Thursday, June 3, 2010
THE TOWN THAT REFUSED TO DIE
Lying at the northern tip of a narrow peninsula on Willapa Bay, it is a destination one doesn’t discover by accident.
Long before white man arrived on the scene, the grass-covered tongue of land that reached out into the Pacific in what is today the very south-western tip of Washington state, had a name: to the Chinook Indian people who knew it well, the place was called tsako-te-hahsh-eetl, or “place of the red-topped grass”. When Chief Nahcatl paddled up fog-shrouded Willapa Bay on April 20th, 1854, he prepared to meet with two new-comers, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, and to share with them a “secret”. In the tidelands verging the attractive site he introduced the visitors to ancient oyster beds which had been providing food and sustenance to the native peoples for generations. To Espy and Clark who knew all about the oystermania afflicting the seafood-hungry populations of San Francisco, this was like discovering an untapped gold field.
California’s tidewater oyster beds had succumbed to over-harvesting and contamination at the very time when the love for the succulent bivalves had reached a zenith among well-to-do San Franciscans. By the mid 1850s a plateful of oysters – whether raw on-the-shell or in a flavorful stew – commanded as much as two twenty-dollar gold pieces at favorite dining spots. Soon Espy and Clark presided over the birthing of a vibrant industry, and the town of Oysterville, Washington Territory, was on the map.
With 500 residents, a city hall, school, library, newspaper, college and all the trappings of an important settlement, Oysterville quickly became the proud seat of Pacific County government. A thriving oyster processing plant employed 200-300 workers, and oyster schooners arrived and departed daily. Gold flowed into the pockets of community residents and night life of several competing complexions flourished side by side. In 1873, Mr. Espy donated a building lot to the Baptists, and a church was built, at a cost of $1,500.00.
Records show that during the 1850s and 1860s, sale of Washington oysters to San Francisco averaged $45,000. per year, allowing village residents access to high quality building materials as northbound vessels sought ballast for otherwise empty hulls. The residences that filled the large and accommodating lots along Front Street and Territory Road reflected the relative affluence of a community that soon aroused a level of jealousy in other peninsula towns as well as on the “mainland” across the bay.
With the approach of 1890, lights began to dim for the future of Oysterville. First, the long-awaited railroad pushing its way up the peninsula stopped at Nahcotta, a devastating four miles short of the hopeful village; it might just as well have been a one hundred mile deficit. On top of that blow, the oyster beds began to run out from years of heavy harvesting. Still, there was the importance of local government, as Oysterville’s dwindling population still carried on as the county seat. Then, the final blow fell on a night in 1893 when a gang of “raiders” from across the bay came ashore under the cover of darkness and “stole” the county records, with which they declared South Bend to be the new seat of Pacific County government! After that, the old pioneer community became a virtual “ghost town” with a beautiful view.
Not everyone was willing to abandon a place filled with so much history and natural beauty, and in 1976 Pioneer Oysterville was placed on the register of “National Historic Districts”. The “Oysterville Restoration Foundation” was formed, and a new life came into being for the town that refused to die. Today, dozens of proud owners have combined to rebuild, beautify and maintain the integrity of the once-remote community.
Known as “The Red Cottage”, the home built by Captain J.W. Munson in 1863 is today the oldest surviving structure in Oysterville. Even the pink rose clinging to the picket fence is an 1870s variety.
Arriving on a ship from Sweden, Charles Nelson built this home in 1873. Seven children grew up in its modest rooms.
A whimsical hand-carved hitching post greets visitors to a home built by Ned Osborne in 1873 for his wife-to-be. When she died before the wedding, Ned lived alone in the downstairs as a life-long bachelor.
The Oysterville church operating today as an interdenominational chapel treats visitors to a musical vesper service each noontime.