North Oregon Coast: Gearhart
The town of Gearhart is named after Philip Gearhart, one of the later American arrivals to the Clatsop Plains. His steady and smart accumulation of property gave him the land rights to one of the largest tracts on the North Oregon Coast. The true founding fathers of the area, however, were the Clatsop Indians. Theirs was the region along the Columbia River, down the Pacific Coast, and back toward the Coastal Range, as established millennia ago, by the Native American tribes.
Specifically the Clatsop Indian territory encompassed about 1,100 square miles; its northern border, the Columbia River, extended upstream to the Tongue Point area, there forming an eastern border through the Coast Range wilderness to a border at the south, running west to Tillamook Head; its western border, the Pacific Ocean, reached north to the mouth of the Columbia. This homeland offered dense forests of fir, pine, spruce, hemlock and cedar, as well as fertile coastal plains, creating an abundance of game, berries, and edible roots. Its fresh water — coming from the Columbia, streams and lakes, ocean tidal basins — teemed with life including many species of salmon, sturgeon, eel, freshwater fish, and shellfish.
Besides the Clatsop Indians, the Native American tribes in the area included the Chinook, Tillimook, Coquille, Salish, Nez Perce, and Coos, as well as many other tribes along the Columbia River.
Philip Gearhart (Clatsop Co. Historical Society #9139-00G)
The later arriving white explorers to the area were from Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Russia, and from other Eastern States in the US. Many arrived for hunting of animals for their pelts: such as beaver sea otter and mink. Others came for the hunting and fishing. Before the Louisiana purchase, most of the visitors were sea explorers seeking to claim the territory for their native countries.
Clatsop Indians by Lyn Topinka
The Lewis & Clark Expedition, who arrived in the winter of 1805 – 1806, named their lodgings, Fort Clatsop, after the Clatsop Indian tribe. The explorers, having landed at Dismal Niche and Cape Disappointment in what is now Southwest Washington, had suffered from some fierce storms. So they paddled across the mouth of the Columbia River to the Oregon side. There they designed and built a fort for shelter during the winter. The Expedition fled east after only a few months, chased off by the miserable wet weather and pesky mosquitoes. They stayed long enough to resupply their provisions, collect salt, shoot deer and elk, fish for salmon, and trade for whale oil near Haystack Rock, before they departed. Clatsop County is, of course, also the governmental name for Northwest Oregon, where the town of Gearhart rests.
The first known white settler in the area was a farmer by the name of Solomon H. Smith. Smith arrived in 1832, twenty-seven years after the explorers of the Lewis & Clark Expedition had returned east to St. Louis. Solomon Smith established his home, marked his property, planted his crops, and courted his bride. He was seeking to marry Celiast, the daughter of the Chief of the Clatsop tribe, Chief Cobaway. The Chief accepted Smith’s offer to marry his daughter, which sealed the bond between the families.
In 1848, sixteen years after Solomon Smith arrived and settled on the Clatsop Plain, Philip Gearhart set out from Iowa, with his wife, Margaret Craven Logan Gearhart, and their four children. They headed west on the Oregon Trail, along with 250,000 other immigrants. Arriving in Oregon City, Oregon, they replenished supplies rested for six weeks and then continued heading west. They went via canoe on the Willamette to the Columbia River and onto the Oregon coast. The Gearhart family rented a log cabin on the Clatsop Plain, in an area to the south of the farms that Solomon Smith and other farmers had earlier settled.
Gathering Grasses on the Clatsop Plain
In 1851 Philip Gearhart made his first real estate purchase, buying the squatter’s rights to property in the Plains for $1,000. Gearhart used the rights to create a 640-acre donation land claim (the US Patent for the property was not granted until 1874). Gearhart made several other land purchases: he increased his holdings in 1859, buying 537 acres from Obadiah C. Motley and in 1863 he bought 571 acres from Jefferson J. Louk. After these purchases, Gearhart had amassed a land parcel that encompassed all of what is now the city proper of Gearhart, as well as a portion of Seaside across the Necanicum River estuary. According to the Gearhart city records, “Philip Gearhart built a home and farm for his family near a grist mill by Mill Creek, in a sheltered area north and east of the estuary, and became the eponymous father of the town of Gearhart.” He died in 1876.
