“Atlantic City of the West” was swallowed up by the sea
A poorly engineered jetty was installed at the mouth of Tillamook Bay changed the ocean’s currents, and over the following three decades the sea relentlessly scoured away the town. Today, no trace remains of once-thriving Bayocean.
By Finn J.D. John — November 13, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in February 2009, which you’ll find here.
Just off Highway 131, near the town of Tillamook, there’s a scenic overlook from which you can gaze out over a long, barren peninsula, slender and low-lying and sandy, dotted with beach grass and Scotch broom.
The name of the peninsula is Bayocean Spit. It’s named after the posh resort town that once crowned it — a town that, over a 35-year-period, dropped house by house into the ocean. Today, nothing remains but beach sand, memories, and whatever’s left of an old Bell System telephone cable, which as of 1989 was still in place.
Bayocean had its start in 1906 when a real-estate mogul named Thomas Benton Potter learned of the spit from his son, who had just returned from Tillamook. The younger Potter told of a great waterfront headland, shaped like a club, its head towering 140 feet high and half a mile wide between the bay and the ocean, covered with pine trees, salal bushes, and Oregon grape. And it was available for development.
The elder Potter soon visited the site and the possibilities enchanted him. It looked to him as if, with the proper promotion and investment, the site could become the Atlantic City of the West Coast. There was plenty of room for it to grow, a full 600 acres; and the lovely, broad, flat beach seemed to stretch on forever, from the mouth of Tillamook Bay down south to Cape Meares — nearly five miles.
It was the perfect opportunity to steal a march on the competing developers who were at that very moment, Potter knew, drawing up plans for a resort at Seaside. And so he purchased the land and got to work.
The plan was for a world-class resort community. Potter envisioned a majestic hotel — the concept drawings look very similar to the old Portland Hotel, which once stood where Pioneer Courthouse Square is today; a massive natatorium on the beach full of heated seawater and equipped with a wave generator, so that guests could choose between warm and cold surf; a movie theater; a dance hall; and many other resort amenities. The town would have telephone service, indoor plumbing utilities, electric lights, and cement roads.
Potter built most of these things immediately, then got busy selling lots in the new and growing town. Getting people to the town was a challenge which he met by having a 150-foot motor yacht built, the largest yacht on the Pacific Coast, suitable for accommodating 100 guests at a time, and leading excursions out to Bayocean via the open sea. This was phenomenally expensive, of course, and the trip took three days; Potter always took his guests on a sort of “scenic route” to Bayocean, going far out to sea, ostensibly so that he could show guests the Columbia River Lightship and Tillamook Rock Light, but his real motive was to prevent anyone from catching a glimpse of the hated rivals at Seaside.
Upon arrival, the “marks” would be wined and dined and sales-pitched in the classic time-honored fashion before being ferried back again to Portland. Potter was a top-shelf salesman and the townsite really was striking; many of his guests bought in on the spot.
When the railroad line came through close by, these excursions became far more economical for Potter, and faster to boot. Sales continued very briskly.
Following the grand opening in 1912, the town grew quickly for a couple years. But by then Potter’s health had started to fail, and he handed things over to his son — who had other interests and didn’t fancy a life of promoting Bayocean like his father had. By 1915, neither Potter was really involved any more.
The Potters left Bayocean, essentially, half built. Its growth had been mostly financed by lot sales, and lot sales hadn’t yielded enough cash to fully realize their dreams. The grand hotel was yet unbuilt — they’d built an “annex” hotel, which they hoped would one day be used as housing for resort workers, but now it looked as if that would be it. The roads were very nice, but there was no connection to the outside world, so the only cars on the streets were brought in by ship. The telephone exchange worked fine for local calls, but lacked a connection to the outside world. And the water supply lacked a booster pump to send water service up the side of that 140-foot-tall bluff, on which all the nicest homes were built.
But that bluff wouldn’t be 140 feet tall for much longer — not after 1917, it wouldn’t.
That was the year that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the North Jetty, extending out from the north side of the entrance to Tillamook Bay. The Corps had wanted to build two jetties — the configuration that’s there today — but the residents of Tillamook, Bay City, Garibaldi and Bayocean would have had to pay a quarter of the cost of such a jetty, and none of them wanted to do that, especially now that the railroad gave them alternatives for shipping out produce. So, over the Corps’ warnings that a single jetty would be at best a temporary solution, it agreed to put one in.
The results were obvious almost immediately. That broad sandy beach at Bayocean started getting less broad. During winters, the storm-driven waves started getting higher and higher.
Then, in 1932, a particularly vicious storm drove waves ashore that washed the footings out from under the gorgeous seaside natatorium with the heated saltwater swimming pool and wave generator.
The waves, surging over what used to be the beach, started to undermine the 140-foot bluff. Great flakes of hillside started falling into the sea, carrying with them trees and bushes and, eventually, houses. The hotel “annex” started falling into the sea, room by room, until it was gone. By 1938, 59 homes were also gone.
The winter storms started driving waves all the way over the thin part of the peninsula, filling the bay with saltwater — much to the dismay of the oyster farmers who, since 1928, had been growing oysters there.
It all culminated in a disastrous winter of 1952, when a big storm actually washed out a mile-wide gap in the waist of the spit, turning Bayocean into an island and drenching the bay with beach sand. The oyster farms were buried beneath it, a multi-million dollar local industry wiped out in an instant. The other estuary fisheries started to collapse, too, as the salinity of the bay surged to levels the local fish couldn’t tolerate.
The federal government now sprang into action, building a riprap seawall across the gap to stop the further damage.
By this time, there were just a handful of residents left on Bayocean. The last to leave were Francis and Ida Mitchell, who kept the little store there and were, throughout their time in Bayocean, the town’s biggest boosters. Francis died in 1965 at the age of 95; Ida died some years before that, after having had a stroke.
By 1970, Bayocean Spit was a thin line of riprap trailed by a low bar of sand. By then not even Francis Mitchell would have been able to hang on there. The formerly big, solid, 140-foot-high head now more resembled the ghost of a sand dune rising feebly from the sea. The only thing maintaining most of the spit was the line of riprap across the seaward edge.
But by 1970, crews were working on putting another jetty in — the south jetty.
Today, nearly 50 years after the south jetty was completed, visitors to Bayocean Spit can look out on a much more substantial place. Today one can almost visualize the large and bustling town that was platted there a century ago — a town that could, if its founder’s dreams had been fully realized, have been home to some 3,000 people. The foliage is coming back, although the dominant species is the invasive and suppressive Scotch broom, but at least the spit is green once again.
As for the town — well, technically, it still exists. Several dozen people still own lots there. Some of those lots are still underwater. None of the lots can be built on, and because of waste disposal issues, it’s even illegal for residents to park a motorhome on them.
But that’s all that’s left. All physical traces of the town of Bayocean are long gone.
(Sources: Webber, Bert and Margie. Bayocean: The Oregon Town that Fell into the Sea. Central Point, OR: Webb Research, 1989; Hardt, Ulrich H. “Bayocean,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org)