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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

The world's smallest natural harbor used to be even smaller.

The tiny coastal town of Depoe Bay was once known for the oldest privately owned aquarium in U.S.; thanks to a decision not to fill the Spouting Horn in with cement, it’s a popular place for stormwatchers.

Postcard image of Depoe Bay and its Spouting Horn.
This hand-tinted postcard image from the 1930s shows the famous
Spouting Horn going off. Directly to its left, across the highway, is the
Depoe Bay Aquarium building. [Bigger image: 1800px]

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, there are smaller harbors in the world. The distinction that is claimed for Depoe Bay is that of "smallest natural navigable harbor" — but, of course, it's always a little dangerous to make a claim to be the smallest, shortest, etc., because it's a big world. If you know of a smaller natural harbor, we'd love to hear from you, so we can help set the record straight! —fjdj

Fifteen miles from the world’s shortest river, along the Oregon Coast, lies the world’s smallest natural navigable harbor.

And it used to be even smaller. Until it was expanded 45 years ago, its rocky, twisting entrance was just 30 feet wide, and at low tides the fishing boats at the docks tipped over and lay on their sides in just a few inches of water and mud.

It’s Depoe Bay, quite possibly the Oregon Coast’s most photographed town. And it’s a place of picturesque extremes.

Smallest tax base

With roughly 1,400 residents, it’s one of the smallest hamlets on the coast, yet during the summer there are probably more tourists per square foot in Depoe Bay than in any other coastal town.

Postcard image showing aerial view of Depoe Bay.
This postcard, dating from the 1960s, shows Depoe Bay as seen from
the air. [Bigger image: 1800px]

With a municipal tax base of zero dollars, it has the smallest municipal tax base in the state — an honor it shares with a number of other towns, but, so far as I’ve been able to learn, none with four-digit populations. Depoe Bay’s tax base was frozen at zero dollars by Ballot Measure 50 in 1997.

Like a saltwater geyser

With its famous Spouting Horn, it now has what may be the closest thing Oregon has to a geyser. (The real geyser in Lakeview, “Old Perpetual,” stopped spouting in 2009.) The Spouting Horn is a two-foot-wide underwater cave that channels incoming breakers straight up and sometimes, in especially heavy surf, can soak the sidewalk on Highway 101. (And it’s for that very reason that the developers of the town once came within a cat’s whisker of having the horn filled in with cement — a move that would surely have gone down in history as one of the dumbest moves in the history of tourism.)

Oldest privately owned aquarium

The harbor in Depoe Bay.
A postcard view of Depoe Bay in the 1960s. [Bigger image: 1800px]

Depoe Bay is one of the coast’s youngest towns, having only gotten started in 1927 when the highway and bridge were built and lacking a post office until 1928. Yet until 1998 it was home to the oldest privately owned aquarium in the U.S.

This aquarium was opened the same year as the highway — and, in more ways than one, it was inspired by the road. Generally, it was inspired by the tourists the road was starting to bring to the formerly isolated hamlet, and specifically, it was inspired by a group of tourists who had stopped their cars and gathered around a dead octopus by the roadside.

Town co-founder Harvey Collins saw the commercial possibilities of popular curiosity about marine life, and later that year the first aquarium in Oregon was open for business.

Postcard picture of the Depoe Bay Aquarium.
This postcard photo from the late 1920s shows the Depoe Bay Aquarium
when it was almost new. The masonry wall was built with fossil rocks;
it was removed, with some difficulty, when the aquarium became the
Silver Heron Art Gallery in 2006. [Bigger image: 1200px]

And business was good. It was good for years. The aquarium acquired an enviable reputation as a place to go see harbor seals and sea lions doing tricks, gawk at octopi (often donated by Depoe Bay fishermen, who hauled them in as by-catch) and learn about the latest crop of wildlife brought in to be rehabilitated.

The end of the aquarium

Still, no private facility dating back to 1927 could compete with the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center and Oregon Coast Aquarium, built in 1992 just a dozen or so miles north in Newport with the full support and expertise of Oregon State University behind it. And that was especially true a few years later when Keiko, the orca star of the movie “Free Willy,” took up residence there.

Postcard of downtown Depoe Bay after World War II.
Downtown Depoe Bay as it looked in the years just after World War II.
[Bigger image: 1200px]

To make matters worse, the aquarium’s star, a seal named Oscar, had died of old age (at 37) just a few years before.

By 1998, 10 years after Oscar’s death, the owners threw in the towel and closed the doors. The animals — there were only three left by then, two sea lions and a harbor seal — found new homes, two at a children’s zoo in Indiana and one at Sea World in San Diego.

Today the building that once housed the Aquarium is the Silver Heron Art Gallery, a high-end gallery with a piano bar and wine salon upstairs, which benefits greatly from the generous space and natural light that were necessary for the animals and exhibits at the old aquarium.

Stormwatch!

Depoe Bay channel being dredged.
A picture postcard image from before World War II, showing the old
(pre-widening) channel being dredged out. [Bigger image: 1200px]

Among some hardy locals, though, it’s not so much animals or art or any of that other tourism-related stuff that Depoe Bay is best known for. These are people who listen for gale warnings and, when an especially gnarly weather system is just about to pounce, high-tail it to Depoe Bay, park along the sea wall, open a thermos of coffee and wait. With its massive rocks, close-in seawall parking and dramatic spouting horn, Depoe Bay is one of the best places in the state for winter stormwatching — especially if you don’t mind getting wet.

Editor's note:

The original version of this story made the very common claim that Depoe Bay is not only the world's smallest natural harbor, but the world's smallest harbor, period. Although you hear this claim made constantly, it's not true. The smallest harbor I know of (perhaps there's a smaller; I can't imagine there is) is Seacliff, a one-boat harbor blasted out of Gegan Rock in Scotland. Here's a link to more details about it on www.ports.org.uk.

Special thanks to John MacKinnon Renwick for bringing it to my attention.

(Sources: Allyn, Stan. Heave To! You’ll Drown Yourselves! Portland: Binford & Mort, 1982; Price, Niki. “A Depoe Bay landmark is transformed,” Oregon Coast Today, www.oregoncoasttoday.com; www.centralcoastjournal.com; www.silverherongallery.com)