The coastal railroad between Astoria and Seaside, first built in 1889, became a dependable means of transportation to Seaside for Portland and Seattle residents who were disembarking from the ferry in Astoria. The unincorporated town of Gearhart Park began to draw attention of summer visitors as a pleasant landscape for wandering and picnicking. The walking paths were primitive, though, as the paths traversed the streams, woods, bogs and mud that often accompanied the rainy season. The local inhabitants built wood walk-ways from the train station to the town, which helped keep the shoes and clothes from getting too wet and muddy.
Early Gearhart slowly evolved into a place where families and friends came to relax and spend the full summer. The homes were wide and welcoming, built for summer comfort, though few were winterized. From June to September mothers and children arrived and stayed for weeks at a time, while the men and fathers came back and forth on weekends. M Most of the vacationers were from Portland, Salem, Olympia, Seattle and other large cities. This novel way of seasonal living kept pace with the faster and faster lives of the residents. For example, fathers from Portland could spent $5.00 and get a five-hour trip via boat to Astoria, and then catch the train headed south, which brought riders to the Gearhart Park Station. People called it the “Daddy Train.”
Pacific Novelty postcard photo of the Gearhart Depot
The Ridge Path
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s all visitors arrived in Gearhart by way of the Ridge Path. The elevated sandbar became the principle byway through the dune meadows of Gearhart Park and into the center of town. Once in town the visitors had easy access to the magnificent and expansive beach. Artifacts of early transportation on the Ridge Path (e.g. horseshoes, buggy steps, and spurs) can still be located occasionally with a metal detector.
One house on the Ridge Path has no street address. According to the owner’s family oral history, in the 1880’s the house was picked up by boat and moved from Astoria or Warrenton to Gearhart and placed on the Ridge Path. How it got from the water to the Ridge Path is a mystery (many strong men and mules). Situated between C and D Streets, the house is a local landmark. It stands erect today as evidence of the Ridge Path’s importance for early pedestrian and horse-powered transportation. The Path was a common thoroughfare before the named and lettered streets of Gearhart Park had been planned, at a time when the Ridge Path was the street.
Before the turn of the 20th century, every coastal town that wanted to be a tourist destination focused on building attractive resorts, and Gearhart Park was no exception. The first hotel was built in 1890 and it stood just off the town’s main streets. A second, far grander Gearhart hotel was built in 1910. This handsome second hotel, commemorated on the post card posted below, stood a mile from the first hotel and closer to the ocean.
Both hotels, which were multi-storied wooden structures, unfortunately had burned to the ground by 1915. Gearhart held its collective breath for eight years, until a new hotel, Gearhart Park by the Sea, was constructed about 1/3 mile from the site of the second hotel. The rebuilt hotel was once again a haven for summer visitors and was well known on the coast as a place of Oregonian hospitality.
The portraits above, from summers in the 1930’s, show the staff of life guards for the pool at the Gearhart Hotel and a bathing-capped ocean swimmer. This generation of Depression Era Oregonians enjoyed the simple pleasures of easy access and safe travels to and from the beaches.
Braving the ocean temperature, circa 1939
Gearhart Park by the Sea was demolished in 1973 to make way for a new concrete hulk for tourists. Shortened to “Gearhart by the Sea,” the Cascadia Courier reported that native Gearhart homeowners referred to the stark building as “Attica North.” The local residents obviously missed the grandeur of the older-style resort hotels.
The history of the North Oregon Coast, and the towns that dot the coast, have been part of the political scene for many generations. Two Governors, Oswald West and Tom McCall, helped shape the issues of roads, property lines and access to the Coastal beaches that has transformed our thinking about protecting and preserving these invaluable natural resources for all.
Gov. Oswald West
Before and after the Depression, the public and private debate of beach ownership became a political issue that deeply divided many people in the state. In 1911, Governor Oswald West (pictured on the next page) declared that “wet sandy beaches” like the beach in Gearhart were virgin shorelines which must be open to all citizens as state treasures. Governor West had ridden a horse on the beaches & mountain trails in northern Oregon and promptly wrote the farsighted “Beach Bill,” which passed as the law of the land in 1913.
In the early 1900’s the intellectual set in Gearhart chose to join a movement, known as “Chautauqua.” The first Chautauqua gathering was held in 1874, when Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent organized a special camp meeting by the shores of New York’s Lake Chautauqua. His goal was to train Sunday school teachers. The first Chautauqua Assembly included lectures, classes, and recreational activities. The movement caught on and added chapters across the country. Within 20 years there were thousands of assemblies. Several Chautauqua chapters reached the West Coast and Oregon towns such as Ashland, Canby, and Gladstone.
