The Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company's railroad makes its first run from Ilwaco to Long Beach on July 19, 1888.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 5/09/2011
  • Essay 9813

On July 19, 1888, the Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company's railroad makes its first run from Ilwaco to Long Beach. In 1889 tracks will be laid to Nahcotta, completing the line. The railroad, soon to be called the Ilwaco Railroad and Steam Navigation Company but unofficially known as the Clamshell Railroad, will serve tourists, residents, and Willapa Bay shellfish growers, farmers, and loggers for 42 years.

Steamers and Stages

For nearly 30 years before the railroad began operations, white Americans followed an existing Indian trail to move people and products between Ilwaco, on the Columbia River, and Oysterville, on the Willapa Bay side of the Long Beach Peninsula. Steamers brought logs, lumber, and passengers from the far side of the bay to Oysterville. Scows carried oysters from Willapa Bay to the docks. The hard-packed wet sand on the ocean side of the peninsula provided an easy overland route at low tide. A short passage through the woods at the north side of Cape Disappointment took travelers and goods to Ilwaco to meet steamers bound for Astoria, Portland, and other river and coastal towns. After 1870 a regular stage line, operated by Jonathan Stout (1820-1890) ran between Ilwaco and Oysterville, then the Pacific County seat.

In 1872 Lewis Loomis (1831-1913) opened hotels where Seaview is today (2011) and at Nahcotta, south of Oysterville, to serve travelers and tourists coming to the peninsula for vacations. Nahcotta became the preferred landing for steamers because the navigable channel along the western side of Willapa Bay came closest to the shore at that point.

Loomis joined with Astoria ship captain J. H. D. Gray (b. 1839), Portland transportation company owner Jacob Kramm (1832-1912), and Oysterville farmer John R. Goulter (1840-1921) to form the Ilwaco Navigation Company. Their steamship, General Canby, ferried passengers and freight between Ilwaco and Astoria. Another steam line connected Portland and Astoria. In the 1880s, with demand rising, the T.J. Potter and the Ocean Wave offered service directly between Portland and Ilwaco.

Loomis took over the stage route from Stout and won the contract for carrying mail between Astoria and Olympia. He used Ilwaco Navigation Company steamers to carry the mail across the Columbia, then the stage to take it to Nahcotta. The mail then traveled via steamer across Willapa Bay, overland again to Grays Harbor, by boat across the bay, then up the Chehalis and Black rivers, ending with a short portage to Olympia on Puget Sound.

The Coming of the Railroad

During the 1880s and 1890s, railroad lines began to extend toward the coast from inland Washington and Oregon. The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Grays Harbor in 1892, then Willapa Bay (at South Bend) in 1893. In Oregon the Astoria and South Coast Railroad planned a coastwise line south from Astoria. These railroads threatened the Ilwaco Navigation Company's control of passenger and freight service in the area.

To remain competitive, the Ilwaco Navigation Company decided to build a rail line from its docks at Ilwaco to the landing at Nahcotta. On July 19, 1888, the first five miles opened, stretching from Ilwaco to Henry and Nancy Tinker's hotel at Tinkerville, which was to be renamed Long Beach a month later.

Ilwaco and Tinkerville held banquets at each end of the line and flatcars outfitted with benches and canopies ferried people along the new route. Land values promptly skyrocketed, from about $8 per acre to about $200 per acre in just a few months. The town grew exponentially, from just 100 cottages in 1892 to almost 400 in 1894. In August 1888 the transportation company changed its name to the Ilwaco Railroad and Steam Navigation Company and the following year completed its route to Nahcotta.

The railroad benefited from the lack of roads on the peninsula and around Willapa Bay. Almost all people and goods traveled through Nahcotta and Ilwaco to get to other towns and markets, and the railroad offered the most efficient transportation.

Waiting for Tides, Stopping for Bears 

Passengers at the time may have scoffed at the modifier "efficient." The tide at Ilwaco determined the trains' ever-changing schedule because steamers could only approach the docks at mid- or high tide. Loomis sometimes stopped the train at his mansion north of Long Beach, and passengers had to await his return. His mansion was not the only unscheduled stop. According to local historian Lucile McDonald,

"The train stopped on the slightest excuse -- to pick up a family carrying tired children, to shovel drifting sand from the curve at Oceanside, or to shoot a bear spied in a field. Once at Cranberry, passengers waited while the engine crew caught a runaway horse. Another time a woman dropped a ball of yarn out of a coach window; the conductor halted the train, got out, retrieved the wool, and rolled it" (McDonald, Coast Country, 100-101).

Despite its irregularity, the railroad carried a large amount of cargo and large numbers of passengers. Each week it delivered about a thousand 80-pound sacks of oysters to Ilwaco. Coastwise steamships carried the shellfish from Astoria to San Francicso. The line also transported logs, lumber, clams, and cranberries to the port. Flatcars carried horses, cows, and dogs for families who set up their households for the summer at seaside cottages.

In 1900 the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, a much larger firm that was itself a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, bought the Ilwaco line. In 1907 the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company shifted its operations to the deep-water bay at Megler, a few miles upstream from Ilwaco. There, boats could dock at any tide, bringing some regularity to the line's schedule. The Union Pacific consolidated a number of lines, including the Ilwaco railroad, into one group in 1910.

Farewell to the Railroad

The railroad continued to operate, though not very profitably, until 1930, when it closed. As automobiles grew in popularity, fewer people relied on steamers and railroads to travel. In her book about the Long Beach Peninsula, historian Nancy Lloyd quotes the North Beach Tribune's account of the railroad's last day, which occurred on September 9, 1930:

"By the time the train blew in at about 3:30 p.m. hundreds of school children and all the citizens of Ilwaco were gathered on the streets of the town ... . The mayor mounted the rear end of the train and addressed the gathering as one who had witnessed the breaking of the ground through Ilwaco for the laying of the roadbed over forty years ago. He spoke of the very great part played by the little railroad in the affairs of the Peninsula and complimented many of the old time employees of the road, wishing them all 'Good Will and God Speed' in their future activities ... .

"After the rather informal greetings the weird and sadly beautiful strains of 'taps' were sounded from the bugle by Charles Saari, and as the train departed, Ken Inman and his valiant crew shot from the old cannon a parting salute while the locomotive crew blew the long trailing whistle of the railroad man's farewell salute" (Lloyd, 147).

Crews soon pulled up the tracks, and the railroad's furnishings were sold, often to locals for use in their summer cottages. Some of its cars became cottages themselves. All that remains is the route, widened and paved, known today as State Highway 103.  

Sources: Mike Davison, "The Railroads of Grays Harbor, 1880-1900," The Railroads of Grays Harbor website accessed September 28, 2010 (; Richard H. Engeman, The Oregon Companion: A Historical Gazetteer of the Useful, the Curious, and the Arcane (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2009), 336; Thomas E. Jessett, "Clamshell Railroad: America's Westernmost Line, 1888-1930," Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1957, pp. 142-160; Lucile McDonald, Coast Country: A History of Southwest Washington (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1966); Lucile McDonald, "Washington's 'Cape Cod,'" The Seattle Times, October 27, 1946, mag. section, p. 9; "Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Company (1888-1907), Ilwaco Railroad (1907-1910)," website accessed April 19, 2011 (; "Long Beach Wakes to Its Advantages," The Oregonian, April 9, 1922, p. 9.

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