Ilwaco, Washington is located on the very southwest corner of the Evergreen State. Surrounded by Baker Bay, the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Ilwaco forms the base of the Long Beach Peninsula. Ilwaco is rich both in history and contemporary offerings.
The beginnings of Ilwaco's rich history can be traced to the Native Americans who lived here long before the white man came west. The Ilwaco Indians were a peaceful tribe who spoke the language of the nearby Chinook Indians. Ilwaco was named for Elowahka Jim, a local Native American resident and son-in-law of Chinook Chief Concomoly.
The Holman family, whom you will meet later in this story, was influential in Christianizing the Elowahka family and instructing them in many of the "niceties of living", including the making of bread. All the whites spoke well of Elowahka. One of the early family members wrote in a letter, "I imagine he (Elowahka) was about 50 years old when I first saw him. He was a jovial man, always laughing and playing harmless jokes. The Chinooks are not a silent, suspicious, taciturn people. They are friendly, kind folks, and I have never heard white people indulge in such hearty laughter as they. They are strictly honest."
But, jolly or not, some of Elowahka's ways were difficult for the settlers to go along with. When Elowahka fathered a child by his 15 year old slave, a settler said, "I took Jim to task over the affair, but it seems nothing can be done about the situation as according to an old tribal custom, it is entirely proper."
Another "old tribal custom" that many took exception to was the flattening of the infant's head. In old tribal organization, the children in the Chinook chief's family had their heads flattened. Whether it was the importuning of the locals of the fact that Elowahka Jim was not a chief and the mother of the child was a mere slave, the "baby grew up with a head that was all round as nature had fashioned it."
In other early references to Elowahka, he is described as a "kind old man and a famous sturgeon fisherman." He always referred to the community as his Elowahka Ranch. Elowahka Jim, like many Chinook Indians, had Indian slaves and early white settlers hired them to work for him.
The first white people to come to the area were probably the Spanish or Portugese. English and French explorers soon followed. The main attraction of these first voyagers was the thought of gold and other treasures. The English, French and Spanish came later with the idea of finding the "River of the West" which they hoped would connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.
The first settlers in this area came primarily from the mid-west and east coast. These people were drawn from their homes by the rich furs, free land, rich soil, vast forests and plentiful sea life. Among the first Americans to visit in our area were Lewis & Clark along with their Corps of Discovery, and the John Jacob Astor party, both in the early 1800's. Later, foreign people from the "old country" (Scandinavia) started for the west, drawn by the prospect of free land, good fishing, hunting and lumber. Other famous persons venturing through Ilwaco during its early years include Captain Robert Gray, Captain Cook, John Meares and Captain John Vancouver.
Ilwaco's recorded history begins in the late 1840's. In 1849 Dr. Elijah White decided a place near Cape Disappointment could be built into a future metropolis. Pacific City, as the original settlement was called, at that time gave promise of being the principal city for the Pacific Northwest, if not the coast. Early settler John Holman bough a "Large hotel...fully equipped" and had it transported from San Francisco, California to Pacific City. It cost him $28,000; $8,000 of which was for shipping.
Unfortunately, in 1852, President Millard Fillmore, "Under an act of Congress authorizing the President to make reservations for military purposes, of 640 acres", ordered to be made what is now the Fort Canby Reservation. This took all the town site, bringing an end to Pacific City.
Soon after the Fort Canby military reservation was made, Mr. Holman moved to his donation land claim, east of Pacific City, and completed the necessary years of residence and cultivation under the Oregon Donation Law. He built his new home on a stretch of open prarie land. The site is about one-half block east of what is now First Avenue, between Main and Spruce Streets in Ilwaco. Soldiers from Fort Canby later burned down the hotel. Circumstances were not explained.
At one time, Ilwaco had a tough reputation because of the gillnet wars fought from 1884 to 1910. Gillnet and trap fishermen fought with a vengeance over fishing ground rights...sometimes to the death.
During World War II, the area was heavily stationed with military personnel guarding the coast in case of any enemy invasion. U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, which is still in operation, conducts a very active Motor LifeBoat School.
The town was founded around 1848 and incorporated in 1890. On July 13, 1987, Ilwaco officially left behind its days as a town and became a city.
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With about 800 full time residents, Ilwaco's population swells to over 3,000 during the busy summer months. Visitors flock to spend their vacation on the beaches, Columbia River fishing, digging for the famous razor clams, picnicking, whale watching, swimming, visiting local attractions, or simply relaxing.
Ilwaco, the "Fishing Capital of the West", boasts of having the nicest and largest port basin on the coast. Most of the waterfront consists of a large boat basin, which will accommodate 1000 sport and commercial fishing vessels. Commercial and sports fishing, with their related businesses, are the major industries today as they have been since the early days. Tourism, forestry and cranberry farming also play an important role in the community's economy.
Ilwaco boasts the following: A combined Junior/Senior High School which serves the entire Peninsula area, as well as a grade school. Motels, Bed & Breakfasts, RV Parks and Fort Canby State Park which has 250 camping spaces offer lodging for every taste. A state-of-the-art hospital and two medical clinics employ 20 physicians. Nearby are a regional library and several community churches. Visitors and locals alike enjoy the Ilwaco Heritage Museum, Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Cape Disappointment and North Head Lighthouses, City Park as well as Benson and Waikiki beaches and the North Jetty . Whether seeking out the Centennial murals or enjoying Ilwaco Harbour Village and Downtown Shopping, in Ilwaco, there is something for everyone.
The City government consists of a Mayor, five Councilmen, a 5-member Planning Commission, a City Planner, a Clerk-Treasurer, and a Deputy Clerk. There is a Utility Supervisor and five crewmen. The Ilwaco Volunteer Fire Department has a crew of about 28 men.
The City owns and operates its own water and sewer plants. The electric service is under the control of the County Public Utility District. Ilwaco contracts for local Police services with the City of Long Beach, which is 4 miles north of Ilwaco.
Businesses, other than those related to fisheries, include restaurants, hardware store, a pharmacy, office supply/print shop, a gas station, tavern, a boat repair shop, dry cleaner, grocery store, automotive repair shop, beauty shop, antique store, second hand store, several gift shops and a bingo hall.
Chief ways of transportation are State Highway 101 and the Columbia River. The Astoria-Megler Bridge spans the Columbia River from the Washington shore to Astoria, Oregon. This scenic bridge is 4.1 miles long and is the longest continuous-truss bridge in North America. There is a small airport about 2 miles east of downtown Ilwaco. This paved strip is about 2200 feet long.
A hike up the hill to the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment is well worth the time as the view of the river and ocean is spectacular. Those with disabilities and many on stormy days are able to appreciate the spectacular panoramic view from the indoor viewing area within the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. While inside, enjoy learning the story of the historic journey of Lewis and Clark, as depicted in pictures, stories and exhibits. Fort Canby is now a popular State Park offering a boat launching area, fishing and other outdoor activities in addition to camping facilities.
Ilwaco is proud of its well-stocked Branch of the Timberland Library as well as its world-class Heritage Museum. Visitors are heartily welcomed to take the time to enjoy the wealth of information within the doors of each. Our Centennial Murals are five of fifteen murals painted througout the Peninsula.
A birder's and kayaker's paradise, this pristine corner of the world remains greatly untouched by humans, uniquely like it appeared to Lewis & Clark nearly 200 years ago.
We hope you will soon visit our fascinating home!
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To promote a friendly, family-oriented and economically sound environment for all persons
by strengthening and encouraging wholesome and progressive growth.