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oysterville sign


History of Oysterville

The village rests comfortably on the inland side of the Long Beach Peninsula, nestled on the bank of Willapa Bay (formerly called Shoalwater Bay) north of Ocean Park. Modern-day motorists need only follow Sandridge Road north to the Oysterville sign.

How Oysterville came to be is a colorful chapter in Peninsula lore. An Oysterville storyteller would probably begin with R. H Espy and I. A. Clark, who founded the village nearly a century and a half ago in 1854, and a thumping log.

A year earlier a youthful Espy had learned through an Indian friend, Chief Nahcati, that the west side of the Shoalwater was rich in oysters

Espy subsequently developed an interest in the oyster business. He and Clark, both were about 20 years old, formed a partnership and, so the story goes, arranged to meet Nahcati on the western shore of the bay on April 12, 1854.

The two young men poled a raft across the Columbia, trekked overland to Bear River, somehow found themselves a canoe and began paddling for the Bay.

A dense fog blanketed the Bay and Espy and Clark, unaware of their direction, were in real danger of being swept out to sea. From somewhere out of the heavy gray shroud came a rhythmic thumping and the men paddled toward the sound. They came upon Nahcati who had spotted the canoe just before it vanished into the fog bank. He was pounding a tree branch against a hollow log.

Espy and Clark, with an eye to the future, founded Oysterville almost at once and launched their oyster business.

By the summer of 1854, after the word got around about the prime oyster beds and the opportunities that abounded in the new settlement, the village had become overwhelmed by fortune-seekers, fishermen, shopkeepers and tradesmen. Single men came first, followed by married men who settled homesteads and eventually sent for their families. Within a few short months the population of Oysterville swelled to more than 500, and within time the new community could boast of three hotels, a school, a church, boat shops, blacksmith stables, barbershops, three saloons, a tannery, sail shops and no fewer than four general stores.

oysterville school vintage photo 1899
Oysterville School 1899

In just one year by 1855 Oysterville was proclaimed the county seat of Pacific County, until 38 years later when that distinction was stolen literally.

In the meantime Oysterville continued to thrive, despite what were often horrendous transportation problems.

Mail came once a week via the Peninsula’s equivalent of the Pony Express a lone rider making the trek all the way from Unity (now Ilwaco), making his way along the beach on the Pacific side and across to Oysterville on an old Indian trail. Eventually mail was brought by stagecoach, but even then schedules were governed by the tides.

Pedestrian travel was by stage, on horseback, in small boats and in horse-drawn vehicles, but the Peninsula still had no roads.

As a result, most of the incoming freight was shipped in from San Francisco as ballast in the oyster schooners coming to fill their holds with oysters.

In fact, many of the ancient, lovely homes some of which have been restored and are still standing today in the village were constructed from prime Northern California redwood shipped in as oyster schooner ballast.

A panoramic scene would unfold each time a schooner arrived. Scores of men with teams of horses would travel a mile or more on tidal flats at low tide to greet the ship and off load incoming freight and lumber. Indians worked feverishly to load oysters into the emptying holds, in huge vats of sea water to keep the oysters fresh.

Oysterers were paid in gold coin. Legend has it that, since the nearest bank was in faraway Astoria, much of the gold was either lost on the long journey to the bank or buried somewhere in and around Oysterville. Despite assiduous digging, however, no treasure ever has been found.

This booming, burgeoning village, unfortunately, was destined to self-destruct because of the very nature of its economy, its remote location and a shift in the political wind.

By the late 1880s the rich native oyster beds began to give out, the long hoped-for Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Co. railroad line ended at little Nahcotta to the south, and the citizens at South Bend on the northeast bank of the Shoalwater began to talk about their city becoming the county seat.

A subsequent decision by county voters to move the seat from a declining Oysterville to a bustling South Bend led to one of the most often-related stories about this historic village the kidnapping of the county seat.

It happened, so the story goes, on Sunday, Feb. 5, 1893. A group of 85 men boarded two steamers at South Bend, crossed the bay and landed at Oysterville while the village’s inhabitants were at church services. They were met; legend has it, by a man named Jim Morrison, who pretended to be guarding the dock.

Morrison reportedly let the men pass provided they stop for a round of drinks at his tavern. The men then made their way to the courthouse and began to methodically ransack the place. All went well for the South Benders until Auditor Phil D. Barney found the men disturbing some of his personal papers.

According to an account, by then-County Commissioner J.A. Morehead, Immediately there was something doing in the auditor’s office of Pacific County. Barney grabbed a chair leg and the execution he did with it on the heads of the South Benders would put Samson of old to shame as he spread carnage among the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.

Order eventually was restored, the story goes, and the visiting men made off with official county records and even the office furniture. From that day to this, the county seat has been headquartered at South Bend.

As a footnote, the group of South Bend men reportedly sent a bill to the county for the Oysterville invasion operation but if so, it was never paid.

Ill winds and tides continued to blow for Oysterville, physically eroding portions of the shoreline. Over the years countless homes even the Methodist Church have been washed away.

After the native oysters gave out, the subsequent introduction of Japanese oysters helped to revive the industry, but never to the level of anything resembling the boom of the mid-19th century, when Oysterville possessed more gold per capita than any other town or city along the entire Pacific Coast, with the single exception of San Francisco.

The Oysterville of today maintains that spirit of grace and charm that has come to be associated with many quaint tiny villages which, through good years and bad, have survived for more than a century.

In 1976 the community was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, many of the towns finest old homes are being meticulously preserved by descendants of their builders, and newcomers to the area are working hard to make major restorations to other structures.

Take a walking tour of Oysterville