South Bend -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 9/26/2010
  • Essay 9589

South Bend, seat of Pacific County in Southwestern Washington, is surrounded by mountains and water that have provided sustenance and wealth first to Chinook and Lower Chehalis Indians and later to white American settlers who first arrived in the area in the 1860s. Located on the Willapa River just upstream from its mouth on Willapa Bay, South Bend has had lumber mills and canneries and processors that bring oysters, clams, salmon, and crab to market. A railroad-fueled boom established the town in 1890, but a bust in 1893 was followed by a longer-lasting steady trend built on manufacturing, oystering, fishing, and the newly won county seat. Most of the manufacturers left South Bend in the 1930s and salmon canneries have closed, but the oyster industry remains strong. In addition to touting itself as the "Oyster Capital of the World," South Bend has turned to hiking, boating, and birding to draw visitors and to rebuild its economy on a more sustainable foundation.

First Peoples

The lower Willapa River has long attracted people to its shores. Willapa Chinook (also known as Shoalwater Chinook) established villages along the river, harvesting fish and shellfish from the river and from Willapa Bay, a shallow harbor on the Pacific Ocean. Edward S. Curtis identified a Willapa Chinook village at the location of today's South Bend that was called Tshélso, or "Little Sandy Place."  

Chinook villages dotted the rivers that empty into the bay from the Willapa Hills. A short portage separated Willapa Bay from larger Chinook villages on the Columbia River. Lower Chehalis bands that lived north of the Willapa River met, traded, and intermarried with the Chinooks regularly.

Chinook and Lower Chehalis Indians worked alongside white Americans who came to the bay in the 1850s to harvest oysters for sale in San Francisco. The tribes had not yet formally agreed to allow the white Americans to live on their land, so, in February 1855, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) met with the Quinault, Queets, Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Shoalwater Bay, Chinook, and Cowlitz tribes at the Chehalis River Treaty Council (at the location of Cosmopolis today). The tribes did not object to ceding their lands, but once they heard the terms of the treaty they rejected the provision that required them to move to a reservation away from their traditional lands with the location of the reservation to be determined later. Stevens left without an agreement.

The absence of a treaty did not prevent white settlers from claiming lands along the Willapa River. To ensure that the resident tribes would have some land, on September 22, 1866, President Andrew Johnson established the Shoalwater Bay Tribes Reservation by reserving 335 acres near Tokeland for the Lower Chehalis and Willapa Chinook who lived along Willapa Bay. Some members of the tribes' moved to the reservation, but many continued to live at their villages and camps, moving around the region to hunt, fish, and gather berries, roots, and other materials.


The first white American settlers in South Bend arrived in the 1860s just as the reservation was being formed. Indians worked with the new settlers, harvesting oysters and fishing, and provided waterborne transportation in the absence of roads on land. The Lower Chinook and Lower Chehalis have remained in the Willapa Bay area. Some members of the tribes live on the Shoalwater Bay Tribes Indian Reservation at Tokeland, but the majority live off the reservation, many in the surrounding area.

The early white settlers took up Donation Land Act and Homestead Act claims along the Willapa River where there were narrow bands of level ground between the river and the Willapa Hills. The land, barely above sea level, provided space for crops and livestock grazing. 

The Willapa Hills, a low-lying mountain range that runs from the Columbia River to the Chehalis River in the north, and from Willapa Bay to the Cowlitz River Plain, receive a tremendous amount of rain, averaging 120 inches per year. The moisture combined with mild temperatures to nurture a blanket of forest that ran from the edge of the water to the river plains that form the range's eastern and northern borders. Towering cedar, Douglas fir, and hemlock covered more than 90 percent of Pacific County's land.

Fish and Forest

The forest attracted lumber outfits. At first both farm produce and lumber could only be used locally because a transportation network -- roads, ships, or trains -- had not yet been developed. Schooners came to Willapa Bay in the 1850s to take oysters to markets in San Francisco, but the oysters and clams were unique commodities that did not grow as well elsewhere. Lumber and farm produce could be had anywhere a boat could dock along the coast.

The 1870 Federal Census shows that most settlers in the area were families and the men identified themselves as farmers or oystermen. Some claimed land under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862. Others purchased their land from the government. One mill established by brothers John (b. ca. 1830) and Valentine S. Riddell (1817-1876) in 1868­ employed a handful of people. It was located where Helen Davis Park is today.

Building a Town

The first public school opened on Nob Hill, west of the mill, in 1875. That same year the South Bend post office opened at the mill. The town took its name from its location on a large bend in the Willapa River. 

