Tillamook And The Clatsop Plains (1980)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

Tillamook and the Clatsop Plains

By Kenneth Munford

(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1980)

The northwest coast of Oregon has had a rich and varied history that ranges from the murder of the first black to an attack by an enemy submarine. It has known stirring events, struggles, adventures, and accomplishments. It is a beautiful land of dramatic seascapes and evergreen mountains, a land of vigorous enterprise and pastoral serenity.

Spaniards sailed along the northwest Oregon coast centuries ago, but found nothing to interest them--perhaps the fog was too dense. Captain Cook sailed by in 1778. He did not land here, but his expedition discovered a commercial activity that brought ships from several nations for the next 30 years searching for sea otter pelts. Some of these traded with the native Oregonians at the mouth of the Columbia River and along the coast.

The first American ships arrived in 1788. Capt. Robert Gray, out of Boston, took his sloop, the Lady Washington, in close to the shore at several points along the Oregon coast. He traded with Indians off the mouth of the Salmon and Nestucca rivers and sailed into Tillamook Bay. Before rounding Cape Horn on his way out, Gray had stopped at the Cape Verde Islands, where he hired a young African, Marcus Lopez, as a personal servant. Lopez was probably the first black to set foot in Oregon, but his landing ended in tragedy. After the Americans had traded for several days, securing wood, water, crabs, fish, and fresh berries, as well as pelts, a party including Marcus went clam digging. He left his knife, or sword, sticking in the sand momentarily. An Indian snatched it and ran away. Marcus followed him into a group of Indians who stabbed Marcus and shot him with arrows. The rest of the sailors ran to their boat and returned to the ship. In this way, the first black to visit Oregon became the first member of an American party to be killed. Gray, disgruntled by the incident, called the place Murderer's Bay.

Gray and Capt. John Kendrick, in Columbia Rediviva, went on up the coast. They obtained a cargo of furs, which Gray in the Columbia took to China. He traded them for oriental goods and returned to Boston, taking the Stars and Stripes around the globe for the first time.

In 1792, Gray returned to the Pacific in Columbia Rediviva. Off the Washington coast he met Capt. George Vancouver, who had been a teen-age midshipman with Cook and was now in charge of an English mapping expedition of his own. They exchanged information, especially about the River of the West, whose mouth Gray thought he could find. After they parted, Gray took Columbia Rediviva through and over the sand bars at the mouth of that river and named it Columbia in honor of his ship.

Later, Gray and Vancouver met again at Vancouver Island. Gray told of his discovery. Vancouver sent his Lieutenant, Wm. Broughton, a hundred miles up the Columbia to explore it. That was in November 1792.

The first visitors found quite a few native Americans living along the northwest Oregon coast. Lewis & Clark estimated that there were 200 Clatsops and 2,200 Tillamooks. Within a few years, however, these numbers became greatly reduced. In 1841, J.H. Frost, one of the first Clatsop Plains settlers, wrote that the number of Indians had been greatly exaggerated. He estimated that no more than 200 Tillamooks remained. In 1849, Lt. Theo. Talbot talked with the sole survivor of what had once been a large tribe farther south. Destruction of the Indians had been brought about by white men's diseases to which the natives had little or no immunity--measles, chicken pox, diphtheria, fevers, tuberculosis, etc. Capt. Clark wrote at Fort Clatsop, "The smallpox had destroyed a great number of the natives in this quarter."

Lewis & Clark Arrive

The well known Corps of Discovery sent out by President Jefferson and led by his former secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and an Army friend of Lewis, William Clark, arrived at the mouth of the Columbia late in 1805. They built Fort Clatsop on the edge of the Clatsop Plains and wintered there. Clatsop Chief Coboway was among those who befriended the Americans and helped them survive through the winter. The Indians proved that they had had previous contact with white men by repeating words such as "musket," "powder," "shot," "knife," "file," "damned rascal," and "son of a bitch." (L&C Journal, 1/9/1806.)

Having used up all the salt they had brought with them, the Americans devised a means of extracting a new supply by boiling seawater in a rock cairn (now reconstructed and preserved in the city of Seaside).

They learned from the Indians that a whale had washed ashore and perished on the beach south of Tillamook Head. With Sacajawea and Charbonneau and several other men, Clark set out to have a look at it. They visited the salt makers, then climbed up and over Tillamook Head on an old trail (now part of the Ecola Park Trail). On what is now Cannon Beach, south of Elk Creek, somewhere near present Tolovana Park, they found only the skeleton of the whale, the Indians having stripped off the blubber. Clark says it measured 105 feet. In a village nearby, the natives were boiling the blubber to extract oil, which they stored in the bladder and gut of the whale. The Indians were reluctant to part with any of this valuable food supply, but Clark was able to buy 300 pounds of blubber and a few gallons of oil, for which he was grateful. (L & C Journal, 1/8/1806.)

