hard luck, which also meant a lack of money. Times were tough for us and for a great many others. Jobs had become scarce or nonexistent. The fishing industry was no longer paying a livable wage and our family's money became in desperate short supply. Depression was engulfing this area of the country as well as the entire nation. When we arrived in Chetlo, the only building, other than the one in which my grandfather was living and one which could possibly be restored enough to be used safely, was the abandoned hotel. Into this building our family settled, bag and baggage. Insects, mold, dampness, cobwebs, varmints all had to move over and allow us to share their dark dank surroundings.
What a life! In its prime this hotel must have been a wonderful building. The walls were built with nearly foot-wide wooden planks running horizontally, covered with felt paper and then on top of that, was once pretty wallpaper, as was the custom in those days. Thousands of spiders had found homes in this now sagging and peeling material. We children were given permission to color and draw on any of the walls we chose. What unbridled fun! The spiders were quite a nuisance but were dealt with one by one. Most of these spiders were the great huge juicy red garden variety, nearly the size of a half-dollar, which thrive in abundance in damp and woodsy areas. My father was more than a little apprehensive when they made their appearance in his midst. On more than one occasion he would take down his trusty .22 rifle from its rack on the wall and take aim. The walls and ceilings of the hotel didn't mind but I'm sure some spiders died mostly from sheer fright.
Our contact with the outside world was a radio run by batteries that my father worked on daily to make certain the correct amount of liquid in them was maintained. He ran a long wire from the radio to an outside tall pole near the hotel. Each evening, at a certain time, the radio was turned on so my parents could listen and keep up with current events.
Another group of residents lived with us: wood rats. They would peer through the cracks in the walls and ceiling to taunt us. Once in awhile they would scamper off with my mother's thimble or some other small trinket they coveted for their own. The racket and din they produced seemed much louder and boisterous at night and many times left us with very little sleep. They would tumble and gallop up and down behind our walls and then seemingly over the ceilings and under the floors. We children thought of them as pets and marveled at their abilities, however my parents thought of them as pests and nuisances and wished them gone.
My father used a froe to make cedar boards and shingles and from these he constructed a most marvelous chicken house. It smelled heavenly and clean and soon after its completion it became a favorite place of mine. The few chickens that escaped the many predators became my fast friends. I would join them on the roost and carry on one-sided conversations with them for what seemed like hours. Each one had its own personality and name, which became a very difficult situation when it came time for these wonderful friends of mine to become our dinner.
One day on a return from school I saw a scary sight hanging from the cross-piece of the swing my father had built for us children. It was the carcass of a very large black bear that had been making nightly marauding raids in the old apple orchard in back of the hotel. My father had managed to do him in. He had been getting his fill of apples and thankfully not many fish so that his lard could be rendered for our use. His fur soon became a rug. He was enjoyed long after his demise. My mother could finally rest from her job as flashlight holder when in the dark of night the bear would return and my father grabbed his rifle to scare it away.
We traveled up river once a week to fetch drinking water from a spring. We used a pond boat for this expedition. It was a flat, small scow-like boat, however not as large as the bateaux used for oystering. After our return from filling all the barrels the scow could handle, we all fell to the task of toting pail after pail of water from the scow, up the hill and along the slippery boardwalk to the large water barrel located in the hotel.
Clothes washing was done by a Maytag washing machine powered by a very noisy gas engine that filled our home with hazy blue smoke on wash days and literally shook the rafters of the hotel, spilling spiders in all directions when the washer was in use. Water for washing clothes was taken from rain barrels located under the eaves on the side of the hotel. This water often contained "wigglers." These were mosquito larvae, but once in the wash they were wigglers no more.
Our outhouse! It too was made with hand hewn cedar shakes and always was built without a privacy door. This I never did understand, however it didn't matter as my father always built it far, far away from our living quarters and we didn't really have to worry about neighbors. With courage tight in my very being, I would make this often repeated journey. The trips taken in the late afternoon's fading light or the pitch dark of night were the scariest. I would point my flashlight in the direction of each snap of a twig or unfamiliar sound of a bird or beast. Fear seeped through my very being as I walked this narrow path with uncertain steps, stopping often to listen and question each noise that occurred to my right or to my left. To this day I can recall with vivid memories the terror it brought to me as a young girl and the wild and mad dashes pellmelling back to the safety of the hotel.
Our family life settled into a very rustic and, yes you could say primitive routine, in the morning my parents would wake, start a fire in the kitchen wood stove, rouse my sister and me from our unheated upstairs room, feed us our breakfast, fix us a lunch and off we would go in my father's gillnet boat. This boat was a double-ended bow picker fashioned after those of the early day historic Columbia River Butterfly fleet. He had named his boat Mud Hen. My father would pay (lay) out his net while heading upriver to the bridge spanning the Naselle River and the waiting school bus, which would take us to school in Ilwaco. Some days the trip by boat was extremely cold, windy and wet as we slowly made our way up river, all the time watching the net fall away and the little bobbing light at the end of the cork line disappear further and further from view. Our shelter from the weather on these trips was to huddle under the boat's canvas tarp. The Mud Hen was propelled by a five-horse-Standard engine, which my father loved with a passion. At times he had to work very hard spinning that big wheel by hand before a spark would be emitted to start the engine. He seemed to be forever greasing, oiling, painting and caring for it. In fact, many years later he still had it to tinker with, minus the boat of course.
The most terrifying part of my trip to the school bus occurred when we reached the dock. It meant climbing the ladder from the boat to the top of the dock and it was even more terrifying when it was cold and rainy, or if the tide was extremely low and the bottom rungs would be layered with mud, seaweed and barnacles. At those times the top of the dock seemed to be unreachable. My father didn't have a great deal of patience for sissies, or pansies as he called them, and with a strict and demanding voice commanded me to get up to the top of the dock. This pattern was repeated for the return trip home to Chetlo with my father picking up his gillnet that he hoped would contain a few fish. I never could make up my mind which was more frightening, going up the ladder or going down.
My father would often supplement our family's income by peeling bark from the many cascara trees growing in the surrounding forest. This of course could only be done when the season was right. Clean tarps were placed throughout the hotel on which to place the green bark to dry and cure and care had to be taken to make certain the bark wasn't ruined by mold. The stove had to be kept stoked during the drying process and the bark turned often in order for it to dry evenly. After it was completely dry and became brittle as well as a rich brown color, it was packaged and taken to town to be sold through a middleman. He, in turn, sold the bark to pharmaceutical companies.
I found wonderful places to play. The best one was my father's new net shed, located on the dock below the hotel. There nets for fish traps were tarred in heated tar tanks. The linen gillnets were cleaned of fish slime in bluestone tanks, then taken out to dry on racks and mended before being readied for the next day of fishing. Great vats of these two liquids stood waiting to be used. The smell of each was so antiseptically clean and wonderful. To me, this was a great place. When the tide was out, sharp cuts into the hard blue clay bank along the river's shoreline were revealed. These cracks became ideal places to create homes for my Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward-made paper dolls. Many daydreaming hours were spent along the shoreline before the tide returned and ended my day.
In time my grandfather moved back into town, the strawberry fields became overgrown with weeds, the geese that so often chased me and nipped at my legs had been eaten for dinners or carried off by bears, cougars or coyotes. Gloriously my father was assured of a paying job and we left Chetlo.
Today there is no sign of its once grand hopes and dreams. The last remaining structure, the wonderful net shed slowly tumbled into the Naselle River. Only a few rotting pilings remain to indicate where it once stood but my memories of Chetlo continue to live on.
Historian Charlotte Davis has recorded many fascinating stories about our area. She now resides in Tacoma.