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Oregon Coast History: Debunking the Beach Bill Myth at Cannon Beach

Published 05/11/2017 at 2:33 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast History: Debunking the Beach Bill Myth at Cannon Beach

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – There is much ado as of late about the Oregon Beach Bill and its upcoming 50th anniversary. This was, after all, the landmark legislation that allowed all Oregon coast beaches to be open to the public. (Photo above courtesy Tom Olsen and KGW TV archives: Gov. McCall and his limo at Cannon Beach).

The celebrations have already begun, with the initial kick off this weekend in Cannon Beach on May 13. Much of that is predicated on Gov. Tom McCall's visit here on May 13, 1967, where he stood symbolically and defiantly in front of a hotel that was the impetus for the beach bill fight, after having dramatically arrived here by helicopter.

But what if part of that never really happened?

Indeed, the one part of McCall's brilliant media show that did not occur was his purported landing by helicopter in Cannon Beach. He arrived here by limo. While not an earth-shattering detail about the Beach Bill history, the false tale has grown over the decades to expand the intensity of the scene and confuse things a tad. It's also been a growing frustration to local historians who have wanted to set the record straight for a long time.

Moreover, the accurate details of the day are fascinating and rarely talked about. Looking into debunking this myth reveals much about McCall's abilities, and what really happened is actually a little more extraordinary.

Among the historians concerned about the misnomer of a tale are Elaine Murdy-Trucke, head of the Cannon Beach Historical Society; Tom Olsen, maker of the documentary The Politics of Sand; and Matt Love, author of the beach bill book The Great Birthright. You can see many illuminating details of the entire Oregon Beach Bill process on Olsen's video, found here.

“So many have either glossed over this information or downright published the wrong information,” Murdy-Trucke said.

In fact, all three historians were duped by the story at one point or another.

First, what really happened.

Courtesy Olsen and KGW archives: the Copter Cowards at Gleneden Beach on May 13, 1967

Around the rest of the world in May of '67: Jimi Hendrix released his debut that month and the precursor to King Crimson would be formed in London in a few months. But on the Oregon coast, Gov. Tom McCall slyly let it be known he would be heading on a tour up the coast to make his points about the beach bill that was faltering badly in the legislature. He planned this to happen on the day before Mother's Day – May 13 – so that the story would make the headlines in the Sunday papers.

In short, McCall started his visit in Gleneden Beach – at the Salishan Spit, with a team of scientists in tow. It was there that a group of helicopter enthusiasts asked him to get into their copters to help celebrate the only helipad outside of Portland at the time: one that had just been built in Neskowin.

The helipad at Neskowin in 1967, at the Pacific Sands.

On a whim, McCall surprised everyone by doing just that – but fully aware of the public relations possibilities. After flying into Neskowin, he and his small team of scientists and surveyors drove up to Rockaway Beach where some measurements were done. From there, the group headed to Cannon Beach in various cars, where McCall got out and made the iconic pose in front of the hotel that was using a loophole to fence off the beach in front of it. No measurements were made here, except that OSU surveyors John Seadars and Bob Schultz set up equipment on the beach for McCall to pose in front of. The pair headed to Seaside to make more measurements while McCall headed for home.

The subsequent media splash made a major difference.

McCall landing in Neskowin by helicopter (courtesy Olsen and KGW archives)

So where did the helicopter landing at Cannon Beach come from? It seems various sources, but the much-lauded McCall biography, “Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story” by Brent Walth, could well be the tale's origin.

While researching his documentary on the beach bill in the mid 2000's, Olsen interviewed Walth on this as well as McCall's secretary and an assistant. Each were certain the governor had come to Cannon Beach by copter.

“There were also other people I talked to that were saying Tom McCall went charging up the beach by helicopter,” Olsen said. “But I couldn't find any sort of documents on who flew the helicopter. Was this an Oregon State Police helicopter? How was this orchestrated?”

After researching further and not finding any evidence, he came across more about the group called the Copter Cowards that had been whooping it up over that helipad in Neskowin. He finally got in touch with Jim Lematta, one of the group involved (himself one of the founders of Columbia Helicopters).

Lematta set Olsen straight on the helicopter rides, and some notes taken by Schulz also indicated how the surveyors would go by car ahead of McCall's limo and set up equipment for the photo opps and the actual work.

So, there and then the myth of the helicopter ride into Cannon Beach was debunked. Yet more fun and fascinating details emerged from that day of flying through the air and driving 100 miles or more.

McCall's initial plans had nothing to do with helicopters that day. In Olsen's documentary, you see Lematta talking about the Copter Cowards looking to cash in on the governor's presence for their celebration in Neskowin.

McCall was staying in Lincoln City the night before, and Lematta and friends managed to contact him. The copter rides were a complete spur-of-the-moment thing, with McCall's training as a journalist telling him this would make great press.

“There was nothing planned,” Olsen said. “Can you imagine a governor doing that today? It doesn't matter what state, just the idea of a governor impromptu hopping into a helicopter like that.”

The other magnificent aspect here was the science involved. The Oregon Beach Bill was failing on a few fronts, one of them being: just where should the line be drawn in the sand between public and private property? Schulz and Seadars played the major roles here, taking readings about various heights between the tide line and the vegetation line. With their findings firmly in place, Oregon's legislative processes were able to make the determination that everything from the top of the vegetation line to the water should be public, open space.

Now, just about any beach on the Oregon coast stands as testament to what happened that day. This one date was the turning point for the Oregon Beach Bill, thanks to a rather frivolous helicopter invitation and a lot of driving up the scenic shoreline. Cannon Beach Hotels - Lodging for this event - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour. Below: McCall and the iconic photo where he stands looking at the motel that started it all.


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