When the explorers broke camp and started for home in March 1806, they turned Fort Clatsop over to Chief Coboway. Two of the Chief's three daughters who later became famous wives were quite small at that time. Kilakotah who married Louis LaBonte, was five or six; Celiast, who married Solomon H. Smith, was about one year old. Yiamust who married Joseph Gervais, had not been born.

First Settlements

The Winship brothers of Boston were the first to start a settlement on the lower Columbia. In 1810 the Albatross arrived and safely crossed the Columbia bar. On a fertile island 45 miles from the mouth they planted seeds and began erecting buildings. They had not reckoned with the annual spring freshet; their site was inundated. They moved to higher ground but Indians told them they were not wanted. The Albatross took the discouraged colonizers back to Boston.

Next came John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. Its ship, the Tonquin, arrived off the mouth of the Columbia in March 1811. After losing eight lives trying to find a passage over the bar, the Tonquin succeeded in entering the estuary. On the south shore they established Astoria. After unloading only part of the supplies intended for the new trading post, the Tonquin sailed north to Vancouver Island. There the ship was mysteriously blown up without a survivor.

Astor's overlanders straggled into Astoria in early 1812. They had been led by Astor's American partner W.P. Hunt and included one Canadian partner, Donald McKenzie. This party also included Etienne Lucier, who became Oregon's first farmer; Joseph Gervais, another French-Canadian, who became famous as a guide and leader of the French community; and Marie Dorion, the second woman to cross the continent, along with her husband and two small sons.

Under threat of capture by the British in the War of 1812, the Astor partners at Astoria sold the post to the Canadian North West Company (NWC). At the end of the war the Americans could have had the post back, but Astor no longer wanted it. The NWC renamed the post Fort George, merged with the English Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and moved the headquarters to Fort Vancouver near the mouth of the Willamette. For two decades HBC ruled the Oregon Country. Americans had an energetic start in Oregon, but after they lost Astoria they lost interest in the far western wilderness. It was not until the "54-40 or Fight!" campaign of 1844 that they became excited about it again.

In the meantime, a few Americans ventured into western Oregon. Some stayed as permanent residents. Yankee businessman Nathaniel Wyeth made two unsuccessful attempts (in 1832 and 1834) at starting a trading post on the lower Columbia in competition with HBC. When he went back to New England, some of his former employees decided to stay in Oregon. John Ball, a Dartmouth College alumnus, taught the first school in the Pacific Northwest at Fort Vancouver. After Ball went to French Prairie to try his hand at farming, another Wyeth man, Solomon Howard Smith, who had attended Norwich Academy in Vermont, continued to teach school for the children and wives at the Fort.

Solomon and one of the wives--perhaps she was one of his students--developed a fondness for each other. Celiast, one of Coboway's daughters, was living at that time with a baker named Poirier and their children. When Dr. McLoughlin learned that Poirier had a wife back in Canada he put an end to this polygamous arrangement. He set Celiast free to do as she pleased. She chose to go, with Solomon Smith, to live near her sister, Yiamust, wife of Joe Gervais on French Prairie. Solomon, with Celiast helping, started a school for youngsters in that vicinity and had it in operation when Rev. Jason Lee and four other Methodist missionaries arrived with Wyeth in the fall of 1834.

The Methodist reinforcement of 1837 brought the first white women into the Willamette Valley. That summer Anna Maria Pitman became the wife of Jason Lee and Susan Downing married Cyrus Shepard. In August, with Joe Gervais as their guide, the two newly married couples followed the Salmon River Trail over the Coast Range for a honeymoon on the ocean shore. (see Salmon River Trail tour guide.)

The Methodist reinforcement of 1840 brought Rev. J.H. Frost and his family. Partly at the insistence of Celiast, who wanted a mission started among her people in her girlhood home on Clatsop Plains, Jason Lee assigned Frost to start a mission south of the mouth of the Columbia. Solomon and Celiast volunteered to go along and help establish the new settlement. In clearing land and dragging logs, they needed draft animals. The Frost and Smith children needed milk. All needed beef. In August 1841, Frost, Smith, a sailor who had left his ship, an Indian guide, and one horse set out south along the coast to find a trail over which they could herd horses and cattle from the Willamette Valley.

