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Intense History at Oregon Coast's Ecola State Park: Murder, Landslide, Explorers

Published 06/20/21 at 5:15 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Intense History at Oregon Coast's Ecola State Park: Murder, Landslide, Explorers

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(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – There's little doubt that Cannon Beach's Ecola State Park is one scenic smack in the eye after another, with soaring bluffs and astounding views at almost every turn, making it one of the Oregon coast's hottest attractions. Yet this beautiful blend of forest and ocean has a storied past, a rather unique history – one that includes a murder case, some pivotal moments of Lewis & Clark, and a mammoth landslide that caused a young girl to go missing.

Lewis & Clark at Ecola. In early January of 1806, Captain William Clark and 12 members of the Corps of Discovery, including Sacagawea, set off south from their Fort Clatsop in search of a beached whale they'd heard about from local tribes. This arduous journey took them over what is now Tillamook Head, ambling over heavy brush and steep inclines. It caused Clark to proclaim it "the Steepest worst & highest mountain I ever ascended."

Ever since the Corps of Discovery had made camp on the north Oregon coast, one of their primary meat sources had been dog meat. In late December of 1805, they got word of a giant whale beached to the southwest, and at one point even traded with the local tribes for some blubber, which they found a welcome shift in their diet. On January 6, the group ventured over Tillamook Head and through what would later become Ecola State Park to try and obtain more blubber.

That whale spot is commemorated by a statue at Les Shirley Park in northern Cannon Beach. The stream was soon named Ecola - the local Killamuck name for whale – and one of the town's first names was Ecola as well.


1961 photo courtesy Tom Horning. Note the parking lot barely visible

Landmark Landslide. Just this last year, chunks of Ecola State Park had been closed off after a massive landslide wrecked some trails, only recently reopening. That's happened periodically over the years, often with that long, winding road getting shut down because one part of it or another had washed out.

By far and away one of the biggest disasters the park had ever seen occurred in 1961, when winter storms caused enormous landslides to smother the place, washing out entire acres full of trees and all but obliterating the parking area and the main viewpoint.


Courtesy Tom Horning: you can see the parking lot outlines more clearly here

Months later, during the summer, the place was still a chaotic mess. As one newspaper reported it at the time: “The ground is tossed and heaved as though it had been ripped by a violent earthquake. Large fissures have opened in the earth, and trails and roads have been destroyed. Even more threatening than the normal hazards of trying to cross such terrain is the constant danger of new earth slides. Huge trees, nearly uprooted and leaning at precarious angles present another danger.”

In July of ‘61, what was then called Oregon State Parks and Recreation Division (OSPRD) finally closed it off. Frighteningly bad experiences were the lessons of the day: a 12-year-old girl had just gone missing in that melange of dirt and logs, according to the Statesman Journal, among others. In early July, a family walking the trails turned around to notice their daughter had simply disappeared. The Texas family were staying in Seaside at the time, and all moved to a motel in Cannon Beach to be closer to the search. Helicopters joined in the search, among many others. Over the following days, officials became less upbeat about the situation and the media started to report she would likely not be found.

After three frantic days, the girl was found alive. Then and only then, did State Parks decide to close the area off until it was repaired.

Murder at Ecola. In 1995, a rather unusual-turned-sensational murder case erupted out of this north Oregon coast landmark. Portlander David Wahl and his girlfriend Linda Stangel drove out to the park, and Stangel at first claimed Wahl had gone for a walk along the hiking paths and never returned. Eventually, after many twists and turns, Stangel confessed to having an argument with him along those cliffs and pushed him out of anger, which accidentally sent him off the ledges to his death.

It was a complex and still-mysterious case, that included Stangel going back to her Midwest home but later getting coaxed back again by Clatsop County officials and then arrested. She was tried and convicted of second-degree manslaughter in 1997 and served six years in Oregon, getting released in 2003.

In the meantime, what made the case truly remarkable was the national attention it was given by the show Dateline, which created a landmark first for television then. Dateline asked viewers at the end to vote guilty or not guilty on the internet, which produced a guilty vote by slightly more than half from them. The case also generated some staunch supporters of Stangel, including a former NASA scientist who poured money into her defense efforts.

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