Westport -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 2/23/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10723

The town of Westport is located in Grays Harbor County, on the south shore of Grays Harbor. Originally home to a large Chehalis tribal village, the Native peoples were decimated by a smallpox outbreak, and then forced onto a reservation about 60 miles inland. Incorporated in 1914, the town has always relied on fishing and maritime industries such as seafood canning for its economy. After salmon restrictions were put in place in the late twentieth century, an economy began to grow around recreational activities such as surfing and charter whale-watching excursions. Westport still relies on fishing and associated canneries, but is also home to a shipyard that produces luxury yachts. In 2010, the population of Westport was 2,099. 

Early Days

Chehalis Tribal peoples initially populated the area now known as Westport. The Chehalis ate fish as a diet staple, and constructed longhouses with one end open to the water for easy salmon collection. When non-Indians started arriving, diseases such as smallpox and malaria spread. But it wasn't until 1853 -- and the landed settlement of the new arrivals -- that disease truly devastated the Chehalis Tribe. A smallpox outbreak originating from a boat in Neah Bay was referred to as the Big Sick. Thousands of Chehalis died, and the village was all but abandoned.

The American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806) was the first explorer to happen upon the harbor that would one day bear his name. Captain of the ship Columbia in May 1792, Gray called the harbor "Bulfinch" after an Eastern sponsor of the trip. But Gray had bigger fish to fry: He didn't stay for long in the harbor before moving south along the coast, where he found the mouth to the Columbia River. In October 1792, Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) sent his lieutenant Joseph Whidbey (1757-1833) to do a thorough survey of the south Puget Sound waters. Whidbey didn't see much use for the bay they renamed "Gray's Harbor," and probably didn't explore much of what he called Point Hansen -- or Point Chehalis, which would later become the city of Westport.

In 1825, the Scottish botanist and naturalist David Douglas (1799-1834) made his way to Point Chehalis while collecting plants around the Pacific coast. After having a bit of trouble with an old knee injury, Douglas and his Native American guide made camp on the point, only to be welcomed to recuperate at a Chehalis camp across the bay.

A New Town

New settlers trickled in. Ruth McCausland's Washington's Westport cites one of the earliest as William O'Leary, an Irish immigrant who arrived in 1848. A few up-and-comers attempted to sell lots of land, and a few stayed on. Ben Armstrong is cited as the first business operator in the area. Armstrong built a sawmill in 1852 that proved to be quite useful for the growing population that found itself in need of buildings and boats. The Oregon Donation Act of 1850 allowed citizens a good deal on vast acreage in the region, which appealed to many folks who sought a place to settle after rushing to California and finding no gold waiting for them.

The new arrivals made themselves at home while the remaining Chehalis found themselves pushed out. In 1855 on behalf of the United States government, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) asked the Quinault, Queets, Cowlitz, Shoalwater, and Chehalis tribes to cede rights to their land and settle onto a reservation. The "offer" contained a serious caveat that the reservation wasn't guaranteed location on their native land. The Chehalis refused, and were labeled a "non-treaty" tribe, meaning that non-Indian settlers continued claiming Chehalis land, and the Indians received no compensation from the government. The Chehalis were eventually granted a parcel of land in the southeastern corner of what is now Grays Harbor County. 

The first permanent non-Indian residents of Point Chehalis were Glen and Jane Peterson, along with their 3-year-old son, Frank. In the late 1850s, they took up a residence abandoned by an earlier settler and stayed in what would become Westport for the rest of their lives. During the Peterson's first few years, the area was known as Point Chehalis, but by 1879 the town of Chehalis (southwest of Olympia) had already been designated and thus Point Chehalis sought differentiation. The town took on the name of Peterson, named for the first long-standing non-Indian settlers. In 1891, the name was changed to Westport.

Westport's Life Saving Station

One of the most enduring additions to Westport came as a result of the formation of the national Life-Saving Service, in 1871. Several stations along the Washington coast were established to help troubled boats at sea. In 1897, a station was created at what would later become Westport. In 1898, light and fog signals were added to the Lifesaving Station. The Gray's Harbor lighthouse was visible 23 miles on a clear day, according to McCausland's Washington's Westport.

By 1917, the Lifesaving Station had been taken over by the United States Coast Guard, which took over lighthouse duties in 1939. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the Westport-South Beach Historical Society (operating as the Westport Maritime Museum) in 2004. The Maritime Museum opens the lighthouse to visitors year-round.

Developing and Politicking 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Westport was already being billed as a destination of sorts for summer recreation. "The inhabitants of Westport are preparing to entertain a larger number of visitors this season than ever before. Already the season has opened, and every boat unloads health and pleasure-seekers," reported a Seattle Times article from 1902 ("Westport"). The town was not simply a tourist spot, however, and some began demanding technological upgrades to match its status as the first point of contact for the Gray's Harbor shipping and mill industry. In 1908, private shipping companies raised funds to provide a "wireless telegraphic system" between Aberdeen and Westport for quick and easy communication ("Grays Harbor Soon To Have Wireless System").