Canoes and small sailboats called plungers transported people and goods in the early years. When a schooner from San Francisco would arrive, the oystermen would row out to deliver their shellfish. After 1870 bay residents could take their boats across to Nahcotta on the Long Beach Peninsula and board a stage coach for Ilwaco, then board a steamer to cross the Columbia.

In 1875 the first steamboat began operation on Willapa Bay. The Fort Canby was built by A. H. and E. K. Patterson in South Bend carried freight and passengers to Nahcotta, where the Ilwaco Navigation Company terminated a stage line. After 1889, passengers and freight could travel to Ilwaco on the Ilwaco Railroad and Steam Navigation Company train.

The 1880 Federal Census illustrates a tremendous change in the make-up of the river valley's community. Riddell had died in 1876, but the mill continued to operate and dominated the local economy. Oystermen were nearly gone (as a full-time occupation, at least) and lumbermen and loggers took their place. Some farmers remained and it is likely that others maintained farms in addition to their paid labor in the forest and mills. One Indian family is listed, as is a group of nine Chinese men mostly in their late 20s and 30s who lived together in one residence and worked in the mill. 

In the 1880s the town grew up around the mill, with one key element missing -- saloons. Unlike many early Washington towns, a saloon was not among the first businesses opened in South Bend. The mill owners owned most of the surrounding land and prevented one from opening, presumably to reduce workers lost to drunkenness. To get around this ban, J. W. Goodell tied a scow to a pier and operated a drinking and gambling den on the water.

In 1881 the first salmon cannery opened. Then, in 1887, the Reeves Brothers cannery opened on the north side of the river at The Narrows, on the upriver end of the bend in the river.

Late in the decade, in 1889, a group of residents pooled their capital and formed the South Bend Land Company. Captain A. T. Stream, a bar pilot on Shoalwater Bay, George U. Holcomb and Lewis N. Eklund, real estate promoters, Captain P. W. Swett, and Charles H. Warner bought almost 2,000 acres from area landowners. Some of these landowners sold their entire stake to the land company, while others retained a portion for their own house or retained a group of lots to develop themselves.

That same year the South Bend Land Company gave a substantial tract of land on riverfront on the east end of town to representatives of the Northern Pacific Railway in exchange for assurances that the town would become a terminus for a rail line connecting South Bend with the main Northern Pacific line that ran between Tacoma and Portland.

South Bend Booms 

A land and population boom ensued. On April 1, 1890, $70,000 worth of property sold in one day. Between 1889 and 1894, the town's population increased from about 150 to 3,500.

Amidst this frenzy, South Bend residents voted to incorporate on September 9, 1890. Voters elected the Progressive ticket into office. George U. Holcomb, of the South Bend Land Company, became the first mayor. Fred G. Reed, Scott Riddell, John M. Etiner, Everett Burnham (b. ca. 1844), and George Bloomhart (b. ca. 1866) served as the first council and W.E. Cromwell was the treasurer.

The first stage line connecting Willapa City (just upriver from South Bend) and Chehalis arrived in 1890. This opened up a new transportation route to the interior, which took about the same amount of time, but with far fewer connections and with less trouble. The stage line connected passengers with the Northern Pacific line in Chehalis. Prior to this, travelers had to go around the Willapa Hills. An advertisement reproduced in the 1977 issue of the Sou'wester explains how to get to South Bend before the railroad was completed:

"From Tacoma: Take train at 8:10 a.m. for Montesano, where connection is made with steamer for Peterson's Point; thence, stage along the ocean beach to North Cove; thence, steamer to South Bend, arriving at 6:30 p.m. the day of starting.  

"From Portland: Take steamer R.R. Thompson, leaving Ash street wharf for Astoria at 8 p.m. daily, except Sunday; arrives Astoria 5 a.m.; thence by steamer General Canby, 7:30 a.m. to Ilwaco; there take I.R. & N. railroad to Sealand [Nahcotta]; thence steamer to South Bend, arriving 2:30 p.m., the trip occupying about eighteen hours."

When the railroad began service in 1893, the trip became faster and even easier.

County Seat Contested

South Bend residents, having gained industry, population, and the railroad, set their sights on getting the county seat moved to South Bend. The county seat was in Oysterville, across the bay on the Long Beach Peninsula. Residents there did not want to give up the seat, but South Bend's population significantly outnumbered both Oysterville and another contender, Sealand, a recently platted town adjacent to Nahcotta on the peninsula. 

