Coast Chronicles: 
Hidden treasure at Port of Peninsula

Bud and Ethel Runyan, long-time Ocean Park residents, have been volunteering at the Interpretive Center for three years.

I love our small town of Nahcotta. It’s the kind of place where Bob is walking down the length of Dell Street in the morning unwinding line from his fishing reel; where Cec’s three barking Doxies alert me to the return of the neighborhood deer nibbling new leaves off my pear trees; and, later, I call from my house across Sandridge to Phil, “Soak up some Vitamin D today!” We wave to each other.

When I mosey over to our “downtown,” post office manager Kathy Olson greets me with a story idea, “Why don’t you write about the Interpretive Center?” Why not? So I’m invited to sit on the other side of the Dutch door to talk. I’ve never been backstage in the post office before. All the post boxes have their little mouths gaping open. And there’s a practical assortment of objects scattered here and there: a small broom; a scale; two high stool; piles of papers in cubbies, with labels like “Fragile” and “Registered mail receipts;” ruler and tape measure; and a small safe for stamps and money.

Kathy has been post office manager for seven years and now also coordinates the volunteers for the Interpretive Center, a modest building tucked away at Port of Peninsula on pilings over the tidelands. The center is meant to replicate the way oystermen and their families lived back in the day.

Port of Peninsula, in Nahcotta, is the only commercial fueling facility on Willapa Bay with 90 leased slips for vessels. Though we Nahcottans take pride on the fact that our sleepy town was once the bustling terminus for the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company — AKA the “Clamshell Railroad” — with hotels, bars and all the fixtures of early Twentieth Century life, now we luxuriate in the quiet of a place forgotten by time.

But the port is anything but quiet: oyster barges come and go, Jolly Rogers shuckers are busy; and inside the Interpretive Center — though it’s easily mistaken for a private office — there’s a surfeit of historical riches.

You’ve heard that expression “If only the walls could talk.” At the Interpretive Center, the walls do talk; they’re covered with photos of legendary oystermen and families, news articles, packing labels, cannery and tidal information. And a segment of Keith Cox’s oyster film is showing (tinyurl.com/Cox-oyster-documentary). Most of the displays were compiled by Nancy Lloyd who also painted a large mural on the walls.

Lucille Wilson, Charlotte Davis, Richard Murakami, Virginia Holway, Berta Eberhardt and Marcella King cut the ribbon that opened the doors in 1993, and Port of Peninsula Commissioners fund this little gem of a tourist stop. (www.portofpeninsula.org/oysterhouse.html).

Cindy Bade, the port’s financial auditor, says, “The funds that support the Interpretive Center operation are not very much. I haven’t looked lately but my memory says maybe $600 a year. That covers the electric bill and a small volunteer coordinator’s salary. Maybe some coffee. It’s an absolute little treasure.”

The day I stopped by Mike Frederick was the volunteer on duty. Mike used to be a teacher and drove from Surfside to South Bend every day for 15 years. “That’s 4,500 trips,” he says, “not that I was counting.” Now he’s retired and has been helping out at the center for two years.

Visitors Maryann and Andy Moyer stopped by from Portland — they also have a home in Seaside. About the displays Maryann said, “I learned oysters need to have shells to have some little thing to cling on to. I learned that there’s a borer that makes holes in the shells and kills the oyster. I learned all kinds of stuff.” The Moyers planned to dig littleneck clams, so they were directed to the public tidelands just south of the center. “We brought boots but we’ve been watching someone else dig and I see he’s down on his knees a lot.” She wasn’t sure they were ready for that much mud.

Another visitor said he’d lived his entire life in Portland, and that this was his first time on the Peninsula. (First time!) I asked what got him to the Interpretive Center. “We saw the sign.”

Kathy notes that there are visitors from all over the world who manage to find this little spot. “I think we average over 600 visitors a year,” she says. “A lot of people who have summer homes have heard about the center, so they come by. But we’ve also had people from Canada, Italy, Germany, from Ireland, some from Sweden and Denmark. The point is to educate people about oystering. They see all these piles of shells and the oyster baskets and they say, ‘What are those things?’”

This past weekend, Bud and Ethel Runyan were the volunteer tenders. “This is our third year to volunteer — we do it once every couple weeks,” Ethel said.

“It’s not a bad place to hang out,” said Bud referring to the amazing view from the porch. “And there are some incredible people we’ve had the opportunity to meet, people who used to work in the oysters. There was somebody just the other day who told us his story. He was a teenager, just getting out of school, and in Astoria looking for work. This lady said, ‘I’ll give you a sofa to sleep on if you want to work on the Peninsula in the oysters.’ And she gave him ferry money. [The Megler Bridge wasn’t completed until 1966.] He came back as an adult and signed the guest book and told his story. He was so emotional — he was about in tears. Now he lives in Eugene. He’d became a very successful guy because somebody helped him get a start.”

The Runyans have a long history in Ocean Park. Ethel’s dad sold the family farm near Vancouver and bought a little house in Ocean Park in 1945. “It’s over 110 years old, built about the turn of the century,” Bud said. “We moved here full time in 1990,” Ethel added. “We love it.”

Life on the north end is not so different from what Isaac H. Whealdon describes in one Interpretive Center display: “There was plenty of oysters to be had by the tonging; salmon was to be had for the catching; deer and elk were plentiful; geese and ducks were so common that everyone had them… what a blessing it was to live on Shoalwater Bay, in Washington Territory.”

We wouldn’t trade our little town for any other place on the planet. I was especially reminded of this over Memorial Day weekend when I found myself complaining because there were four cars ahead of me at the Ocean Park stop sign. Around these parts, we prefer things quiet as a clam.

•••

To find the Interpretive Center, drive north up Sandridge and turn right on 273rd, pass Jolly Rogers and you’ll find the structure on the right just past the old Ark Restaurant. It’s open from Memorial to Labor Day — Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you’re interested in volunteering, call Kathy Olson a call at 360-608-9595.

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