On May 2, 1966, at a public meeting in Skamokawa, the Wahkiakum Pomona Grange presents a study recommending that residents of central and western Wahkiakum County and Puget Island create the county's second public port district. The Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1, which was created in 1958, comprises a few precincts in and around the county seat, Cathlamet. The Grange study, headed by Robert Larson, suggests that the rest of the small county on the lower Columbia River in Southwest Washington would also benefit from the government funding and local economic development that a public port can generate. Residents will agree, voting to create the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2 in the November 1966 election. After exploring a variety of development options, Wahkiakum Port 2 will, like its counterpart to the east, focus on recreation and waterfront access. In 2011, the Port operates two public parks. Skamokawa Vista Park, opened in 1981 on a 75-acre site with sweeping river views, draws locals and tourists to its beaches, tent and yurt camping, picnic areas, and sports courts; more recently the Port has begun developing the Svenson Park boat ramp on Puget Island.
Wahkiakum County lies along the north shore of the broad tidal estuary near the mouth of the Columbia River, which for many years provided the primary means of transportation both within the county and to destinations beyond. For most of its history, farming, fishing, and forestry were the county's economic mainstays. Not surprisingly the Grange, an agricultural advocacy and fraternal organization, played a major role in county life: Grange halls at Grays River, Skamokawa, Puget Island, and Elochoman served as centers of community activity and organization.
By the 1950s, the county's fishing and agricultural sectors were both declining (forestry would last somewhat longer) and civic leaders sought to diversify the local economy. In Cathlamet, located at the east end of the county, some proposed creating a public port to build a moorage basin and marina to attract the only passenger traffic left on the river -- pleasure craft and a few excursion boats. Expecting, probably correctly, that voters in the rest of the county would not want to pay taxes just to develop a marina in Cathlamet, proponents of Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 drew the proposed port district lines tightly around the county seat, excluding Puget Island, situated in the river opposite Cathlamet, and the entire central and western portions of the county. Port 1 was approved and developed the Elochoman Slough Marina, which opened in 1971.
Pomona Grange Port District Committee
In the meantime, residents of Puget Island, Skamokawa, and west end communities like Grays River, Rosburg, and Deep River, many of them active in the Grange, were also looking for ways to boost the county's economy. In 1965, the Wahkiakum Pomona Grange ("Pomona" is the Grange term for a district- or county-wide grouping of local Granges) organized a committee to study the possibility of creating a public port district. The committee was headed by Robert "Bobby" Larson, a Grays River Valley dairy farmer and energetic Grange and community leader. Members included Carlton E. Appelo (b. 1922), longtime head of the Wahkiakum West Telephone Company and prolific local history author who was then Master of the Pomona Grange, and Ture Oman of Puget Island.
Unlike Port 1 proponents, who had created a port district with the single goal of developing a marina, Larson, Appelo, Oman, and their fellow committee members did not have a particular specific goal, but were attracted by the broad range of powers that the state legislature has given public port districts to invest in transportation, industrial, recreational, and other economic development. Among the many development possibilities that the committee identified were construction of a toll bridge to replace the ferry linking Puget Island to Westport, Oregon; diking tideflats in Grays Bay as a potential site for a nuclear power plant; and creating deep-water winter moorage for commercial fishing boats at Puget Island and Skamokawa.
After a year of work, the Wahkiakum Pomona Grange Port District Committee presented its report and recommendations at a series of meetings, beginning on May 2, 1966, at the Skamokawa Grange hall. The committee proposed creating a new port district encompassing all of the county not included in Port 1: Puget Island and everything from Skamokawa west. Ultimately, they suggested that the new and existing port could merge into a single county-wide district (that suggestion was never adopted).
The committee arranged for representatives of two existing ports in neighboring Pacific County to speak at the May 2 meeting. Port of Ilwaco manager Rob Gray told how that port had used $400,000 in federal, state, and local funds to build harbor improvements that brought visitors to the area and income to the port. Commissioner Munson of the Port of Chinook described the procedural steps in creating a port. The Grange and other proponents of a second Wahkiakum County port followed those procedures, collecting sufficient signatures on a petition to the Board of County Commissioners to place the port proposal on the November 8, 1966, election ballot.
The Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2 was approved, winning by the pleasingly symmetrical margin of 444 votes to 333 in unofficial results. Carlton Appelo and Ture Oman ran unopposed for two of the three seats on the Port Commission that would guide port development (Appelo remains on the Commission in 2011, having served for 45 years). Bobby Larson defeated Frank Webb for the third commissioner position.
Over the next few years, the commissioners explored various development options. Many, like the early suggestions for a toll bridge, diking Grays Bay, or building deepwater moorage, did not pan out. The commissioners traveled to Eastern Washington to investigate transporting hay cubes -- bundles of hay or alfalfa carried downriver in containers -- to Wahkiakum dairy farmers, before rejecting the idea due to logistical difficulties and the decline of the dairy industry. They hired a consulting firm, which recommended that the Port concentrate on tourism and recreation -- the same strategy that Port 1 had followed with its marina.
Skamokawa Vista Park
The opportunity to create a waterfront park came when the Port was able to acquire from the county school district a large parcel on the Columbia River just across the mouth of Skamokawa Creek from the village of Skamokawa. The creekside site had been occupied by Chinookan speaking Wahkiakum peoples for centuries and may have been a home of Skamokawa, the leader for whom the contemporary village is named. (An archeological survey prior to park development confirmed the existence of a significant archeological site; the commissioners kept that area undeveloped and have discouraged access to protect it.) From the 1920s to the 1960s there was a county school on the property; the school district also had a garage there.
Despite some initial opposition from local residents who, Commissioner Appelo later recalled, worried about attracting "drinking parties, dope fiends, etc." ("Carlton Appelo"), the Port, with the assistance of the county parks department and various state and federal agencies, spent $600,000 to develop Skamokawa Vista Park on the former school property. The park, which featured camping and picnic areas and baseball and tennis courts, along with beaches and views, was dedicated on August 29, 1981. U.S. Representative Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988) of Cathlamet gave the keynote address at the opening ceremony.
Skamokawa Vista Park proved to be a success, attracting local residents and visitors from around Washington and Oregon, many of whom made the park's campsites an annual destination. Over the years, the Port has upgraded and expanded the facilities. In the early 2000s, inspired by the example of a park across the river near Astoria, Oregon, the Port added five yurts (circular domed tents similar to those traditionally used in parts of Asia), which it permanently installed on wooden platforms to complement the park's RV and tent campsites. Skamokawa Vista also has a boat launch. In addition to revenue from park users, the Port raises additional revenue by selling sand from portions of the property.
To Bayview and Beyond
In recent years, the Port has developed additional waterfront recreation areas. It constructed a walking trail along the Columbia River shore from Skamokawa Vista several miles downstream to Bayview, the now-abandoned site of a salmon cannery and its surrounding settlement -- one of many riverside communities that disappeared from Wahkiakum County as canneries closed and roads replaced river transportation. The recreational trail provides the only land access to Bayview. The Port also developed Svensen Park in a sheltered slough on the southwest side of Puget Island. A boat launch and dock were completed in 2009 and began drawing users right away.
Although the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2 may not have carried out all the potential projects envisioned by its creators, it continues to accomplish the basic goal of drawing visitors and contributing to the local economy -- a role that gained even greater importance in the recent economic downturn, when many private tourist-oriented businesses in Skamokawa closed. And the Port's parks and trail provide important access and recreation areas along the Columbia River shoreline, fulfilling another primary function of many Washington port districts by increasing public waterfront access.