South Bend won the election but Oysterville challenged the election in court. Even after the court decided against Oysterville, Oysterville still clung to the trappings of county government. On February 5, 1893, two boatloads of South Bend residents crossed the bay in the early morning hours to take the seals and records of the county government by force. 

Faced with the crowd, Oysterville's residents relented. The only vigorous resister, County Auditor Phil D. Barney, gave up the fight after the South Bend crowd broke open his locked office door and his supporters convinced him to concede.

The 1890s Downturn

In 1894 the Northern Land and Development Company (formed by the Northern Pacific Railway to manage the land given to the railroad) donated a lot for a courthouse. A building was built by W. B. Murdock in the east end of town. 

Unfortunately, the land boom could not be sustained. The railroad opened the branch line in the fall of 1891, but property values had already begun to decline. The tax valuation for the town was $2.5 million in 1891. It dropped to $1.7 million in 1892. The Panic of 1893 brought the economy to a grinding halt and by 1895 the valuation had dropped precipitously to $414,320.

Before the downturn, the Northern Land and Development Company built the 400-room Hotel Willapa atop a hill above town. It hosted one gala event, a reception for the officers of the visiting U.S.S. Monterey, before shuttering its doors. It never hosted any overnight guests due to a loan default that prevented it from ever opening. The hotel sat empty for nearly three decades before crews demolished it in 1919.

According to local historian Robert C. Bailey, South Bend survived the bust because of what he called "wise decisions" (Bailey, 10-13). These included donating lots for churches, supporting the establishment of newspapers such as the South Bend Enterprise and the South Bend Journal, getting the railroad terminus, and winning the county seat. All of these things promoted the town as a desirable destination for new settlers, many of them families, and mitigated the effects of having a highly transient population of single men who worked in the logging camps and the mills.

An 1894 article in the Oregonian's Handbook of the Pacific Northwest touts South Bend's Hotel Albee and a $10,000 school house. It also lists an array of manufacturing outfits, including the Willapa Harbor Tannin Extract Company, which processed hemlock trees, the Northwestern Lumber Company, two other saw mills, a sash and door factory, and a planning mill.

Industry and Commerce

The Army Corps of Engineers dredged a channel from the bay's mouth to Willapa City, upstream of South Bend and diked some of the larger sloughs. The deepened channel made it possible for mills to ship their lumber to outside markets in larger, ocean-going ships. Most of the lumber went to San Francsico, which continued to grow exponentially several decades after the Gold Rush began in 1849. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the fires that followed it, Pacific Northwest lumber  flooded that market for rebuilding.

The dredge spoils were used to fill in tidal flats. Given that sloughs threaded through the flats around the river and the town lay very close to sea level, many areas in town had to be filled or buildings built on pilings, with the daily ebb and flow of the tide passing below the structures.

In 1907 the Northern Pacific offered two daily round trips to Chehalis. The railroad served 27 communities between South Bend and Chehalis, many of them semi-permanent logging camps. By the mid-1910s South Bend, according to the Homeseeker's Guide to the State of Washington, had "three large saw mills, several shingle mills and salmon canneries, an iron and steel works, a boat building establishment, three oyster opening and canning plants, a cigar factory, a furniture and cabinet works, an ice manufacturing and bottling works, and a box factory" (Giles, 51). The population had stayed at about 3,000 residents.

The mills and canneries processed a tremendous number of trees, fish, oysters, and crabs. In 1912 boats hauled in 40,000 crabs in one month. Oyster canneries had revenue of $24,000 ($545,731 in 2009 dollars) in 1911. Saw mills produced an average of one million board feet of lumber and about a million shingles each day in 1912.

Building a County Courthouse

The city built a new courthouse in 1910-1911. It was designed by C. Lewis Wilson of C. Lewis Wilson and Company, an architect firm from Chehalis.

The building is an example of Beaux-Arts Classicism, with columns along its front, symmetrical design, and central mass. The building has a spectacular art glass dome over a rotunda. When it opened in June 1911, it cemented South Bend's possession of the county seat, its substance discouraging any designs on the county seat harbored by nearby Raymond.

Raymond had been eyeing the county seat because South Bend's population and industrial base had declined following the initial boom. Though the town had built the courthouse, many other entities had declined or shut down. A 1922 article in the Oregonian noted that many properties had "lain dormant for a number of years." At that time construction had recently begun on two saw mills and a creamer. A shingle mill and a cannery were reopening.

Getting to the Port of Willapa Harbor

The tract of waterfront land controlled by the Northern Pacific Railway formed South Bend's biggest obstacle to development. Without access to flat land close to the river, the town could not attract new industry. The railroad, kept busy with freight to and from Raymond had little reason to give up its hold on the prime real estate.

