Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gearhart, Oregon. Memorial Day 2011

The first thing you need to know about Gearhart is that you don’t go there to persevere or be resilient.  That’s for up the road, in Astoria, where the coming and going of salmon, trees, tourists, ethnic groups, the economy, all require a lot of attention to detail and anxiety.
Gearhart was built so that perseverance and resilience would not have any particular role in daily life. Gearhart is a friends and family place with lots of cooking and wine and plenty of sleep.  The dog is always wet in Gearhart. 
That doesn’t mean Gearhart lacks a larger context.  The great sailors, Vancouver, Gray, Juan de Fuca, sailed by and the courageous explorers walked along its beaches, they just didn’t stop.  Lewis and Clark chose Seaside to get their salt, even though it was a couple of miles further down the beach.  A single Gearhart citizen died in a war, the one in Vietnam, and a small plane fell out of the sky on a foggy August morning in 2008 and killed three children as they slept and as others in their group were getting newspapers and lattes.  That’s partly why I am writing this on Memorial Day.

Today’s Gearhart owes its life to good times in Portland where the economy was throwing off a lot of cash at the close of the 19th century.  State sponsored tourism followed this new wealth.  St. Louis first, then Portland, celebrated the centennials of Lewis and Clark at each end of journey and hoped the payout would be in recognition and tourism.   

All this cash made a broader cohort of people willing to invest in the interesting idea of leisure time and there were plenty of places along the Oregon coast where leisure was for sale. 

Just about all resorts at the turn of the century were destination resorts, so a hotel was an important necessity.  The first hotel in Gearhart was built in 1890 and stood just off the town's main streets.

A second hotel, far grander, rose about a mile away and closer to the ocean in 1910.  By 1915, both had burned to the ground.  Gearhart held its breath for eight years, but in 1923, a new hotel finally came out of the ground.  It was demolished in 1973 to make way for a concrete hulk for tourists Gearhart people soon began calling Attica. 

Early Gearhart was a place where many families spent the full summer.  Women and children stayed for weeks at a time and the men came back from Portland over the weekends.

This was a novel way of living, the world moving fast enough to make available this remarkable mobility to more people.  For five bucks and over five hours, the train would bring you to the Gearhart Park Station, in the center of a recent clear cut.   People called it the Daddy Train. 

A boardwalk near the station led to the hotels, the beach, the boarding houses, camp grounds or to the homes along Ocean Avenue, known as Gin Ridge.  One of those boarding houses was run by James Beard’s mom, who cooked the food while James waited tables or helped in the kitchen.  Beard’s ashes were spread over the Gearhart beach in 1985.  Their personal house still stands on E Street.  In fact, you can rent it out.  When the Beards were in town back in the 1920s, there were about 120 permanent residents, swelling to 1000 or so during the summer.  

The golf course opened in 1892 and was among the first in the western United States.
Comparing some of the old photographs with the new, you can see some of the old holes.  Today's 18th , for example, has been the last hole of one of the nines for at least 100 years and compares happily with the look and feel of today, from 120 yards out.  The new hotel, built in 2001 after another fire destroyed the Sand Trap Bar, the last remaining building from the grand hotel era, is about 145 yards out.
These lifeguards staffed the pool in 1936.  Look at those kids! This is a portrait of the greatest generation before the people in it knew what they would be asked to do.  That’s a second reason for writing this on Memorial Day. 

Unlike most in the country, this generation in Gearhart enjoyed mostly unfettered access to their coast.  The beaches in Oregon are public and it was the first state to make them so.
Governor Oswald West was a Democrat, a populist, a prohibitionist.  He also had a beach cabin down the road at Cannon Beach.  He took office in 1911 and knew in his heart that big business and big money would do their damndest to lock out the public from their beach birthright. 
So here, in his own words, is what he did.  “So, I came up with a bright idea.  I drafted a simple, short bill declaring the seashore from the Washington line to the California line a public highway.  I pointed out that the state would come into miles and miles of highway without cost to the taxpayer.   The legislature took the bait hook, line and sinker.  That’s how we made the beaches public.”
However, another generation had to do a bit more to make the beaches truly public.  West had protected the wet sand, but the dry sand portion was left vague in law.  That kind of adverse possession worked well, in part, because everyone knew there would be hell to pay for the first developer to claim the dry sand.  Finally, down in Cannon Beach, the owner of the Surfsand Motel put out his fence on the beach and said it was for the benefit his guests alone, and the fight was on.

Ancil Payne, who was then Station Manager at Portland's KGW-TV, lit a fire with a television editorial.  As he reached its conclusion, Haystack Rock, the Cannon Beach icon, came on screen.  Then a fence appeared across the beach in front of Haystack Rock and Ancil growled: 

"If you don't want this to happen to our beaches, then write the Highway Committee."

A whole bunch of people did.  Ancil is a third reason for writing this on Memorial Day.

Tom McCall was governor in 1967 and, along with his sidekick, State Treasurer Bob Straub, led the great fight for the beach.  A bill was drafted to give the state control over the dry sand, but there was was no consensus on how to actually set the line.  A further problem was that the Oregon State Highway Committee, which had the bill that would fix the Surfsand monstrosity, was heavily weighted with coastal legislators, a status quo lot, who were determined to bottle up the legislation.    

This portrait of Governor Tom McCall is a remarkable thing and guaranteed to bring tears to an Oregonian of a certain age.  It is in a Renaissance style but documents a very humble thing, an act of political salesmanship.  McCall went on a beach tour during the debate, telling beach residents that they had nothing to fear, that they could actually see where the line of public ownership would be drawn. 
Now hung, life size, in the state capitol building in Salem, the painting captures the symbols that framed the beach debate.
Look at the location of Tom’s right shoe, the water lapping at it, exactly at the high tide line, Oswald West’s previous line of public ownership.  Off his right shoulder is a steel rod, exactly 16 feet high, the developing consensus in Salem of how many feet above the high tide line public ownership should exist.  McCall would have a staffer stretch a string tied to the top of the pole eastward until it hit land.  That line was the where the public interest would prevail over the private.  Behind his left shoulder is a helicopter that he used on a dramatic beach tour, hop scotching along the entire coast to show what public ownership would be like – exactly where the line would fall, erasing fear and uncertainty in Cannon Beach, Newport, Brookings, Gearhart.
The artist, Portland's Henk Pander, has McCall's right hand reaching out toward you, as if he is saying,  “Welcome to Oregon.”


  1. Hi, Bob!
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    I was looking for blogs about Depoe Bay to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
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