The Chinookan People
The area that would become Ilwaco -- like the rest of the future Pacific County -- was home to the Chinookan people, who fished in the Columbia River and Shoalwater Bay (later named Willapa Bay). They dried some of the fish and stored it for later consumption in winter. The area was rich in berries and currants, which were gathered and also stored. The name Chinookan “refers to the people living on the Pacific shore from Willapa Bay to Tillamook Head, along both banks of the Columbia River from its mouth to a short distance above The Dalles, on the Willamette River to its falls, and on the Clackamas River, who spoke languages of the Chinookan family” (Silverstein, p. 533).
The lower-river Chinooks were encountered by Robert Gray (1755-1806), captain of the ship Columbia, in May 1792, and by George Vancouver (1758-1798) later the same year. Louis and Clark encountered Chinookans in the autumn of 1805.
The Chinook people experienced devastation by western disease through trade with British fur traders. Early contact meant early devastation: smallpox, malaria, and measles decimated the Chinook and other coastal tribes to the extent that by the 1850s more than 90 percent of the Chinookans had died. By 1900, according to Michael Silverson’s essay in Wayne Suttle’s Handbook of American Indians: Northwest Coast (published in 1990), surviving Chinookans “had merged residentially and culturally with the remaining Willapa Bay Salishans ... . They formed an economic fringe in the local industries” (p. 535).
James DeSaule, a Peruvan black man who was a cook for the Charles Wilkes U.S. Naval Expedition, deserted his vessel when it ran aground and broke up. He subsequently ran a freight service between Astoria and Cathlamet.
A white settler, Captain James Johnson, took a donation land claim in 1848 and built a large house. The lumber for the house was shipped around the Horn. Johnson, who was first master of a Hudson’s Bay Company ship and later a pilot on the Columbia, drowned while crossing the river to Astoria. The house was later sold to Isaac Whealdon, who lived there with his family. A 1930 history of the region noted that the home had recently been torn down, but stated, “For years that old colonial home stood a landmark overlooking the Columbia River” (Williams, p. 26). Henry Feister arrived in 1851 and started an ox-drawn hauling service to Willipa Bay. By the late 1860s, Ilwaco was a major stop on stagecoach and ferry routes between Astoria, Oregon and settlements on Puget Sound. In 1889, rail service replaced the stagecoaches.
Initially called Unity in celebration of the conclusion of the Civil War, the town was known commonly as Ilwaco after Elowahka Jim. son-in-law of hereditary Chinook Chief Comcomly (1760s?-1830). Comcomly had exchanged gifts with Captain Robert Gray in 1872 and met Lewis and Clark in 1805. The town plat, filed in 1876, used the name Ilwaco. Ilwaco was incorporated on December 2, 1890.
Fishing the Columbia
During the mid-to-late 1800s, a deep channel between Fort Canby and Sand Island enabled fishermen to set traps and secure bounteous catches. Ilwaco became well known as an excellent fishing location. The ocean beyond, however, became known as the Graveyard of the Pacific -- at least 234 ships have been lost near the Columbia's mouth.
Black Lake (located on Ilwaco’s northern edge), was first known as Johnson’s lake, and then as Whealdon’s Lake. B. A. Seaborg constructed a saw mill at the lake’s north end in 1888, and used the soft spruce timber that grew along the lake’s edge to mill boxes that were then used to pack salmon.
From 1882 on, many gill-netters fished near Ilwaco. Gill-nets are vertically set nets into which fish swim, becoming entangled by their gills. In 1879 Oliver P. Graham built a fish trap on Baker Bay. Fish trapping (also called Great Lakes method) involves tarred rope webs installed on permanent pilings forming an enclosure into which large numbers of fish swim in and cannot swim out. Because the traps are permanent, their yield is enormous. By 1900, there were 500 traps between Fort Canby and Point Ellice. Their presence was greatly resented by gill-netters, who began to sabotage the traps and physically threaten the trap owners. Violent clashes between the two groups continued until -- in an attempt to prevent overfishing -- the state of Washington banned fish traps in 1934.
An Irregular and Rambling Railroad
From 1888 to 1930 the so-called Clamshell Railroad operated between Ilwaco and Nahcotta. The narrow-gauge route followed the ocean shoreline, and was the brainchild of Lewis Alfred Loomis, a local businessman who founded and operated the Ilwaco Steamship Company. Using a steamship and a horse-drawn stage, Loomis transported mail between Astoria, Oregon, and Oysterville, then across Shoalwater Bay to North Bend via another steamship. Loomis, in partnership with Portland banker/marine engineer Jacom Kamm, built the railroad (officially called the Ilwaco Railroad and Steam Navigation Company) to replace the stage.
Track began at Loomis's Ilwaco wharf, and the engine shed, turntable, and water tank were built nearby. Nahcotta was developed as the northern terminal because the water there was deeper than at Oysterville and thus better for shipping. Besides mail and passengers, the railroad transported about 80,000 pounds of Oysterville oysters (brought to Nahcotta by boat) to Ilwaco, from whence the General Canby carried them to Astoria. From Astoria, the oysters were shipped to market in San Francisco, and from there to wealthy oyster lovers beyond. Other perishables included clams and cranberries.
During the summer, the Clamshell Railroad hauled summering families to vacation homes. It also carried their luggage for the season, pets, milk cows, and even horses and buggies. The line's schedule was determined by the tide, and stopped as needed to let riders off. One disgruntled newspaper editor published an editorial renaming the line the Irregular Rambling And Never-Get-There Railroad (Jessett, p.11). On Christmas, the train could be strung with holly and mistletoe.