In 1913, the United States Geologic Survey map showed some real growth in the area, listing a total of 133 buildings. On June 16, 1914, the residents of Westport voted to incorporate. The vote was held with a total of 112 votes cast -- 96 voted for incorporation, 16 against. Lloyd Cook was voted the first mayor of the town, although he later resigned amid claims that he lived outside city limits. The city council installed William Ingram in his place.

In 1923, another mayoral issue came to a head in Westport when incumbent Gustaf Nielson (sometimes called Nielsen in news stories) refused to give up the office to F. M. Smith. While Smith had a small margin of victory according to ballots, Nielson claimed that Smith hadn't filed for office and was using unofficial ballots to justify his own wins and those of several other council members. Although it appears that Smith failed to win that particular battle right away, city records show that Fred Smith did win the 1925 election. He stayed in office until 1928.

Along with a reputation for a dizzying line of mayoral succession, Westport became well known as a center for whaling during the 1920s. One June 1920 Seattle Times article counts 54 whales caught by the Grays Harbor whaling fleet in a little under two months time. Fishing in general was huge commerce in Westport throughout its early history, and in 1937 commercial tuna fishing began taking place off the coast. Some fishing seasons proved much more successful than others: In 1943, one schooner reported a load of shark livers worth a whopping $16,000 from one trip.

A Maritime Economy

At the outset of World War II, the United States Army added gun emplacements and dispatched soldiers to Westport to guard against further Japanese attack after Pearl Harbor. Lights were verboten after dark; McCausland's Washington's Westport reports that the Coast Guard struggled in the dark with distress calls. Within a few months from the start of the war, the army had moved out of Westport, but that didn't stop a wartime economy from growing. The army ordered huge quantities of salmon and halibut to feed soldiers stationed at camps, and Grays Harbor fishing boats wasted no time meeting the demand.

Shortly after the war, fishing took on an even more important role in the Westport economy when a basin was dredged along Westport's coast to accommodate greater moorage space. Upgrades to the Westport Marina brought commercial and sport fishing vessels, and by the end of the 1940s  their business proved good enough to maintain two stores, two fish-packing plants, a tavern, and a restaurant.

During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers contributed safety improvements to the harbor. Floats were added and increased docking space to 646 berths, including 63 private spaces. In the 1970s, the Grays Harbor Pilots Association was formed. Pilot boats, designed to offload a pilot to an incoming ship to guide the vessel into the harbor, are still used in Grays Harbor and moored at Westport. Also an offshoot of the marine economy, canneries became a big business in Westport to keep up with the catch, either as fresh fish retailers or commercial processors.

Fishing Controversies and Hard Times

But as the 1970s began, commercial and sport fishing was hit hard. The 1974 Boldt Decision recognized American Indian treaty tribes' right to half the annual catch, and subsequent restrictions (a shorter fishing season and a two-fish-a-day limit) enraged non-Native operators and enthusiasts. In 1976, 38 Westport commercial fishermen received a contempt citation for fishing on June 28, defying a ban on fishing before July 1st. The ban resulted from a court decision designed to allow more salmon to reach Native American fishing grounds, reiterating American Indian fishing rights. As fishing seasons shrunk, the fishing industry in Westport was left scrambling. In the 1980s, Grays Harbor was one of only three Washington counties that lost population.

The reality became even starker in the 1990s when a ban on ocean salmon fishing took place for a year in 1994 as a response to dwindling salmon runs. Westport and other marine-centric towns scrambled to find an economic replacement for the salmon haul, while federal aid provided $16 million in disaster relief to communities hit hard by the ban. Westport did manage to find an economic boon in the expensive yachts being built by Westport Shipyard, Inc.

Founded in 1964, the company was established as a manufacturer of salmon and crab boats. It then moved into composite recreational boats, and from 1998 to 2003 saw enormous growth in the luxury yacht industry. The company grew from 70 to 400 employees, and has subsequently expanded to include facilities in both Hoquiam and Port Angeles.

Recovery and Renewal

As the upheaval of the 1990s fishing controversies simmered to a close in the 2000s, Grays Harbor and the town of Westport began to see a spark of hope in new development. As the population reached above 2,000, Westport's charter boats began finding new resources to fish for: Rockfish, lingcod, tuna, and even shrimp and crab fishing began to act as replacements.

And some surprising new industries began to take root in Westport, as surfers began flocking to the waves and wildlife enthusiasts began seeking charters for whale and bird watching. At the 2010 census, Westport had 2,099 residents. 


