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Pacific Beach Hotel (Grays Harbor County)

HistoryLink.org Essay 10161 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1942 a popular Grays Harbor County resort, the Pacific Beach Hotel, was taken over by the United States Navy. It became an anti-aircraft training center, with gun installations on the beach and the former hotel serving as barracks. In 1948 the air force established a temporary Cold War radar station at the site. Following the departure of the air force, the navy returned and built a secret facility, the Sound Surveillance System, that monitored the movement of Soviet submarines and was in operation until 1987. The former base then became a navy recreation and conference center. Today, Department of Defense personnel can enjoy the beach at a site that has been occupied by the military for much of the past 70 years.

The Pacific Beach Hotel

The community of Pacific Beach on the Washington coast began as a sawmill and cannery town, but before long was developed as a resort destination. In 1902 the Northern Pacific Railway linked the small community with Aberdeen and Hoquiam, giving residents of those and other Washington towns easy access to an ocean beach almost two miles long. With the opening of the Pacific Beach Hotel in 1906, tourists could stay longer to enjoy seaside activities and dramatic ocean views.

Built on a bluff above the beach the two-story hotel became a popular resort. In 1911, Carl A. Cooper (1886-1965) purchased the hotel and became a very active promoter. He went to Olympia and other cities to drum up business and sell excursions to the hotel. The resort was especially busy in the summer, but it also had a steady year-round business as winter guests came to enjoy the food and watch the storms roll in from the Pacific.

Early on the morning of October 3, 1914, a fire broke out on the second floor of the hotel. One guest, a Mrs. Sterling of Walla Walla, fainted in the second floor hallway. Carl Cooper found her and carried her to safety as the fire destroyed the structure. Cooper used the insurance money to build a more modern hotel on the site. The new Pacific Beach Hotel with 50 guest rooms opened in June 1915. In 1929-1930, Cooper added 25 cabins to the resort, each with a bath.

The hotel had many famous guests over the years, including actor Frederic March (1897-1975). But by 1942 the hotel business had declined, due to wartime travel and gas restrictions. The hotel was identified as underused facility that could be rapidly converted to barracks, and the navy purchased the hotel and grounds for use as an anti-aircraft-gunnery training school. The site was ideal -- guns could fire over the ocean at targets towed by aircraft, without endangering the public.

Gunnery School

The navy opened its gunnery school at the Pacific Beach Hotel on August 3, 1942. It was one of five anti-aircraft training centers (AATC) on the Pacific coast, with others at Point Montara, Point Magu, Point Hueneme, and Pacific Beach, all in California. The guest rooms were converted to barracks, the hotel restaurant and ballroom became a large cafeteria to serve the 350 navy personnel, and other hotel space became classrooms and offices. The commanding officer moved into a guest cottage and additional cottages served as officer housing.

The navy added a two-story north wing to the hotel, and the beach below the structure was graded and a platform laid down for the guns. A firing line with the various anti-aircraft guns -- 20mm, 40mm, and 1.1-inch -- was laid out facing the ocean. This allowed for an unobstructed field of fire. To the rear of the guns were wooden tables used by instructors. A restricted area was established that included all the sea area westward of the beach and nine miles out from the hotel. Vessels were instructed to stay out of the area 24 hours a day.

The Anti-Aircraft Training Center closed in 1945, and the War Assets Administration offered the property to Pacific Beach for one dollar.  Because the beach community was unincorporated, it could not legally take title to the property, which sat vacant until 1948.  

Pacific Beach Air Force Radar Station

During August 1948 the air force flew test flights to probe the Washington radar detection system, and it discovered a number of gaps between Fort Stevens (near Astoria, Oregon) and Neah Bay, on the northern edge of the Washington coast. These gaps could allow enemy bomber formations to slip through various points on the Washington coast and proceed to critical targets, such as the Hanford atomic works and the region's military bases.

The 505th Aircraft Control and Warning Group conducted site surveys to identify possible radar locations along the coast to close the gaps. On September 14, 1948, Pacific Beach was identified as one such location. One week later a detachment of the 635th Aircraft Control and Warning Group arrived to locate the best site for the radar and for administrative facilities. Pacific Beach and other temporary radar bases would employ stopgap measures until more advanced radars could be installed. The radar technicians selected a site just below and south of the former Pacific Beach Hotel near what is today (2012) just south of Main Street, between Sprague Place on the west and 1st Street South.

On October 14, 1948, radar equipment arrived from McChord Air Force Base and was installed. On October 21, 1948, the station started 24-hour-a-day aircraft detection duties. The Pacific Beach station transmitted its aircraft data to a control center at Paine Field, Everett. By October 29 the air force had closed the radar coverage gaps.

The Pacific Beach station included two radars. The TPS-1B search radar was World War II vintage and could search 120 nautical miles. The TPS-10A height radar, also dating to World War II, could detect bombers at a range of 60 miles at 10,000-foot altitude. The Pacific Beach Hotel, again served as barracks and offices, and the former resort's cottages provided additional housing.