Sometimes along open beaches but often through dense underbrush, across streams and marshes, and over such obstacles as Tillamook Head, Arch Cape, Cape Kiwanda, and Cascade Head, they hacked their way southward to the mouth of the Salmon River. Following an old elk and Indian trail they crossed the mountains into the Yamhill Valley and went on to Salem. There they bought 55 head of horses and cattle and in two weeks managed to herd 50 of them back to Clatsop Plains.

Calvin Tibbetts, another New Englander who had come with Wyeth in 1832, joined the Smiths on Clatsop Plains. In 1843 he drove more cattle over the coast trail. It became the land route from the Valley to the Plains for the next fifteen years as settlers began coming over the mountains.

Friends of long standing, Tibbetts and Smith took part in forming the Provisional Government at Champoeg in 1843. In July 1846 they went out to Oregon City and registered their 640-acre land claims with the Provisional Government. Smith's claim, on which he eventually received patent as a Donation Land Claim in 1873, was about two miles from present Warrenton, between Smith Lake and the ocean. Tibbetts staked his claim on the east side of Smith Lake, but did not receive title to it. He joined the gold rush to California and died of cholera at sea on his way back to Oregon in 1849.

Celiast and Solomon Smith engaged in many activities, in addition to raising seven children. They helped Rev. Frost with the mission until Frost resigned and returned east in l843. They helped Lucy Jane Fisher start a subscription school in 1845. Solomon operated a ferry across the Columbia and aided survivors of the wrecked Peacock in 1841 and the wrecked Shark in 1846. He operated a dairy, opened a store at Skipanon, and built a sawmill on the Lewis and Clark River. He was elected state senator in 1874, but died at age 67 before completing his term of office. He and Celiast are buried with an appropriate marker in the Pioneer Cemetery on Clatsop Plains. Their son Silas became an authority on Clatsop legends and culture.

Clatsop County was formed by the Provisional Legislature in 1844. In the Census of l850 the region had a population of 462. Tillamook County was formed by the Territorial Legislature in 1853. By the 1870 Census Clatsop County had 1,256 people and Tillamook 408.

The Tillamook area developed later than Clatsop. Joseph Champion came first to settle in l851; he came by whale boat from the Columbia to Tillamook Bay. He was soon joined by Henry W. Wilson, for whom Wilson River is named. Wilson, a printer by trade, did not remain as a permanent resident. Elbridge Trask, for whom the Trask River is named, joined Champion, and both of them obtained Donation Land Claims on the fertile lowlands east of the present city of Tillamook. A wily old Indian fighter in his seventies, Thomas Stillwell was the one who laid out the town of Tillamook.

Defending the Mouth of the Columbia

At the time of the War Between the States, the federal government was concerned about the unprotected mouth of the Columbia. They feared that California might join the Confederacy or might set up an independent nation or that a foreign nation might attack the United States from the west in its time of civil strife.

Fortification of the mouth of the Columbia got under way. At the northern end of Clatsop Plains, the U.S. Army established a military reservation and named it for the first territorial governor of Washington, Isaac I. Stevens, who had been killed in action in Virginia in 1862. By 1865 nine smooth-bore cannon had been installed at Fort Stevens to guard against enemy ships coming into the Columbia. Army units occupied the Fort after the Civil War. Ten-inch rifles were installed at the time of the Spanish-American War. In World War I, the coastal defenses were beefed up again.

In the 1930s, Fort Stevens and the Clatsop Plains became the principal training ground for the Oregon National Guard (ONG). Every summer, units from various parts of Oregon went to Camp Clatsop (Camp Rilea) for two weeks training. As involvement in the war in Europe became imminent in 1940, the Coast Artillery units of the ONG were called to full-time active duty and garrisoned at Fort Stevens. They were a well-trained unit with high esprit d'corps ready to defend their Oregon from any sea-borne aggressor.

On the night of Sunday, June 21, 1943, the Japanese submarine I-25 rose out of the sea off Fort Stevens and began lobbing shells from its deck gun into the military reservation. The Guardsmen sprang to their duty stations. Batteries of searchlights on both sides of the Columbia were ready to pinpoint the attacker with their "terrifying splashes of blue-white light." Lt. Wilbur Cooney (later a Dean at OSU) was Junior Duty Officer that night. Captain Platt Davis (later Mayor of Albany) soon had his Battery Clark with four 12-inch mortars ready to fire. For nearly half an hour, the submarine kept firing random shots in the general direction of Fort Stevens. Range finders and plotters noted the source of these shots. All units were ready to blast the attacker out of the Pacific. Fingers were ready to squeeze the triggers, but no order to turn on the searchlights and start firing ever came. The I-25 slipped back through the off-shore fishing fleet and was gone after firing 17 shells into an American fort.