Chautauqua’s were a popular educational and self-improvement trend that flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had roots in camp meetings, annual summer gatherings held by evangelical Christian sects. But by the time the movement reached Oregon, the meetings had become non-denominational and partly secularized.
Ashland’s “Beehive-shaped” Chautauqua
Gearhart’s Chautauqua chapter, like others in the state, was open to all. The Kinney family was the prime mover in the Gearhart chapter, championed by Narcissa Kinney. Under her direction the Chautauqua building was erected, the events were organized, and the guests were invited.
Narcissa Kinney (1855 – 1901)
According to one local newspaper, the Chautauqua societies of Oregon were the “promoters of moral as well as intellectual culture.” The popular ten-day events featured concerts, group prayers, lectures by noted orators, baseball games, and classes on everything from geology to physical fitness.
Gearhart Chautauqua, Neacoxie River at 4th Street
Gearhart held events in its Chautauqua Pavilion for notable speakers, such as John Philip Sousa and his famous band, William Jennings Bryan – known as the “silver-tongued orator,” Oregon Governor Oswald West, and other musical, religious, and temperance lecturers. The handsome Gearhart pavilion was built especially for the Chautauqua society. The building served as a community center during the other months of the year and was actively used into the 1920’s. The original Gearhart Chautauqua building, though, burned down in the 1930’s and was not rebuilt. (Efforts to rekindle the Gearhart Chautauqua revival were tamped out by the Great Recession of 2008 and they may reignite in warmer financial times ahead.)
Chautauqua Tents before having a building in Gladstone, Oregon
Ashland’s original Chautauqua building, a beehive-shaped structure built in 1893, seated 1,000 people, but sometimes hundreds were turned away from the more popular lectures. When William Jennings Bryan came to Ashland in 1897, he attracted so many people that he was forced to give his lecture outside.
The Chautauqua circuit slowly faded away in the 1920’s, the victim of radio and motion pictures. The once popular event did not completely disappear, however. The original meeting at Lake Chautauqua is still held annually, and many state humanities councils have recently revived the Chautauqua idea. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an annual event first organized in 1935, takes place at the old Ashland Chautauqua site.
Reviewing the Troops, Gearhart Beach 1914
Defense of the US on the Pacific Coast
Although Gearhart as a town was not particularly actively politically, its location along the coast made it part of the national consciousness. Prior to World War I, the forts a short drive north in Warrenton and Astoria were critical to our border protection system. And again in 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, World War II brought immediate blackouts and military restrictions. The National Guard was present at positions all along the north Oregon coast, as the nation once again was converting its massive energies and resources to the war effort. Many tourist destinations, like Gearhart, suspended their operations for the duration of the conflict.
A decade later, construction started anew with road and building projects: the closest secondary school in the area, in Seaside, was torn down and replaced by the new high school. National highway construction projects proceeded at a pace to meet the growing population and lifestyle that demanded automobiles and travel. Air travel had leaped forward also with the construction of the Seaside-Gearhart Airport, which was dedicated in 1957. Tourism would become the dominant force in the rapidly changing county.
Gov. Tom McCall
In 1967, more than a full generation after Oswald West, Governor Tom McCall (pictured below) took up the cause to protect the “dry sand” along the Oregon coastline for the people. Landowners, like the Surfsands Resort in Cannon Beach, threatened to fence off the sand for the private use of its hotel guests (right below). After seeing television pictures of Haystack Rock, blocked off to vehicles and beach combers by fences, the State Highway Committee swiftly took up and passed the right to public access on the length of wet and dry sands in Oregon. To this day the beach in Gearhart is open to vehicular traffic, thanks to the foresight of Governors Oswald West and Tom McCall.
Tom McCall outside of the Surfsands
“The grass is always greener in Gearhart” — putting greens that is. Gearhart Golf Links (GGL), which opened in 1892, was among the first links courses in the western United States.
GGL is known for classic styling and rugged windswept features, and it remains Oregon’s premier link to a rich Scottish golf history. Comparing some of the older photographs to the new ones, the holes have changed over the years. Originally a nine hole course, today’s 18th green has been “the final hole” for the front or the back nine for over a century, sitting at 145 yards out from the tee. The original clubhouse, restaurant and rooms for rent were destroyed by fire in 1998. The Clubhouse has been rebuilt and the well-known McMenamin brothers of Oregon restored The Sand Trap Bar & Grill, making it reminiscent of the original restaurant, and creating the perfect 19th hole. GGL is now privately owned by Tim Boyle, the President and CEO of Columbia Sportswear.