A radar station with more advanced equipment opened near Naselle, Washington, in December 1951. This station allowed the closing of the temporary Pacific Beach and Fort Stevens radars. The Pacific Beach station was deactivated in February 1952, and the site would be largely abandoned. Again it sat vacant, until 1958. 

A Secret Navy Base

On May 14, 1958, the navy commissioned a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) station at the former air force radar station at Pacific Beach. This secret facility was identified as a Naval Facility (NAVFAC) conducting oceanographic research, but SOSUS was in fact a Cold War technology developed to track Soviet submarines. It was a key, long-range warning system to protect the United States from Soviet submarine ballistic-missile attacks.

Soviet submarines in the early 1950s were considered a significant threat to North American security, and the Sound Surveillance System had arrays of hydrophones on the sea floor at locations that accessed the deep-sound channel. These arrays listened for the distinctive sounds of Soviet submarines. It was one of the most expensive technologies of the Cold War, but deemed necessary.

Each station transmitted its data to a processing facility, and for Pacific Beach the collection point was the Naval Processing Facility on Whidbey Island. That facility integrated data from the Pacific Beach station and others to triangulate Soviet submarine positions. Another Pacific Coast Sound Surveillance System station was located at Coos Bay, Oregon, and additional stations were located in California and in the Pacific at Midway Islands and Guam.

The first such stations covered the Atlantic Ocean, and when the Pacific stations were added a worldwide network continuously monitored Soviet submarine positions and operations. At the Pacific Beach facility, the hotel was demolished and a commander’s house built on its site. New ranch-style family housing replaced the old hotel cottages, and a windowless operations building was constructed. The Naval Facility had 12 officers, 115 enlisted personnel, and 15 civilian workers.

The SOSUS facility came to the aid of Pacific Beach community in 1985 when, in September, the well that supplied two communities went dry. Schools had to close, as well as motels and restaurants. The navy set up a 3,000-gallon water tank for residents, and the Army Reserve in Seattle brought in water tankers to supply the elementary school.   

A Resort Once More   

Improvements in undersea monitoring included the development of mobile systems. With technological changes, the Sound Surveillance System was merged with other detection programs into the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS). On September 1, 1987, the Pacific Beach facility was decommissioned. In late 1987 the base was turned over to Puget Sound Naval Station at Bremerton and later to Naval Station Everett for use as a recreation and conference center. A new hotel was built and the family housing units converted to cottages.

Veterans of the Sound Surveillance System have held reunions at the old site, with some able to stay in the same cottages that housed their families when the facility was still in use. Today the windowless operations building serves as a storage facility, and there are no traces of the radars or anti-aircraft gun positions. The recreation center is open to Department of Defense guests who can stay in its hotel, cottages, recreational vehicle spaces, or camping sites. The Windjammer restaurant at the center is open to the public.

The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation organization, Naval Station Everett, today operates the resort and conference center. In addition to surviving features of the undersea warning station, a recent landfill excavation found artifacts from the World War II navy era. They are now in the collection of the Museum of North Beach in nearby Moclips.

Sources:
David L. Winkler, Searching the Skies:The Legacy of the United States Cold War Defense Radar Program (Langley, Virginia: United States Air Force Air Command, 1997); "Pacific Beach," Museum of the North Beach website accessed August 3, 2012 (http://moclips.org/regions/pb/pb.php); "$10,000 Resort Destroyed," The Oregonian, October 4, 1914, p. 2;  "Pacific Beach Gets New Hotel," The Oregonian, June 17, 1915, p. 10;  "Eagles Hold Initiation," The Oregonian, January 31, 1922, p. 13; "Pacific Beach Hotel Will Be Taken by Navy," The Seattle Daily Times, July 26, 1942, p. 18; "Carl Cooper’s Famous Hotel Now Serves Navy 'Guests,'" The Seattle Daily Times, November 5, 1942, p. 21; "Pacific Beach GCI (L035), WA," Radomes.org website accessed July 31, 2012 (http://www.radomes.org/museum/documents/PacificBeachWAhistorical.html); "SOSUS: The 'Secret Weapon' of Undersea Surveillance,"  Undersea Warfare magazine website accessed August 6, 2012 (http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_25/sosus.htm); "Emergency Actions Ease Coast Towns' Water Crisis," The Oregonian, September 10, 1985, p. 18; "Pacific Beach Recreation Center," NavyLifePNW website (http://www.navylifepnw.com/site/68/Pacific-Beach.aspx).


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Sun Room, Pacific Beach Hotel, Pacific Beach, ca. 1924
Postcard Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. WAS0684)


Tourists wading at Pacific Beach, Grays Harbor County, 1908
Postcard Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. WAS1165)


Cottage at Pacific Beach Resort Hotel, Pacific Beach, ca. 2012
Courtesy United States Navy


Playground at Pacific Beach Resort Hotel, Pacific Beach, ca. 2012
Courtesy United States Navy


 
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