The History of Oregon’s Public Shore

Oswald West, 14th governor of Oregon

Oswald West, 14th governor of Oregon

On February 13, 1913, Governor Oswald West signed landmark legislation that set aside Oregon’s beaches for public use:

“The shore of the Pacific Ocean, between ordinary high tide and extreme low tide, and from the Columbia River on the north to the Oregon and California State line on the south, is hereby declared a public highway and shall forever remain open as such to the public.”

(click here to view the bill)

It was a remarkable achievement, because Governor West, a Democrat, had to get his legislation through a House and Senate with super Republican majorities. How did he get this important legislation through both houses? Governor West would later explain: “I pointed out that thus we would come into miles and miles of highway with no cost to the taxpayer. The legislature took the bait—hook, line, and sinker. Thus came public ownership of our beaches.”

Oswald West State Park,, formerly Short Sand Beach, dedicated in the Governor's honor in 1958.

Oswald West State Park, formerly Short Sand Beach, dedicated in the Governor’s honor in 1958.

At the time, there were no inland routes between many coast towns, and those that did exist were unusable in the winter months. So the beaches had traditionally served as the highways for autos, horses, buggies, buckboards, and stagecoaches. The route from Reedsport to Coos Bay, for example, was a combination of beach roads, plank roads, and horse-drawn wagons that assisted autos in traversing the streams. Travelers used the beach to get from Yachats to Newport.

The idea of making the beaches a public highway was not foreign to the Oregon legislature in 1913: shoreline use was extensive. But Governor West’s visionary strategy was to make the beaches public property, which conserved them for future generations. He wrote: “No selfish interests should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”

It was not the first time Oswald West had intervened to save land from speculators. When he was appointed State Land Agent in 1903, he saved thousands of acres of Oregon school lands from being fraudulently acquired. Prior to his appointment, Oregonians had been stripped of most of these lands by graft and corruption. And when he became governor, one of West’s first acts was to appoint the great conservationist William L. Finley game warden for the state of Oregon. Teddy Roosevelt said of West in 1911: “I found a man more intelligently alive to the beauty of nature…than almost any other man I have ever met holding high political position.”

So how did Governor West come up with the idea to save Oregon’s shoreline in 1913? In 1958, Chester Armstrong, Superintendent of Oregon State Parks (then part of the Department of Transportation), wrote to West and asked how he had gotten the idea to make Oregon’s beaches a highway.

West wrote back on a postcard:

The postcard sent by Oswald West to Chester Armstrong.

The postcard sent by Oswald West to Chester Armstrong.

Dear Armstrong,

This is my old saddle horse, ‘Fred the Freak.’ I rode him from Elk Creek down Cannon Beach, and via Arch Cape over the Neahkanie Mountain mail trail to Nehalem. This was when and where I caught my inspiration.

Your friend,
Oswald West

To purchase a copy of Mr. Blakely’s book, Oswald West, Governor of Oregon 1911-1915: His Life and Legacy, send a check for $17.95 plus $3.00 shipping to Joe Blakely, PO Box 51561, Eugene, OR 97405.

For more on the history of Oregon’s beaches, be sure to see the online exhibit of images put together by the Oregon State Archives.


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