I am grateful to the Pacific County Historical Society in beautiful South Bend, WA, for its historical images and archives, and to all the Washaway citizen activists and local historians, one of whom clipped and scrapbooked newspaper articles from the 1960’s into an album there called “Washington’s Missing Beach.”
Thanks to the people who noticed the importance of Washaway Beach before I was born and created valuable documents. I am informed and illuminated by this work.
The town of North Cove, Washington began falling into the ocean in the late 1800’s. The area was known as Cape Shoalwater for its shoals, fingers of land, sticking out into the sea. It was supposed to be a luxury coastal destination between Seattle and Portland, but then over 100 brick homes, a school, clam cannery, lighthouse and Coast Guard Station fell into the sea. The area has since been known as “Washaway Beach.”
Many factors: geographic, geological, ecological and man-made, conspire to make pinpointing the cause of such extreme coastal erosion difficult. If you look at the shape of Washington State, the land sticks out like a nose before curling in and under to Willapa Bay. The ocean is a relentless plastic surgeon.
There are very large waves here, traveling sideways, even crisscrossing, creating some of the largest wave energy levels in the world. The extremely high tides are followed by the scouring action of the ebb, or retreating, tides.
Then there are the dams, like one on the Columbia River, an Army Corps of Engineers project that occurred around the same time as the erosion started. There are jetties built in Westport and one in Washaway, big piles of rocks. There was dredging of a shipping channel by the Coast Guard that continued well into the 1970s. All of this could impact the way sand moves around, which is known as “sediment accretion”, a fancy way of saying all our sand is going to Long Beach, WA.
“Man is a pretty puny animal when it comes to fighting the sea,” Ira Mitchell, a fisherman born in Finland, told the Seattle Times in 1966. “In the last five years alone we have seen…at least 1000 acres of land wiped out by this menace. The ocean will just keep going into the hills. Nothing has been done or attempted. We have watched it go.”
The impending loss of the North Willapa Harbor Grange Hall spurred Mitchell, a retired fisherman, into battle with the bureaucracy of the sea. He organized the Cape Shoalwater-Toke Point Anti-Erosion Project. He began writing letters to newspapers, to politicians, members of Congress, and to the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We hope that someone somewhere along the line will wake up to save one of the finest recreational areas in our nation,” he wrote. “Every foot of such an area becomes far more precious than any amount of money.”
The Army Corps of Engineers responded with a “Sorry, you don’t have any money, nobody cares” tone that became a trend in their correspondence with Washaway’s activists. “The disaster is not big enough against public property to open the federal purse. Any project the Corps undertakes must promise benefits exceeding cost, that the land is publicly owned and provides a plan for recreational use. No emergency authority is available.”
“I’m sure you will agree, we can look for no constructive assistance from the Army Corps,” Mitchell wrote in the minutes to the Anti-Erosion project. He proposed a grassroots action to collect old car bodies, which, wrapped in torpedo netting and barged out to sea, would create a breakwater, or “groin”. He placed ads in local communities, asking for junk cars. “These old cars are eyesores in any community, but to us they couldn’t be more valuable if they were gold plated.”
The ocean’s demands quickly outweighed supplies. “Old cars work fine but they sink pretty fast,” Mitchell admitted. “We must have hundreds more old cars to continue at the speed and efficiency we would like. We must stress the great possibilities and dire necessities of the situation.”
“I guess we’ll just keep throwing old car bodies in until something better happens,” Richard Jacobsen, a volunteer, told the Times.
The Grange Hall was salvaged when waves began lapping at its door. Then Mitchell began the second phase of his attack. If you can’t do something, he proposed, how about doing nothing? Stop dredging the channel. It might have something to do with the erosion. A fisherman himself, he knew that “any fisherman in this area can tell you that a natural channel exists, which we call the 16 hole.”
State Representative Julia Butler was no help. “Members of the shipping industry agreed the channel was essential to shipping. As for the erosion problem, the Corps says there is no relationship between the erosion and dredging…If dredging is stopped, the losses to the community as a whole would exceed the other losses being mentioned.”
Mitchell was enraged. “Can you wonder that the young people of today are so reluctant to give their lives for a country that allows for such depredations against its citizens? No wonder they tell us it will be a long war in Viet Nam! Looks to us like they hope to win that struggle and our erosion the same way…with TALK!”
The channel dredging continued until 1975. A year later, a local chain-saw artist named Don Pickinpaugh, known as Pic-N-Pa, began his own letter-writing campaign when the old pioneer cemetery began falling into the ocean.
“You and your family enjoy our beaches as much as anyone else in this corner of our great nation and I know we can’t let this happen,” Pic-N-Pa wrote to Governor Dan Evans in March 1976. “To clam or picnic in this area with headstones, bones and bits of caskets protruding from the sandbank just sickens me.”
“The ocean, as you point out,” Evans replied, “is eroding the embankment in the general area as well as specifically next to the cemetery at Wash-A-Way Beach…The state of Washington neither has authority nor funds available for this type of problem.”
Evans was replaced by an eccentric woman governor named Dixie Lee Ray, who in 1977 hired the Boy Scouts for $25,000 to dig and relocate the 90 pioneers across highway 105, where they rest, for the time being, in peace. Ten grave markers were lost in the shuffle. They are marked with “Unknown”, and there is a sign with the list of who might be whom: “Man found on beach from wreck of schooner Nora Harkins, 1894”, “Man found on beach, 1897”, “Infant, Jacobsen,” and other unlucky pioneer children.
I met Pic-N-Pa at the cemetery a few years back. He was getting ready to cut the grass on a sunny day in February. He agreed that moving bodies was easier than stopping the ocean. “The ocean will do what it wants. It doesn’t matter what you do. All it takes is one nasty storm to take it away.”
He is in his ’80s, but spry and tan and ageless. He has gone through several mowers in 34 years. His friend Don Kiel used to help him mow until he had a heart attack on the job. Pic-N-Pa made one of his trademark chainsaw-art shrines, inscribed, “In memory of my good friend & buddy & helper Don Kiel, who died on this spot, 5/21/04 while mowing, by Pic-N-Pa.”
If any modern person deserves to be buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, it is Don Pickinpaugh, its champion. There’s that nice 27 million dollar jetty right there, installed to save the highway, the only federal money (other than the Scouts) that has ever been spent here. The pile of rocks will keep you dry!
“That’s OK,” Pic-N-Pa told me. He prefers that his ashes be scattered directly into the sea.