- Historic Sites
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Shoalwater Bay’s miniature oysters, no larger than a silver dollar, were bought by San Franciscans for a silver dollar apiece; and the Bruce boys prospered. They shared their comforts liberally with all visitors, including my grandfather, Robert Hamilton Espy, who wintered with them in 1852-53. He referred to them in later years as “very clever fellows,” meaning they were generous providers and agreeable company.
Grandpa, then twenty-six, hailed from Pennsylvania, where he had been apprenticed to a tailor, by way of Wisconsin, where he had learned logging. When he signalled to the Bruce boys that he would not mind trading his felling axe for a pair of oyster tongs, their attitude toward him changed; they signalled back that in the future they would prefer his absence to his presence. So as soon as the rains let up, he made his way south along the bay to the mouth of the Palix River, where he built a cabin and logged. In the fall he was joined by a band of Indians, who crossed from the peninsula to the Palix every year to catch and smoke dog salmon. Nahcati, their chief, took a shine to Grandpa, and Grandpa took a shine to him. This led to an intriguing revelation: the peninsula side of Shoalwater Bay, said the chief, was choked with fatter, tastier oysters than any ever longed by the Bruce boys. Grandpa promised to come and see for himself the following spring. He did, and the oysters proved even better and more abundant than Nahcati had claimed. So Grandpa and Isaac Clark, another Wisconsin logger, built a cabin of alder shakes and became oystermen.
The Bruce boys, naturally enough, were not pleased. I do not know how they treated Mr. Clark; but when Grandpa built his first oyster plunger, the Bruce boys set it adrift. When he built a bigger boat, they burned it. At last, though, he acquired a plunger that made the biggest the Bruce boys owned look like a one-brave canoe. At that point the Bruce boys gave up. The opposing sides swore eternal friendship—and, as far as I know, abided by their oath. With more than enough oysters for everybody other white men came and settled down.
Oysterville was born.
In the 1850’s reports of Indian uprisings sent spasms of apprehension through the settlers of Oysterville, so they formed a militia and elected Grandpa commander. Finding that the available ordnance consisted of a dozen single-shot rifles and about the same number of shotguns, Grandpa dispatched an urgent call to the nearest army post for a supply of regulation rifles and put his militiamen to work constructing a log fort north of the village in case our own gentle Indians should start on a scalping spree. In fact, the Indians performed a considerable part of the carpentry, though they preferred to stay at the edge of the clearing, exchanging ribald remarks while the white men worked. By the time the walls were up, the whole project had come to seem a bit silly, and the roof was never completed. The settlers and the Indians returned to their oystering. Months later the rifles arrived. The whites, having no use for them, sold them to the Indians.
And that is how Grandpa became a major.
For a quarter of a century after Oysterville was founded, the only overland connection with the outside world was the ocean beach. It was a hazardous connection. The peninsula from the bar at Cape Disappointment to the bar at Leadbetter Point was a graveyard of ships; by the turn of the century parts of more than a hundred oceangoing vessels were littered there. Year after year their hulks would sink slowly beneath the sand, only to reemerge as slowly, until the time came when they emerged no more.
Three days a week a stagecoach drawn by four horses travelled between Oysterville and Ilwaco. When the tide was low, the horses wove in and out of the breakers at full gallop, dodging driftwood and wrecks, even detouring around bulges in the sand lest they dislodge gas from some decomposing cadaver of fish or man. “Besides handling the ribbons,” recalled Charles Burch, one of the early drivers, “a man had to be a first-class navigator. Many a time I have had a big swell lift horses and wagon and toss the whole shooting match up and around like a toy.”
In the i88o’s a narrow-gauge railroad, running just inland of the sand dunes, replaced the stage. It too ran by the tide, since it had to meet the Astoria steamer at Ilwaco and the steamer could dock only at midflood. So the train schedule moved back fifty minutes a day for a week and then jumped six hours ahead.
But the train ended its run at Nahcotta, five miles short of Oysterville. The fortunes of Grandpa’s village were on the wane.
I he delectable native oyster, Ostrea lurida , began to lose heart in the i88o’s. As its numbers lessened so did those of the oystermen.
Scientists are still arguing about what went wrong with the oysters.
Oysterville had been the county seat since 1860; but the village lost heart along with its oysters and did not resist too much when finally the county voted to reseat itself at South Bend, an upstart lumber town at the mouth of the Willapa River, on the mainland side of the bay.