Steamships played a vital role in getting South Bend lumber to market. Each of the riverfront mills had its own wharf. The lumber went to American and foreign markets, including San Francisco, the East Coast, and Argentina.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in addition to dredging the channel between deep water in Willapa Bay and towns on the Willapa River, also maintained a channel through the bar at the mouth of the bay. Early in its history Willapa Bay was known as Shoalwater Bay because of its many shallow areas. These made ideal oyster grounds, but limited ships' access to ports.

In 1928 residents of South Bend joined with Raymond to form the Port of Willapa Harbor, a public port district. The Port built a public dock between Raymond and South Bend that allowed smaller saw mills and factories without riverfront property access to the river. This facilitated the transport of logs, which could be floated down the river from logging camps in the Willapa Hills, and the shipping of finished products. Before the Port's public dock was completed in 1930, mills and factories had to send their goods to Grays Harbor or Puget Sound via the railroad, adding significantly to transport costs and time.

The Port dedicated the dock on October 8, 1930, and the city of South Bend dedicated a reconstructed city dock and improved slip, also funded by the port district. The same day, state highway officials led a celebration of the opening of Highway 101 between Aberdeen and Raymond-South Bend. For the first time travelers could follow a paved road through the Willapa Hills to the north of South Bend. It also connected Aberdeen with Ilwaco and the Long Beach Peninsula. This provided drivers with a direct route to the ferries that crossed the Columbia River to Astoria.

Losing Money, Making Money

The Great Depression decimated South Bend's lumber industry. Soon after the stock market crash in October 1929, the town's saw and shingle mills ceased operations. Not until the summer of 1933 would any mills reopen. This led to widespread unemployment among millworkers and in turn, within the businesses supported by them. The only regular payroll was the relatively small oyster industry, the county payroll, and the school district.

Additionally, bank closures and holidays led to a severe restriction in the amount of cash available for transactions. The school district and county government were paying in scrip and even people who had money held on to it out of fear that there might not be more available. The South Bend Merchants' Association decided to print its own money (Raymond's Commercial Club had done the same a year before), which they made of veneer. The "wooden money" came in several denominations and could be purchased with the scrip warrants that so many were receiving in place of paychecks. In February 1934 the South Bend Merchants' Association issued a second run of money, this time printed on paper as the veneer money had shown a tendency to crack if folded into a wallet and to disintegrate if exposed to moisture.

South Bend welcomed news that Weyerhaeuser Timber Company had purchased several area mills in 1931. Weyerhaeuser had the capital to reorganize and reopen the mills, which none of the local owners had been able to do. Unfortunately, it was two years before any mills reopened in South Bend.

Changing Times: Planning and Progress

In the 1950s it became apparent that the forests would not always support the area's economy. Two professors from the University of Washington Bureau of Business Research prepared a report in 1955 that recommended several actions that could be taken to ensure Pacific County's ongoing prosperity. In order to attract new industry, they suggested the Willapa Harbor Development Association hire a full-time staff person to seek out potential businesses. They also recommended the improved use of state-owned oyster lands in Willapa Bay, which had not been fully utilized because of problems with poaching. Likewise, they suggested that an agriculture research committee could investigate ways to better use the county's limited agricultural lands. Finally, they recommended the establishment of a visitors' bureau to develop tourism. The county had tremendous potential for attracting visitors, but not enough infrastructure to take advantage of it fully.

The report described the county's average male citizen:

"Mr. Average Citizen of Pacific County, at the last census, 1950, was white and 33 years of age. He had had two years of high school education. He was employed as a laborer or an operative in the lumber industry. His income for the year was about $3,042. He was married and had two children. He lived in a 4 or 5 room house in good condition, with hot and cold running water, toilet, and bath. He had mechanical refrigeration, and a radio, but no central heating. His home was worth close to $4,000 and was owned clear of debt. Thus Pacific County's average citizen rates as a substantial American wage earner, somewhat better off, on the whole, than the average American, although not quite up to the average in Washington state" (Engle and Hastings, 5).


The difficulty for South Bend was keeping employers that paid wages that would support that fairly good standard of living. South Bend's last saw mill closed in 1953. This left the oyster industry as the primary industry for the town. In the 1950s and 1960s oyster growers, after struggling with declining native harvests at the end of the nineteenth century and then with the failure of imported Atlantic oysters, landed large harvests of Japanese oysters (Crassostrea gigas), which had been renamed Pacific oysters during the anti-Japanese hysteria of World War II. These oysters had been established in Willapa Bay in the 1920s and were able to spawn in the bay's waters. They also held up well in canning, making them available for sale year-round and at great distances from Willapa Bay.