The commanding officer later explained that he thought the submarine was out of range of the coastal guns and that he did not order the guns to fire because he thought the muzzle flashes would reveal their position. After three-quarters of a century of preparation, the Guardsmen were angry because they had not been permitted to fire on the only enemy ship that ever fired on a fortification at the mouth of the Columbia.

To guard against any future enemy action along the Oregon coast, the U.S. Navy began construction of the Tillamook Naval Air Station (NAS) about the time of the Fort Stevens attack. The two huge hangars, framed with wooden beams because of the scarcity of steel in wartime, are said to be the largest wooden structures ever built. Each one, 1,100 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 195 feet high, could house nine blimps of the type used for shore patrol.

The 1,000-man blimp squadron stationed at the NAS conscientiously patrolled the coast, occasionally dropping depth charges on what proved to be logs or whales. They had no way of knowing, as we do now, that the I-25 was the last Japanese submarine to operate in the eastern Pacific. After its attack on Fort Stevens, it returned to Japan, refitted, and came back to the southern Oregon coast. There, in September 1942, it launched a 2-man airplane that dropped incendiary bombs in the Curry County forest. Thereafter the I-25 and all other Japanese submarines spent the rest of the war, until they were destroyed, in the South and Central Pacific trying to delay the Allied drive toward Tokyo. None again approached the Oregon coast.

After the war, the Tillamook NAS was closed. The blimp hangars are now leased to the Louisiana-Pacific Corp. One houses a complete sawmill; the other is a lumber-drying and storage area.

Channels of Communication

The Coast Range has always formed a barrier between the Willamette Valley and the coastal communities, not only because of the rugged character of the terrain but also because of the density of its forests and underbrush. Even after forest fires cleared off areas of the mountains, windfalls and snags made travel and trail building difficult. Some logs were so huge they could not be chopped or sawed through and were too wet to burn. Trail builders sometimes erected bridges over fallen trees.

The first means of getting from the Valley to the Plains was around the north end of the Coast Range, by water down the Columbia to Astoria, and by canoe up the Skipanon and Lewis & Clark Rivers. River boats, however, provided only an irregular, unreliable, and expensive means of travel and were not adapted to the movement of herds of cattle. Early settlers looked for more direct land routes.

The J.H. Frost/Solomon Smith trail of 1841 used beaches between the capes and stayed close to the ocean on its way south to the Salmon River trail into the Valley. In 1854, settlers from each side of the mountains scouted out a 40-mile short-cut from Grand Ronde through Hebo to Tillamook Bay. Instead of pushing through the matted canyons of streams, this pack trail ran up and over the ridges, even right over the top of Mt. Hebo (3,200 feet elevation, where the U.S. Air Force now has a radar station). The ridges tended to be open and grass covered, like the top of Marys Peak, and avoided the dense underbrush. It required much steep climbing, however, and had only limited use.

Road builders turned their attention to the valleys east of Tillamook. One road opened in l859 ran up the Trask River and down the North Yamhill on the other side. On this road stagecoaches and freight wagons connected with the McMinnville-Forest Grove wagon road at North Yamhill (now the city of Yamhill). Another road ran up the Wilson River from Tillamook and down Gales Creek to Forest Grove.

The route eventually developed as a state highway paralleled the 1854 trail from Grand Ronde to Hebo. Instead of going up and over ridges as the original trail did, this one followed the stream beds of the South Yamhill on the west side of the mountains and Three Rivers and the Nestucca on the west. Until 1930, when the Salmon River Cut-Off was opened, this State Highway 22 was the principal route from Portland and Salem to Tillamook and also to the new settlements in Lincoln County.

Around the turn of the century, two railroads alleviated the transportation problem. To Clatsop County, the 122-mile line from Portland along the Columbia was constructed in three pieces. The Northern Pacific in 1883 laid trackage to Goble, where the trains were ferried across the Columbia on their way to Tacoma. Another company built south from Astoria along the Clatsop beaches about 1890. Then A.B. Hammond--the same railroad and lumber tycoon who at one time owned the Corvallis & Eastern--linked the two pieces, providing through service from Portland to Seaside in 1898. This line is now owned by the Burlington Northern.

