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When Oregon Coast Beaches Were the Only Roads: An Historical Twist

Published 09/16/21 at 7:16 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

When Oregon Coast Beaches Were the Only Roads: Surprise History

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(Oregon Coast) – As you whiz along Highway 101 on any part of the Oregon coast, the scenery and the beaches flash intermittently between stands of trees or rugged hillsides, giving the briefest of glimpses to outstanding beauty at every turn. Yet there is something intrinsically ironic in this, a historic fact about Oregon that will surprise. The pristine state of the beaches here is directly connected to the fact they were once the only roads. (Photo of Taft - later part of Lincoln City. Courtesy North Lincoln County History Museum)

A complex mix of politics and forward-thinking tourism made that happen over a couple of decades in the early last century, first securing the beaches as a public domain so they could be used as roads, which then led to them becoming public and staying that way.

For nearly 100 years after settlers first arrived here there were no real roads in the area, and nothing that connected Oregon coast villages that were distant from each other such as Bandon to Seaside. Highway 101 didn't actually come into existence until the early 1920s. Before that, all you could do to get to most places was drive up the beach by horse 'n' buggy or by early models of motorcar. To get to Empire (later Coos Bay) from Newport, you had to sail down there; or travel inland, then south, then over again.

Around the turn--of-the-century, a future Governor Oswald West was riding his horse in the Nehalem area and had an epiphany: the Oregon coast needed roads and the beaches should stay pristine.

In 1914, West declared the beaches public highways, as part of a first step to keep the roads open and assure more would be built. Shortly after, a series of unpaved roads began to spring up. The Columbia Highway was to run from Seaside to Astoria and then along the Columbia River to Pendleton. In 1915, an unpaved highway between Astoria and Portland opened up.

One fascinating example of these beach roads remains: the old road carved out of Hug Point near Cannon Beach. Just after 1900, the rock here was blasted apart and a small road made around this point. You can still see the ruts in the old rock, etched by the wheels of ancient vehicles. (Photo here, courtesy Cannon Beach History Museum)

Meanwhile, down in Newport, Nye Beach and Newport were actually separate little villages, connected by a muddy set of wooden planks.

In 1912, a group of central coast businessmen hoped to give local tourism a big boost by making the first automobile trip between Newport and Siletz Bay in what would later become Lincoln City. These days, along 101, the trip takes 45 minutes to a half hour, depending on traffic. Back then, the group that called itself the Pathfinders needed 23 hours to make the round trip along muddy tracks on slippery hillsides and soft beaches.

Mail was, of course, delivered by sauntering over the vehicle-stressing beaches as well. This resulted in a flurry of interesting tales all their own, such as major strandings and near-death experiences in wild tides. One that stands out was the discovery of a mail truck from the '20s beneath the sands of Waldport, found in early 2008 when sand levels reached record lows.

In 1919, Oregonians finally approved a measure to create a full highway from the California border up to the Washington edges, partially due to World War I and how it shifted the American mindset to emergency preparedness and the next big war. Actual paving began on it in 1921, although first it was called the Roosevelt Coast Military Highway, after Teddy Roosevelt (who had an interesting connection to Oceanside).

The highway changed names periodically over the decades, including being called the Oregon Beach Highway, Oregon Coast Highway and a few others. Some of the original name remains: Highway 101 in Seaside is still called Roosevelt.

Highway 101 was essentially finished in the 1930s, with the last bit up around the Arch Cape Tunnel. As travel opened up between the little burghs, Oregonians found towns that had developed distinctly different cultures in that isolation.

During much of this time, it was the Oregon Highway Department that still had jurisdiction over the beaches (that switched to Oregon State Parks late in the century). Oregon's state park system was actually an offshoot of the Highway Department back in the ‘20s. Throughout this period, Oregon's beaches remained thoroughly public, until someone in Cannon Beach challenged that in the 1960s.

Pathfinder group in 1912 trying to navigate Fogarty Beach: courtesy Lincoln County Historical Museum

It was highway jurisdiction over the public beaches that helped form a legal precedent when this situation arose, with Gov. Tom McCall championing the cause to absolutely make it firm in the legal sense that the Oregon coast sands were to remain open to all. It had been an unclarified law until that point, and McCall's Oregon Beach Bill campaign went into action.

The landmark bill, based on something similar in Texas, was nearly defeated in the state legislature. After an extensive PR campaign, McCall rallied public support and the bill was signed into existence on July 6, 1967.

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Buildng the Neahkahnie overlooks at Manzanita, courtesy ODOT

Highway 101 near Port Orford in the '40s: courtesy Oregon State Archives

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