The Willapa Bay oyster industry has benefited from the relatively clean waters of Willapa Bay, particularly in contrast to other estuaries in the United States. Few estuaries have been so little disturbed by industrial uses. Millions of fresh, smoked and canned oysters are sent around the world each year.

Tourism: Nature's Best Effort

In the past several decades South Bend has also worked to attract tourists to its many environmental amenities. Altogether, the scenic hills, rivers, and bays are what one county tourism website calls "Nature's Best Effort" ("Tourism"). They offer visitors boating, fishing, crabbing, hiking, and birding. The Willapa Water Trail that guides boaters around Willapa Bay and a walking trail along the Willapa River both capitalize on the relatively undeveloped nature along the waterways. The Audubon Society's "Birding Trail of Southwest Washington" directs birders to Helen Davis Park where they can see multiple species of birds, some resident and some migrating through, depending on the season. The abandoned Northern Pacific railbed has been redeveloped into the Willapa Hills Trail.

The mills meant jobs for local residents, but also a considerable amount of noise, and water and air pollution. As the new, recreation-based economy develops, more people will come to South Bend for the forest, river, and bay, just as they did over a century ago, but now they will take away something intangible.

Sources: Doug Allen, "Lewis County to Willapa Bay by Rail," Sou'wester, 2006, pp. 2-51; Robert C. Bailey, "South Bend, Washington: 'Baltimore of the Pacific,"' The Sou'wester, Autumn 1994, p. 3-18; Edward S. Curtis, The Salishan Tribes of the Coast (Seattle: Edward S. Curtis, 1913), 173; Department of the Army, Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, on Civil Works Activities, 1959, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1960), 1824-1825; Nathanael H. Engle and Delbert C. Hastings, Pacific County, Washington: A Study of the Economic Potential for Industrial Development (Seattle: University of Washington Bureau of Business Research, 1955); Harry F. Giles, Homeseeker's Guide to the State of Washington (Olympia: Washington Bureau of Statistics and Immigration, 1914), 51; Yvonne Hajda, "Southwestern Coast Salish," in The Northwest Coast ed. by Wayne Suttles (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990), 514-515; Greg Johnston, "Rich Estuary is a Unspoiled Gem of a Water Trail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1998 (; Edward Gardner Jones, The Oregonian's Handbook of the Pacific Northwest (Portland: The Oregonian Publishing Co., 1894), 317-329; Florence Lentz, "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Pacific County Courthouse," Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation website accessed September 24, 2010 (; Nancy Lloyd, Willapa Bay & the Oysters (Oysterville, WA: Oysterville Hand Press, 1999); Mrs. Nels Olsen, "Port of Willapa Harbor," Sou'wester, Spring 1982, p. 13; L. R. Williams, Our Pacific County (Raymond, WA: The Raymond Herald, 1930), 7, 78-85;  Carolyn Marr, Donna Hicks, and Kay Francis (authors of first edition), and Richard Bellon (author of revisions of second and third editions), The Chehalis People, 3rd ed. (Oakville, WA: Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Indian Reservation, 2001); Mrs. Dan A. Nicholson, "History of Weyerhaeuser Company in Raymond," The Willapa Country: History Report (Raymond: Raymond Herald & Advertiser, 1965), 34-35; Larry Weathers, "The Stock Market Crashes and Sawmills Close in Pacific County, Part II" Sou'wester, Spring 1981, pp. 3-17; "The City of South Bend," South Bend Journal, September 12, 1890, p. 2; "Dock at South Bend Completed," The Oregonian, October 4, 1930, p. 20; Executive Orders Relating to Indian Reserves, From May 14, 1855 to July 1, 1902, compiled by the Indian Office (Washington, D.C.: Government Publications Office, 1902), 376; "Tourism," Pacific County Economic Development Council website accessed September 24, 2010 (; "A New Stage Route," Western World, May 9, 1890, p. 3; "Pacific County Courthouse No. 2 entry," Pacific Coast Architecture Database accessed September 24, 2010 (; "Removed!," South Bend Journal, February 10, 1893, p. 1; "Tribal History Culture," Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe website accessed September 12, 2010 (; "Upper Chehalis," Chehalis River Council website accessed September 24, 2010 (; Spencer Howard, email to Jennifer Ott, September 28, 2010, in possession of Jennifer Ott, Seattle, Washington.

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