Gearhart Golf Links (2012)
Over the decades Gearhart has become synonymous with good golf, great cooking, fine wines, wide beaches and cozy beds for deep, restorative sleep. It is also about Parties with gracious hospitality, and not just on July 4th. Legend has it that whenever homeowners on South Ocean were going to have a party, they would hang out a flag from their second story window, signaling to the neighbors that theirs was the destination for the evening cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. The adult beverage of choice on South Ocean was gin over ice with a mixer in a highball glass. That is how “Gin Ridge” got its nickname. Those on the east side of the golf links, not to be outdone in the party category, preferred malted beverages in mugs and the area became known as “Beer Alley.”
The Gearhart Boardwalk, sometimes called “the Boulevard,” originated near the old train station and led people to the town, the golf links, the hotels, and of course the dunes and the beach. It also led people to the many boarding houses in the area.
One of those boarding houses was run by James Beard’s mother, Elizabeth Beard, who cooked the food while young James waited tables and helped in the kitchen. In the 1920’s, when the Beards’ were living in Gearhart, there were about 120 residents who lived year-round in town. That number of residents swelled to over 1,000 in the summer.
Fine Dining in Gearhart
Chef James Beard
James A. Beard grew up to become one of the country’s best known chefs, and, along with Julia Child, had a passion for French cuisine. According to biographer David Kamp, “in 1940 [James Beard] realized that part of his mission [as a food connoisseur] was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists.” Beard wrote over 30 books and hundreds of articles on cooking, many of them inspired by his years in Oregon and Paris.
The James Beard Foundation, dubbed “The Oscars of the Food World,” recognizes the best US chefs at an annual dinner and award ceremony in New York City. The Beard family cottage still sits on “E” Street, a quiet side road a few blocks from the beach.
When James Beard died in 1985, he asked to have his ashes spread on the beaches of Gearhart. His family agreed and a ceremony was held to honor the life of this Oregonian, who called Gearhart home.
Pets in Gearhart
It should be added that with a walk on the wide beaches of Gearhart anyone will see that the town residents and visitors love their pets: as the saying goes — “the dog is always wet in Gearhart.”
Local Traditions Continue
Many decades have passed since Gearhart was first settled and visitors sought their vacations here. Residential growth has out-paced and exceeded commercial growth, which is common among Oregon Coastal towns and cities. The founding fathers and mothers have made sure that growth did not disturb the natural beauty of the beach dunes: open spaces were designated to limit growth in the town. The views from private homes on South Ocean, or “Gin Ridge,” still offer some of the finest ocean and coastal range vistas on the north Oregon Coast.
Changes have taken place, of course: the train no longer brings visitors to Gearhart; the Chautauqua is no longer active; golf courses, like The Highlands, have been added; grand hotels have come and gone; and many beach front and near-beach homes, passed down from generation to generation, have been remodeled and sold to other families. These changes in a tourist-driven vacation community seem inevitable.
One important aspect about Gearhart, though, has not changed over the decades: the town remains a peaceful and beautiful place to visit, to recreate, and to live. So bring your friends & family, golf clubs, walking shoes, beach books, pets, binoculars, your appetite, and get ready to relax. We have a bench with a view of Tillamook Head, a clam gun, beach cruiser bikes and a cozy bed waiting for you to rest.
Gearhart Ocean Inn, formerly known as Tyberg’s Motel & Apartments (c. 1958)
Welcome to the town we love!
Gearhart is special to me since I went through grade school here during World War 2, dug razor clams commercially, beach combed for glass-ball floats, and enjoyed the winter storms that always come through. I enjoy it more so now that I have studied the beach activities and researched the adventures of my pioneer great, great grandparents, who settled on the Clatsop Plains in the 1840’s…
All in all a good recounting of Gearhart history. I want to point out a few errors in the narrative: one is that Gearhart Hotel III was not built on the site of Gearhart Hotel II. Hotel III, the one that was razed in 1972, was built about 1/3rd of a mile north of where the Hotel II was.
Thank you for the feedback. I will fix the narrative accordingly.