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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Bob Straub stopped plan for highway on scenic beach

Powerful highway commissioner Glenn Jackson's plan to run miles of highway on pilings over beach and blast holes through two headlands would have violated a deed restriction; today, Nestucca Spit is a much-loved state park

Jonathan Bourne Jr.
Nestucca Spit as it appears today. Commissioner Glenn Jackson's plan
would have involved building a highway on a raised causeway directly
across the spine of this spit. (Image: Western Oregon University

If you’ve ever driven up the Oregon Coast to Tillamook, you’ll have noticed that Highway 101 leaves the ocean just north of Neskowin and you don’t see it again until you get to Tillamook.

There was a plan afoot back in 1964 to do something about that: Run the highway on pilings right down on the beach on the middle of Nestucca Spit.

The spit is a finger of sand that separates Nestucca Bay -- formed by the mouth of the Nestucca River -- from the sea. Nestucca Bay is a formidable obstacle, which is why the highway goes inland toward Hebo and Beaver.

But in the early 1960s, dependable and comfortable cars were a relatively new thing for most people, and driving places in them to look at scenery was something people really enjoyed. This was the era of Sunday drives. And there was a whole section of the north coast that people couldn’t do that with unless they went away out of their way on the little back road to Pacific City and Oceanside.

Highway Commission Chairman Glenn Jackson decided he wanted to do something about that.

There was one problem. Nestucca Spit had been given to the state by the Bureau of Land Management with a deed restriction on it: It was to be used for a park, period.

No problem, Jackson said. We’ll put a park there on either side of the new highway. He probably figured that if the BLM folks didn’t like this solution, well, by the time they got around to complaining it would be a done deal.

This turned out to be a costly assumption.

As the Highway Department started making its plans, the usual small cadre of locals mobilized to oppose it.

No problem. The department was used to this sort of thing. A few public hearings so folks would feel “listened to,” and then construction would start whether they liked it or not. You couldn’t stop progress -- not in 1964 you couldn’t.

What the department was not used to was powerful politicians getting involved. And that’s what happened now. It turned out state treasurer Bob Straub was a regular visitor to the spit. Straub took one look at the plan -- paving a path through Sandlake Estuary, down Phillips Beach, through Cape Kiwanda with the aid of dynamite, over the the low parts of the spit on concrete pilings, across higher parts on an elevated highway built on cubic acres of trucked-in beach sand, and through another headland with more dynamite before triumphantly entering Neskowin to the south -- and instantly became Jackson’s worst-case scenario.

Straub was like a force of nature. He wrote hundreds of letters and memos, carried a petition with 12,000 signatures around with him much of the time, organized marches and protests -- all the while continuing to do his job as state treasurer and, in 1965, launching a bid for the governorship against Tom McCall.

When McCall came to see Jackson, to ask for his support in a run for governor against Straub, Jackson said he’d give it -- if McCall would help him get a certain highway project built. The project, he said, was running into trouble with the usual band of local obstructionists. Without thinking or researching, McCall agreed to do it. (Which is to say that McCall got swindled. Because there was no way Jackson was going to take the remotest chance of seeing Bob Straub elected governor. McCall already had Jackson's full support -- he just didn't know it yet.

So, with Jackson’s backing, he won the election.

Then the fight was on. When McCall found out what kind of a bargain he’d made, he was not pleased. But after being elected governor with Jackson’s help, he was forced to lock horns with Straub over it -- ironically, at nearly the same time as he was fighting to preserve public beach access.

Finally, Straub tumbled to the BLM connection and alerted then-Interior Secretary Stuart Udall. Udall personally came out and looked the project over, then put Jackson on notice that he was gearing up to breach a contract and needed to change his plan.

In response, the highway department rolled out a new plan, a much costlier one, that would dodge the problem by running the highway on a raised causeway across miles of open water in Nestucca Bay. It seems likely this plan was offered as a face-saving move and was never seriously entertained; in any case, it died quietly at some later date, and Nestucca Spit has been a peaceful state park ever since. It is now named after the man who fought so hard to keep it that way; it’s known as Bob Straub State Park.

Ironically, even if Jackson had gotten his way, his highway would probably be broken and abandoned today. Since 1967, several big storms have periodically washed out huge sections of the spit. It’s really not a very sensible place to put a highway.

(Sources: Love, Matt. “Epilogue,” Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentnennial Anthology. Newport: Nestucca Spit Press, 2009; Walth, Brent. Fire at Eden’s Gate. Portland: OHS, 1994.)