Wahkiakum County's first port district holds its inaugural commission meeting on November 21, 1958.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/28/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9755

On November 21, 1958, the commissioners of the newly created Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 hold the Port's first meeting. Voters created the Port in the November 4 election. Wahkiakum County's first port district encompasses the area in and around Cathlamet, which is the county seat, only incorporated town, and largest population center in the small southwest Washington county located along the estuary of the lower Columbia River. Proponents have urged formation of the port for a single purpose -- to develop and operate a moorage basin that will bring recreational and commercial boat traffic to Cathlamet. After more than a decade spent raising funds and acquiring the property, the Port, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, will begin dredging the moorage basin in 1970. A few years later, Elochoman Slough Marina will open there with moorage for 50 boats and a small picnic area. Expanded and upgraded over the years, in 2011 Elochoman Slough Marina has 300 boat slips and, along with the usual marina amenities, a variety of dry land accommodations (tent and RV campsites, yurts, and cabins), as well as picnic sites.

The Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 was one of 12 port districts formed around the state in 1958, the most created in any single year in Washington (which has more independent public ports than any other state). By then political and business leaders had recognized that public port districts, initially authorized by the state legislature in 1911 to promote trade and jobs by investing in harbor improvements, were also effective drivers of economic development far from the waterfront. Ten of the 12 ports created in 1958 were in Eastern Washington, where most focused on developing business and industrial parks.

Planning a Moorage Basin

In Wahkiakum County, however, the focus was still on the water. From long before non-Indian settlers arrived until well into the twentieth century, the Columbia River provided the sole means of transportation between settlements in the area, all of them located on the main river or on one of its tributaries. It was not until 1930 that a state highway was extended from Longview to Cathlamet, located in eastern Wahkiakum County, and it was some years later before the highway extended all the way through the county.

The arrival of the highway reduced the rural county's isolation, but also led to an ongoing decline in agriculture, long an economic mainstay, as local farmers faced stiff competition from goods shipped into the county and from consumers shopping in larger cities. By the 1950s, fishing was also in decline as dams upstream decimated the once-huge Columbia salmon runs (forestry, the third traditional segment of Wahkiakum's economy, would last somewhat longer) and civic leaders looked for ways to revitalize the local economy.

Some leaders in Cathlamet proposed dredging a moorage basin and creating a marina to attract boat traffic -- pleasure craft, the excursion boats that represented the only remaining passenger service along the river, and perhaps other commercial use -- that would pump money into the area and boost local businesses. Creating a public port district, which could levy taxes and obtain state and federal grants to fund the moorage basin, and work with the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to develop it, provided the best means to accomplish this goal.

Defining the District

However, a port district can only be created if a majority of voters within the proposed district area approve its formation. Recognizing that residents in other parts of the county might not vote for a taxing district whose sole stated goal was building a moorage basin in Cathlamet, port proponents drew the proposed port district lines narrowly to encompass only the voting precincts in and around Cathlamet. The district extended 10 miles from the county's eastern border with Cowlitz County to a section line running due south from Wahkiakum's northern border to the Columbia River at the west end of Elochoman Slough. Omitted was the central and western county, from Skamokawa just a few miles west of Cathlamet to Deep River near the Pacific County border. Also excluded was Puget Island, the fertile agricultural island that lies in the Columbia opposite Cathlamet. (Residents of those areas would organize Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2 in 1966.)

Supporters collected sufficient signatures to place a proposition to create Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 on the November 4, 1958, ballot in the affected precincts. Normally when a port district proposition goes to voters, candidates seeking to be commissioners of the proposed port -- generally some of the organizers of the port proposal -- also appear on the ballot. In this case, according to an editorial in the local Lower Columbia Eagle, "[p]etitions were circulated to file the names of three candidates interested in serving on the commission, but they were not completed in time" (Eagle, "Vote 'Yes'"). As a result, no candidates were listed for the three port commission positions. Instead, those who had been circulating nomination petitions -- Russell Irving, Robert Bacon, and Alan Johnson -- and any others interested had to run as write-in candidates.

The port proposition passed easily, with 350 votes in favor to 107 against in unofficial returns. With 86 different people receiving write-in votes, it took several days to tally the port commission results. In the end Bacon, with 80 votes, and Irving, with 52, won commission seats, but the third position went to Lawrence Ronning, whose 38 votes placed him ahead of Johnson.

Getting to Work

The commissioners got right to work, holding their first meeting on November 21, 1958. A few days later, commissioners Bacon and Ronning attended a hearing conducted by the Department of Natural Resources to consider the disposition of some state tidelands in Elochoman Slough where they hoped to develop the moorage basin, but which two private companies -- Crown Zellerbach and Chinook Packing -- were also interested in. By January 1959, the commissioners were aiming "to prepare general moorage basin facility plans as quickly as possible" (Eagle, "Port Commission").

