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Cape Kiwanda Almost Had Nuclear Power Plant: Bizarre Oregon Coast State Park History

Published 09/02/22 at 6:13 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

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(Pacific City, Oregon) – There are times history is way stranger than fiction, and so it is with one Oregon coast state park. With the 100-year celebration of Oregon State Parks in mind, it turns out one of the region's most popular state parks began because of a terrible idea. It was by far one of the goofiest concepts to ever hit Oregon's coast. Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area was once the proposed site of a nuclear power plant. (Photos Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

Now, if that doesn't take the breath out of you for a second, you're probably already deceased. Or at least dead inside. This wacky scheme once coming from Portland General Electric never got near even the initial planning stages – thank goodness. They figured out quickly that the area was too unstable for such a thing. Yet that was the idea in 1973, a good few years before Three Mile Island and more than ten years before Chernobyl.

In any case, if you've ever wondered what the history of Cape Kiwanda as a state park was, it's a curious one.

Just three years before, in 1970, Salem's Capital Journal ran a story on how this spot was really quite unknown and off in a corner of the Oregon coast. By the February 5, 1973 edition of the paper, it was acknowledging the place was one of the more photographed places in the state, as were state officials. The reason state lawmakers were talking about it in such a way was because PGE had purchased an option on the land, which was for sale by B.A. (Barney) McPhillips, a McMinville banker.

Photo copyright Oregon Coast Beach Connection

McPhillips' family had owned some 302 acres that included the cape, areas behind it, and the stretch northward into what is now Tierra Del Mar. All that time they owned the land, kept it open to the public for recreation, and his family was paying the property tax on it while not making a cent off the fun. However noble this was, by this time - he told the Capital Journal - he was no longer able to afford that. So the whole lot and kaboodle went up for sale in '71.

In '72, the state looked closely at buying it but strangely balked. The State Highway Commission was in charge of such acquisitions, and had begun to set aside $488,000 for 56 acres and 15 acres of the stretch north of the cape.

Photo collage copyright Oregon Coast Beach Connection

Officials felt it couldn't be fitted with the usual accouterments of state parks, including parking, toilets, picnic tables, etc. Most of all they feared the liability of the place: which still haunts Cape Kiwanda today. The newspaper reported in '73 that 14 people had died on the cape in the previous 15 years.

David Talbot, superintendent of Oregon State Parks at the time said: “The state shouldn't pay a lot of money for a huge liability.” He added the purse strings of Oregon were small and there were better ways to spend it.

So, late in '72 the state turned down the idea. But when PGE purchased the six-month option in February of the next year, everyone perked up. Especially when they heard PGE wanted to build a nuclear power plant, which would've included a hideous 200-foot tower.

Exactly where on the cape this atrocity would've gone is unknown, but these days considering not just the geologic fragility that's evident in the sandstone structure but the risk of the 9.0 magnitude quake we all know is coming to the Oregon coast, this could've made Fukushima's nuclear issues look like a day at the beach.

PGE had nicknamed the plant Miles Site – which is more than a bit spooky when you think of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident later in the '70s.

So began a lot of legal wrangling in the State Capital, as PGE commenced testing on the area.

Behind the scenes, the legislature looked like a keystone cop silent movie: two sides pushing against each other for essentially the same plan. Both wanted the state to buy the cape, but the disagreement was primarily over how much of the area to buy. Two Oregon coast state reps, including Republican Mike Hanneman from Pacific City, only wanted the state to scoop up the cape itself and not the surrounding area. Representative Norma Paulus (R) - yes, the future governor's candidate – had a separate bill for the state to purchase all of the 302 acres.

That fight slowed down purchasing of the area greatly.

Part of Hanneman's idea was that the state should just wait for PGE to gift the land. That never happened. However, as a fisherman, he was also seriously worried about what thermal discharge from a nuclear power plant would do to the reefs of this part of the north Oregon coast.

Meanwhile, other state officials still degraded the idea: Cape Kiwanda would be of no use as a state park. Some said it should be a wildlife preserve with no recreation. Gov. Tom McCall (who created the Beach Bill just a few years before) also pushed for the entire area to be purchased and said both facets could be available to the public here.

Kessler Cannon, director of the Department of Natural Resources, said Kiwanda wouldn't be suitable as a park “under the concept of state parks.”

“Just because you have a place like Mt Hood doesn't mean you have to put picnic tables on top to enjoy it,” he said.

To illustrate its geologic temperament: this arch was visible until 2011.

In May, PGE announced what everyone not much later on knew very well: deep drilling and seismic probes indicated the area was not geologically stable. Duh.

Cape Kiwanda Almost Had Nuclear Power Plant: Bizarre Oregon Coast State Park History
Same area two years later: no arch. Ironically, the crumbled arch bits blocked the ocean and allowed closer access to Kiwanda's "canyon"

The legislative freak show then centered around trying to find the money for the project as well as the usual wrangling. Bills were defeated, then brought back for re-work, defeated and redone again. Finally, in August of '73, after tons of regional environmentalists had attended hearings, including the fledgling Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition (which created CoastWatch), the legislature ordered the State Highway Commission to purchase the land from McPhillips.

It was finally acquired by McPhillips partially gifting some of it to Oregon.

McPhillips' name lives on in a hidden way: McPhillips Beach next to Cape Kiwanda is named after him, though few know the name of the beach or who he was.

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Keywords: Nuclear Power Plant, Cape Kiwanda, #OregonStateParks100, Oregon coast history, weird news

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