On the Road to Cannon Beach History

by Emily Molina

Tucked between Tillamook Head to the north and Arch Cape to the south sits a long stretch of beach known as Cannon Beach. Long before Cannon Beach evoked such iconic images as the giant sea stack, Haystack Rock, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and some of the most picturesque beaches to be found on Northern Oregon’s rugged coast, getting there required an often-harrowing journey not for the faint of heart.

Still, they came, and in their wake, left a coastline brimming with history. From the earliest inhabitants, like the Tillamook Tribe, to seafarers of Asia, Europe and the Americas, many explored and lived along this perilous coastal corridor. A frequent place for trade, Cannon Beach served as a stopping point before and after the arduous treks over Tillamook Head.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed this way in 1806 to trade for whale blubber from the Tillamook people. Clark remarked upon seeing the stretch of coast, “from this point I beheld the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed.”

Our journey begins at the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum. Tucked away in plain sight, this treasure trove of information is definitely worth a visit for the most complete look at local history, rare photos and artifacts.

Intrepid Mail Carriers

Did you know that­—while an influx of settlers followed the formidable trails and beach to claim land under homesteading laws in the mid to late 1800s—it was early mail carriers who made some pretty astounding discoveries.

In 1891, James Austin established the first post office and hotel near Arch Cape. He named it Cannon Beach, after an elusive cannon lost in the 1846 shipwreck of the USS Shark on the treacherous Columbia River bar. He spent his life trying to find it.

Brave mail carriers traveled the beach landscape and rocky cliffsides most frequently during this time and became the eyes, ears and finders of lost things.

 A sighting of the cannon was made by mail carrier John Hobson in 1863. However, the namesake cannon wouldn’t be discovered again until 1898 by another mail carrier named George Luce four years after Austin’s death.

Dredged up by a major storm, the cannon revealed itself in the ocean-bound stream not far from Austin’s very home. Another mail carrier, and his wife—John and Mary Gerritse—would safely recover the cannon with the help of their horses. Notably, Mary convinced John that she should be a mail carrier; at the age of 25, she followed beach and tide, climbing steep mountain trails on her trusty steed Prince to deliver mail for over 15 years. The saddle Prince carried her on is kept at the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum.

A magnificent display holding the cannon found by Luce can also be seen at the museum. Two more cannons, discovered at Arch Cape in 2008, can be viewed at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.

Beach Road Carved in Stone

Even before 1913 when Oregon’s 14th Governor, Oswald West, built his charming coastal retreat (known today as the Bouvy-West cabin), and set a precedence for public access to the beaches by declaring them “a highway;” the daunting coastal route was a main thoroughfare.

Travel south to Hug Point, and at low tide you can see the deep ruts left in stone where stagecoaches and, later, automobiles “hugged the point” to make their passage. There’s an amazing waterfall nearby, too.

Learn about this, and other surprising historic sites situated throughout the region by visiting the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum.

Expedition-worthy Lodgings

Book a stay at one of four Cannon Beach Hotel Collection offerings, like the long-standing, Cannon Beach Hotel.

This quaint hotel, established in 1914, holds the title of oldest hotel to continually serve the coastal community. The Becker Building, named after the family who built it, began as a boarding house and adjacent café. It was later used to house Van Fleet Logging Company workers during the logging boom, and provided a dining hall for them. 

The convenient venue, walkable to the beach, downtown and the museum, is appointed with original details like claw-foot tubs, four-poster beds and fireplaces. These days, the preeminent MacGregor’s Whiskey Bar is on site for food, and drink.

When You Go

Cottage & Garden Tour

Don’t miss the 20th Annual Cannon Beach Cottage & Garden Tour, September 8th through the 10th for rare glimpses into historic homes like the Bouvy-West Cabin. Tickets go on-sale July 1 at cbhistory.org/events-exhibits/cottage-tour.