Friday, July 9, 2010

The Town That Oysters Built

It was the city of San Francisco awash with wealth from the gold fields and miners with an insatiable craving for oysters that created the town of Oysterville, Washington. Located at the end of the Long Beach Peninsula, due north of the mouth of the Columbia River, the site along Willapa Bay was well known to local Native American tribes. The vast, shallow bay was flush with oysters, an important part of the coastal Indians’ diet. After a local chief introduced pioneers Robert Espy and I.A. Clark to this culinary treasure trove, the great oyster rush was on.
By the summer of 1854, the town was booming. Large schooners from San Francisco were sailing into the bay and filling their holds with fresh oysters. Oysters were purchased with gold coins and it is claimed that Oysterville possessed more gold per capita than any other Pacific Coast town outside of San Francisco. Fortune seekers, fishermen, shopkeepers arrived and the town grew rapidly to over 800 in population and boasted of three hotels, five saloons, and a weekly newspaper. It served as the county seat of Pacific County.
The oyster business was hugely profitable and residents built attractive houses, many constructed from California redwood brought up the coast as ballast in the oyster schooners. Soon, a school, churches and other trappings of civilization arrived.
But, like most booms, it eventually went bust. Over-harvesting depleted the native oyster supply and the long-anticipated Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company rail line stopped just south of town, leaving Oysterville isolated at the northern end of the peninsula. The final blow came in 1893 when a band of raiders from the town of South Bend on the east side of Willapa Bay sailed across the water, ransacked the courthouse, stole all the official county records, and proclaimed South Bend to be the new county seat.
Over time, winter weather and shifting sands along the bay destroyed the business area leaving only a few residences, church, school, cannery and post office. Eighty acres of this quaint, ghost town were designated a National Historic District in 1976. The few remaining residents work hard at maintaining the village’s unique character and have established the Oysterville Restoration Foundation to protect, preserve, and restore the buildings and sites of historic interest.
Looking more like a movie set of a New England coastal village, Oysterville offers visitors a glimpse of an unusual 19th century Washington town with its picturesque houses, restored church and schoolhouse, and rows and rows of picket fences. The sole surviving church, with its tall, white and red striped steeple is easy to locate. Built in 1892, it began life as a Baptist church and is now nondenominational. The front door is always unlocked and a supply of walking tour brochures is available in the foyer. Following the tour route by foot or car takes visitors to all the points of interest in the historic district and includes a brief history of all the properties.
Of special note are the impressive Esby, Crellen, and Stoner houses overlooking the bay and the charming Captain Stream cottage. The schoolhouse, located on School Road, of course, was used until 1957 and currently serves as a community center. The old cannery on the waterfront is now the Oysterville Sea Farms and sells a variety of fresh seafood including oysters and other local, seasonal farm and bakery products. The deck at the rear of the store offers an unmatched view of Willapa Bay and is a great spot to enjoy a snack.
There are many other attractions on Long Beach Peninsula and the area has served as a popular beach resort for decades. One place not to miss is the informative Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation Museum and Gift Store (open April through mid-December) where you can discover more about cranberries than you ever thought you would want to know.
To learn more about Oysterville and the area in general, visit

1 comment:

  1. Long Beach is one a favorite vacation spot for my wife and I. Every time we go there, we have to drive through Oysterville. Nice post!