However, it was more than a decade before the moorage basin was dredged and several additional years before a marina was developed there. The port commissioners had to obtain sufficient funds to acquire land and construct the project, in addition to developing the comprehensive plan that set the location for the moorage basin and outlined the proposed facility. They chose a site at Columbia River Mile 38, just west of downtown Cathlamet and at the east end of Elochoman Slough, a protected channel between the Hunting Islands and the mainland shore of the river.

The Port then set about acquiring the 16 acres of land where the moorage basin would be located. The Town of Cathlamet deeded some land to the Port in 1967; additional property was purchased from Crown Zellerbach, Chinook Packing, and other private owners. The port commissioners also negotiated an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers for construction of the moorage basin. It called for the Corps to take on primary responsibility for the outer dikes or breakwaters forming the basin and the entrance channel, with the Port paying 11 percent of that cost and taking full responsibility for dredging the basin and building the inner wall.

The division of responsibility was purely financial. A single company, H&W Construction of Longview, performed all the work. Construction finally commenced on August 10, 1970, when H&W started clearing the site. H&W began dredging in October and the work was largely finished by the end of the year. The basin was officially completed on January 22, 1971, when the Corps approved and accepted H&W's work. However, much remained to be done -- as a Corps official had explained when the construction began, completion meant "the Port district will have a hole in the ground and will have to construct the moorage facilities" (Eagle, "First Phase ..."). Doing so took several more years.

Elochoman Slough Marina

Not until February 1972 did the Port solicit bids for the first phase of moorage construction, which included a launching ramp, docks and floats, parking, and a picnic area. Construction of the launch ramp was underway by April, and on May 25, 1972, the three port commissioners then holding office gathered to inaugurate the completed ramp. Bob Bacon, who had served on the commission since its creation nearly 14 years earlier, was the first to slide his boat into the water. Boaters quickly began using the launch ramp even as work continued on the other moorage facilities. When the first phase work was done, Elochoman Slough Marina provided moorage for around 50 boats at three docks. Two other short docks flanked the launch ramp and there was a small picnic area on the breakwater.

Over the years, the Port developed more park amenities at the marina. Thirty dry land campsites were created, including 13 on the breakwater where the original picnic area had been. In recent years, more camping options were added. In 2004, a full-hookup Recreational Vehicle park opened on a site once occupied by houses for Chinook Packing Company cannery workers. Then the Port built five guest cabins and -- taking a cue from the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2, which had recently placed five of the circular domed tents at its Skamokawa Vista Park a few miles downriver -- installed two yurts at the campground.

The Port also continued expanding and upgrading the marina itself. In 1979, it installed a fuel dock. During the 1980s, the Port built permanent restroom facilities and launched a program to distribute free life-vests to boaters. In 1991 it opened a storage facility for marina users and campers. Moorage space was increased as the Port built additional docks. In 2011, the Elochoman Slough Marina has a total of six docks that provide slips for up to 300 boats ranging from 15 to 50 feet long.


"Election Interest Centers on PUD," The Lower Columbia Eagle, October 30, 1958, p. 1; "Vote 'Yes' for Port District," Ibid., p. 2; "Shannon, Mooers Win PUD Posts," Ibid., November 6, 1958, p. 1; "Ronning, Bacon, Irving Voted Port Commission," Ibid., November 13, 1958, p. 1; "Hearing Held Over Tide Water Rights Contested By Crown, Chinook, Port," Ibid., November 27, 1958, p. 1; "Port Commission Calls for Survey," Ibid., January 15, 1959, p. 1; "Work on Basin to Start Soon," Wahkiakum County Eagle, August 6, 1970, p. 1; "First Phase of Moorage Basin Started," Ibid., August 13, 1970, p. 1; "Moorage Basin," Ibid., October 1, 1970, p. 1; "Basin First Stage Finished," Ibid., January 28, 1971, p. 1; "Port No. 1 to Open Bids Feb. 7," Ibid., January 27, 1972, p. 1; "H&W Makes Low Offer for Marina Project," Ibid., February 10, 1972, p. 1; "Elochoman Moorage Basin ..." (photo caption), Ibid., April 20, 1972, p. 1; "Launch Ramp Ready ..." (photo caption), Ibid., June 1, 1972, p. 1; "Park, Marina the Focus of Wahkiakum Ports" and "Carlton Appelo," undated typescripts, Washington Public Ports Association files, Olympia; "Port Info," undated typescript (ca. 2010), Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1 files, Cathlamet; Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: A History of Wahkiakum County (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997), 130; Elochoman Slough Marina website accessed February 19, 2011 (www.cathlametmarina.org); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Wahkiakum County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 19, 2010).

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