Sources: Ruth McCausland, Washington's Westport, (Virginia Beach, Virginia: The Donning Company Publishers, 1998); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Aberdeen" (by Jen Ott), "Peterson's Point Lifeboat Station opens at Grays Harbor in 1897" (by William S. Hanable), "Gray's Harbor Lighthouse is dedicated on June 30, 1898" (by William S. Hanable), "Port of Grays Harbor becomes Washington's second public port on December 12, 1911" (by Jennifer Ott), "Federal Judge George Boldt issues historic ruling affirming Native American treaty fishing rights on February 12, 1974" (by Walt Crowley and David Wilma), "George Vancouver begins British survey of Puget Sound on May 19, 1792" (by Walt Crowley), "Secretary of the Interior J.P. Usher creates the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation on July 8, 1864" (by Jennifer Ott), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 2014); Chapin Collins, "Look What Is Happening At Westport!," The Seattle Times, October 25, 1964, p. 102; "Westport," Ibid., July 20, 1902, p. 37; "Want Wire Communication," Ibid., December 29, 1907, p. 22; "Grays Harbor Soon To Have Wireless System," Ibid., February 9, 1908, p. 23; "To Reclaim Tide Lands for Farming Purposes," Ibid., January 13, 1908, p. 5; "Westport Finally Settles Trouble," Ibid., May 12, 1915, p. 5; "Harbor Fleet Bags Fifty-Four Whales," Ibid., June 20, 1920, p. 27; "Mayor of Westport Refuses to Quit Office," Ibid., December 6, 1923, p. 28; "Contest for Mayoralty of Westport in Court," Ibid., December 18, 1923, p. 18; "Salmon Brings Record Price," Ibid., January 14, 1941, p. 18; "Boat Gets $16,000 Fish Load in 2 Days," Ibid., January 12, 1943, p. 20; "Coast Guard Building New Radio Station at Westport," Ibid., February 16, 1947, p. 27; Lucile McDonald, "The Diary Begins," Ibid., January 27, 1952, p. 61; Jack Broom, "Afloat In a Sea of Crab," Ibid., March 17, 1988, p. A-1; "Crabbers Stop Selling Until Price Goes Up," Ibid., Feb. 12, 1991, p. C-1; Roger Nyhus, "Transplanted Surfer Praises Westport's Waves," Ibid., March 17, 1991, p. B-4; Marla Williams, "Disaster Relief for Fishing Communities," Ibid., May 26, 1994, p. A-1; Elouise Schumacher, "The Washington Coast," Ibid., August 28, 1994, p. K-6; Marla Williams, "Return of Salmon Fishing Gives Westport a Big Lift," Ibid., July 25, 1995, p. A-1; Kery Murakami, "Initiative 640," Ibid.,  October 20, 1995, p. A-1; Florangela David, "Restrictions On Commercial Fishing Rejected," Ibid., November 3, 1999, p. B-1; Ross Anderson, "Hopes, Jobs Returning to Grays Harbor County," Ibid., February 20, 2000, p. A-1; Jack Broom, "Even When Fishing is Slow, Westport Has Its Quiet Charms," Ibid., March 4, 2001, p. E-1; Jack Broom, "Shipbuilder Anchors Town," Ibid., January 11, 2003, p. A-1; Jack Broom, "Beach Erosion Threatens Coastal State Park," Ibid., January 25, 2004, p. B-1; "Historical Group to Take Ownership of Lighthouse," Ibid., August 23, 2004, p. B-3; Lisa Patterson, "Westport Condos Tap King County Market," Ibid., January 15, 2006, p. F-5; Marshall Wilson, "Fishermen Defy Court Order Again," Ibid., June 28, 1976, p. 14; Ross Anderson, "Salmon Politics," Ibid., March 22, 1981, p. 9; Ross Anderson, "Gloom At Westport," Ibid., August 29, 1981, p. 10; City of Westport, Washington website accessed February 2014 { http://www.ci.westport.wa.us/}; "Lighthouse History," Westport Maritime Museum website accessed February 2014 (http://www.westportmaritimemuseum.com/lighthouse-history/); Ruth McCausland, "History of the South Beach," Westport-Grayland Chamber of Commerce website accessed February 2014 (http://www.westportgrayland-chamber.org/history.php); "A Century of Milestones," Port of Grays Harbor website accessed February 2014 (http://www.portofgraysharbor.com/downloads/PGH_Timeline_Milestones.pdf); Database for Indigenous Cultural Evolution, "Chehalis," University of Missouri website accessed February 1, 2014 (http://dice.missouri.edu/docs/salish/Chehalis.pdf); "Westport Mayor Named," The Morning Oregonian, May 12, 1915, p. 9; "2010 Census," website accessed February 2014 (http://factfinder2.census.gov/), "Booklet Chart Grays Harbor," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website accessed February 2014 (http://ocsdata.ncd.noaa.gov/BookletChart/18502_BookletChart.pdf); "Westport Facts in Brief," Westport Yachts website accessed February 2014 (http://www.westportyachts.com/corporate/Westport_Who_We_Are.php); Margo Tackett email to Kate Kershner, January 24, 2014, in possession of Kate Kershner, Bellingham, Washington.

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