A spur from this line ran from Warrenton through Flavel and Hammond to Fort Stevens at the northwest tip of Oregon. On this line and on an extension of it on pilings out into the surf, huge boulders were carried out and dumped in building the South Jetty at the mouth of the Columbia.

The Southern Pacific line that serves Tillamook County and its beaches, "91 miles of curves, high trestles, and tunnels" (Culp, p. 106), was built between 1905 and 1911. It runs from Hillsboro northwest through Banks, Timber, Salmonberry, and Mohler, reaching the coast at Wheeler and continuing south through Rockaway, Garibaldi, and Bay City to Tillamook. It was a great boon to vacationers and the budding tourist industry. It also had a dramatic effect on the forest products industry and served the Tillamook NAS in World War II.

After World War II, two high-speed highways were completed to link Portland with the coast. The Sunset Highway (U.S. 26) sweeps across the Tualatin Plains north of Hillsboro, follows Wolf Creek in the mountains, and comes out on U.S. 101 between Cannon Beach and Seaside. Branching off from the Sunset Highway, state Highway 6 descends the western side of the range parallel to the old Wilson River wagon road and comes out at Tillamook.

A Vigorous Present and Promising Future

The lush grasslands around Tillamook Bay and along the flat river bottoms throughout the county proved excellent for raising cattle. Year-round pasturage encouraged settlers to build up their herds, for their own use and to make products for sale and barter. One use of the early trail over Mount Hebo was to tote butter to exchange it for flour and other necessities.

Emigrants from Switzerland and other parts of Europe with cheese-making knowledge gravitated to this region as dairying expanded and, as you know, the Tillamook brand has become world famous. In the early days of the development of this industry, many small cheese factories were scattered over the county, most of them owned cooperatively by the dairymen who supplied the milk. As transportation to a central location sped up, these village cheese factories were abandoned (although some of the buildings still remain standing.) Most cheese bearing the Tillamook brand is now produced in the one factory on the north edge of the city of Tillamook.

Forests of the Coast Range have supported the principal industry of the country. Forest products include not only lumber, chips for hardboard, and pulp for paper, but such items as Christmas trees and sword ferns. In World War I there was a great demand for ship knees, spruce for airplane building, and sphagnum moss to be used in bandages.

Tourism, a principal coastal industry, has deep roots. Long before railroads or highways made travel swift and convenient, Valley residents went over the mountains on horseback, on foot, or by wagon to enjoy the magnificent Pacific. As automobiles came into use, marshy and sandy stretches of rutted roads to the beach were "paved" with wooden planks. Campgrounds were converted into auto courts, tourist cabins, motor inns, and motor hotels. The modern tribe of Tillamooks takes pride in being the home of "Trees, Cheese, and the Ocean Breeze."

The earliest settlers along the northwest coast of Oregon favored the Clatsop Plains. Thirty-three of them staked claims between Gearhart and Fort Stevens and received patents before the Donation Land Act expired. Only 16 came before the deadline (December 1850) into Tillamook County, all of them settling around the Bay. Many later settlers also obtained free land under the Homestead Act, but the tracts were smaller than the 640-acre DLCs.

The sandy Clatsop Plains appealed to early settlers because the vegetation was relatively sparse and land was easy to clear and put into cultivation. The trouble was that the wind-blown dunes that comprised the Plains did not have the organic nutrients to produce good crops. The area between Seaside and Fort Stevens today finds more appropriate usage as a golf course, sites for beach homes, tourist facilities, and military training grounds.

Related Readings

The Salmon River Trail, by K. Munford. Horner Museum. Tour Guide Series, 1979.

Indians of Western Oregon, by S.D. Beckham, 1977. (Especial1y pp. 37, 103, 106.)

Pioneer Trails of the Oregon Coast, by S.N. Dicken. 1971. pp. 13-35.

Ten Years in Oregon, by D. Lee and J.B. Frost, 1844.

Stations West, by E.D. Cu1p, 1972. Chapter 12.

Retaliation: Japanese Attacks in World War II, by Bert Webber, 1975. Chapters 4 & 5.

Champoeg: Place of Transition, by J.A. Hussey, 1967. pp. 67-68.

Tillamook: Lest We Forget, by Tillamook Pioneer Association, 1979.

The Cape Forts, by Marshall Hanft, 1973.

"When Blimps Patrolled the Oregon Coast," by T.K. Worcester. Sunday Oregonian (Northwest Magazine), Sept. 7, 1980.