Happy Birthday, Oysterville!

Apr 12, 2018 | 0 comments

Robert Hamilton Espy

It’s hard for me to picture my great-grandfather, Robert Hamilton Espy, as a young, vigorous man.  Let alone adventurous.  Most of the pictures we have of him are when he was an old man.  Even in his wedding picture, he looks quite staid and proper, as well he should have.  By the time he married in 1870, he was forty-four years old.  Middle-aged by the standards of the day.

But when Hamilton (Yes!  That’s how he was listed on the 1855 muster roll for the Pacific County Reserve Volunteer Rifle Company) paddled northward on Shoalwater Bay with his twenty-six-year-old friend Isaac Clark, he was in his prime.  He was twenty-eight and looking forward to a venture in the oyster trade. As they kept Espy’s rendezvous with Klickeas, it is doubtful that either man realized that their lives and the lives of their descendants would forever be associated with the shore where they made landfall.  The date was April 12, 1854.

The two men built a cabin of alder logs a few hundred feet from where they had landed and there they lived for next four years.  Unlike the “Bruce Boys” across the Bay, Hamilton and Isaac were not opposed to sharing the Bay’s bounty and oyster prospectors converged on the area.  In 1855 “Oysterville” (said to have been named by Elvira Stevens of the Stevens Hotel) was made the Pacific County Seat, shipped 50,000 bushel baskets of oysters to San Francisco, and quickly became the most important anchorage north of the Columbia River.

Isaac Alonzo Clark

Clark settled in almost immediately.  He became a storekeeper, platted the town and, within four years, had married Lucy Briscoe and moved out of the ten-by-twelve-foot cabin he and Espy had continued to share. Espy, on the other hand, seemed not quite ready to settle down.  He busied himself in the oyster trade, invested in timber and city (San Francisco and Portland) real estate, served a short stint as County Sheriff, and was elected Major in the Oysterville Militia.

During those early years, he took two “vacations” – once to the Blue Mountains to prospect for gold and, in 1859 after a bout with scarlet fever, he served for almost a year at the North Cove lighthouse at the mouth of the bay.  It wasn’t until he married the nineteen-year-old schoolteacher, Julia Jefferson, that he finally built a fine two-story house (still owned by his descendants) and moved out of the little cabin.

And that’s when my “vision” of him really begins. I think of him often and wonder what he’d make of Oysterville these days.  I wonder if he’d be wishing it “Happy Birthday and Many Returns of the Day.”

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