When the line went out of business in 1930, the Washington State Highway Association acquired title to the land and built Highway 103 over it. The locomotives were scrapped. Joining sentimentality with practicality, local residents snapped up the passenger coaches and used them for cottage housing.
Small Town Life
Ilwaco was a rough and tumble town. A July 1882 account stated: "The road leading from the wharf to the village is picturesque, overhung by interlacing green boughs on one side and dropping to the bay on the other. But, alas, the first building that takes the eye with its golden lettered sign is the Cove Saloon, so-called probably because it is frequented by the worst 'coves' in the country. Here in addition to bottles, jugs and decanters you will find a select assortment of old soldiers' clothes and socks taken at par in exchange for firewater" (McDonald, p. 107).
By the mid-1880s, Ilwaco had a tiny post office, a school, a dry goods store and grocery, a shooting gallery, a bowling alley, a drugstore, and a second cannery -- Cape Hancock Packing Company. Finnish fishermen built backyard saunas, a familiar comfort from their home country. Other residents were loggers, saloon-keepers, shopkeepers. Small town life included lodges for the men, and their auxiliary branches for the women.
Frequent shipwrecks fostered lifesaving attempts, and also salvage efforts as residents took advantage of the bounty, carrying home crates of goods that washed ashore.
A 1909 promotional brochure on Pacific County (probably prepared for distribution at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) paints a vivid picture of Ilwaco’s physical location: “Nestling in a beautiful cove on the shores of Baker’s Bay at the mouth of the Columbia River lies Ilwaco, the third largest town in Pacific County. Though but a mile from the Pacific ocean and with the roaring surf plainly to be heard yet it is protected from the gales and storms by the wooded hills which lie between the townsite and the ocean and, but for the increased roar of the surf, no one would know of a storm at sea. The townsite is level, skirted by a low bluff, making the townsite an ideal one for building purposes” (Pacific County and Its Resources).
Cranberries, Strawberries, and Salmon
Commercial cranberry operations flourished near Ilwaco. Advertisements in the 1909 publication offer for purchase shares of several commercial cranberry operations.
Commercial strawberry farms yielded crops (according to a 1909 promotional publication) from June to November. Ilwaco also had a commercial peat harvesting operation.
The 1909 description of Ilwaco’s salmon fishing and canning industry nearly bursts off the page: “Fresh from the sea and still abounding in life and vigor the famous Chinook salmon are caught and canned in McGowan & Sons cannery located here or shipped by the representatives of the Columbia River Packer’s Association and other companies to other canneries elsewhere or to the cold storage plants” (Pacific County And Its Resources).
Supplying Vacationers and Saving Lives
From its earliest days -- and especially as the North Beach peninsula was developed as a vacation destination -- Ilwaco was the natural provisioning point or, as the 1909 promotional publication put it, “With Ilwaco as his headquarters a summer visitor can spend many days afoot, awheel, or by carriage visiting scenic points” (Pacific County And Its Resources).
Beginning in the 1870s, vacationers from Portland arrived at Ilwaco wharf before proceeding to hotels and resorts on the Long Beach Peninsula. During the summer months, this included fathers who spent the working week in Portland and joined their vacationing families on weekends, enjoying the area’s tree-lined shore and white sand beach.
Ilwaco also supplied nearby Fort Canby, established in 1875 to provide coastal defense. Fort Canby’s lifesaving station was established in 1877. The staff carried out daily drills, keeping its team prepared for frequent responses to the treacherous waters at the mouth of the Columbia.
The weekly Ilwaco Tribune began publication on July 1, 1911. A succession of publishers oversaw the paper in its early years. On March 6, 1925, Frank L. Turner assumed control, ushering in a family operation that would extend more than five decades. Turner changed the paper's title to North Beach Tribune.
In 1975, it became The Pacific Tribune, and it ceased publication in 1981. A 1975 article about the paper's 50th anniversary stated that Ilwaco was at that time the smallest town with a newspaper in the state.
Newspapers published in Ilwaco that predate the Tribune include the Advance (published 1890-1892), Pacific County Tribune (1896-1898), and Pacific Journal (1892-1906). Ilwaco is now (2012) served by the weekly Chinook Observer.
As of 2009, Ilwaco's population stood at 993, a slight increase over the previous decade. The cost of living is about 10 percent lower than the United States average. The city occupies 2.6 square miles. The majority of Ilwaco's citizens -- some 36 percent -- earn their living in the service industry. Construction (20 percent), agriculture/fishing/hunting/forestry (11 percent), and transportation (10 percent), followed by public administration, professional services, and wholesale trade also provide employment in the town.
Ilwaco’s boat basin is a major home port for commercial fishermen and charter boats. Sport fishing (salmon) season runs from May to October. The Port of Ilwaco’s boatyard is the only self-service boatyard on the lower Columbia. The boatyard accommodates commercial fishing vessels and pleasure craft up to 50 tons. The Port also hosts a popular Saturday Market featuring farm stands and craft items.
The Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, located in the former Ilwaco Telephone Utility Building, celebrates the history of the town and region with gallery exhibits, educational programs, and a historic images collection. The museum hosts a yearly Cranberrian Fair, and Clamshell Railway Days.
Tourism and servicing the tourist trade are still important aspects of Ilwaco’s economy. The Long Beach Peninsula remains a popular vacation destination, and nearby Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly Fort Canby State Park) attracts tourists following the Lewis and Clark trail. Another popular activity is watching the Coast Guard lifesaving drills at Cape Disappointment.
Lifesaving remains an important feature of activity in and near Ilwaco -- the Coast Guard responds to between 300 and 400 calls for help each year.