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Southern Exposure: When Gearhart was a playground for rich and famous

Published on January 8, 2018 10:26AM

Gearhart in 1915.

Gearhart in 1915.

Poster highlights the pleasures of Gearhart Park by the Sea. notofrsale

Poster highlights the pleasures of Gearhart Park by the Sea. notofrsale

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Gearhart historic beach scene. notforsale

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Gearhart’s Grand Hotel, a draw for high society.

Oregon Historical Society

Gearhart’s Grand Hotel, a draw for high society.

Newspaper report from 1918 after Gearhart’s incorporation.

Newspaper report from 1918 after Gearhart’s incorporation.

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Commemorative pin honoring Gearhart’s 100th year.

R.J. Marx/Seaside Signal

Commemorative pin honoring Gearhart’s 100th year.

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Gearhart’s November referendum on short-term rental rules tore a community asunder with a binary choice: repeal short-term rental regulations put in force or to leave them be. Everyone in the city of 1,562 — of those, 1,245 registered voters — picked a side, and those who could vote locally propelled defeat of the repeal. Measure 4-188 failed by a lopsided 77 percent to 23 percent.

Gearhart’s 100th anniversary as an incorporated city in 2018 comes in the aftermath of that bruising debate.

“This has been going on since 1918,” Gearhart historian Bill Berg said at a post-election celebration at McMenamins. “It’s all about the fabric of the community.”

A ‘wilderness playground’

In its early days, Gearhart offered mansions, surreys and a “Chautauqua House” in Gearhart Park initiated by socialite Narcissa Kinney. It served as a center for arts and culture — one of 400 such societies around the nation — presenting orator William Jennings Bryan, educator Booker T. Washington and composer John Phillip Sousa.

Cannery and sawmill entrepreneur Marshall Kinney, who brought the Astoria & South Coast Railway to Gearhart, developed the Gearhart Golf Course in 1902, touting it as “the finest in America.”

The Kinneys envisioned Gearhart as a “wildness playground for culturally elite Portlanders seeking fresh sea air, picnic on the dune meadows and cozy beach cottages set amidst virgin forests,” Donna Pizzi wrote in Portrait Magazine.

Even fussy residents of Astoria ventured south and liked what they saw in Gearhart: “Last Sunday, a number of Astoria golfers visited the links and were well pleased with the condition of the grounds,” the Signal wrote in May 1916.

Along with golf, swimming was only a few strokes behind. The sport transformed the North Coast, and Gearhart, as published in “A History of the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club.” Club member Arthur Cavill was “an aquatic Pied Piper in Portland leading everyone in Portland off to Gearhart for mid-winter plunges into the ocean.”

In the summer of 1914, Professor H.A. Ludwig took the “first plunge” into the Gearhart natatorium, described as a 60-foot-by-40-foot tank — “the largest of its kind in the Northwest.”

“It is larger by several feet than the tank at the Multnomah Athletic Club,” the Signal wrote.

In July 1915, a headline read: “Gearhart building active,” recounting the building of 17 homes at Gearhart Park ranging from $2,500 to $4,500 each, along with development of several new streets.

In August, a golf tournament came to Gearhart with “enthusiasts from Walla Walla, Lewiston, Spokane, Seattle and Portland.”

The new American pastime of automobiling had come to Gearhart, with “almost every cottager having a car here,” the Oregonian wrote in 1917.

For those too young to drive, “the little ones are rejoicing over their possession of their favorite ponies, as the riding school is now in full swing and the lads and lassies are seen each morning riding along the beach at low tide and through the woods when the tides are too high to get to the beach,” the Oregonian reported.

Cookbook author James Beard wrote vivid accounts of Gearhart summer life in the early 20th century, when families came for the seashore while father stayed in the city to work, rushing to the shore each week for a family reconnection. Beard spent weekends and summers on the Oregon Coast, where his family prepared elaborate picnics and cooked over an open fire at the beach, ending “an endless variety of chowders, salmon, clams and crabs,” according to a biography of the celebrity chef.

Enter Gearhart

As the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the nation’s thoughts moved from recreation to battle on an international stage.

In Gearhart, residents — many of them over 50 years of age — joined the Home Guard to protect the Lower Columbia River District.

The social season opened on schedule, but headlines shifted to news from overseas, enlistment announcements and Liberty Fund drives.

“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Gearhart Park was part of the town of Clatsop and was known simply as a vacation destination for folks coming in on the train to visit the beach and stay at the hotel,” Mayor Matt Brown said in December. “In 1917, the local residents who worked at the hotels, the train station, and in other capacities decided they wanted a residential community to call their own. “

They wanted the town to reflect the views of the families who lived here year-round and decided to form the city of Gearhart, he added.

In early 1918, the town of Clatsop became officially incorporated as the city of Gearhart.

“You can see in Gearhart today the legacy that was built by this small group of local settlers, workers, and families that wanted a residential community of their own,” Brown said.

A new charter

Gearhart residents filed a petition to incorporate in 1917; a vote followed in January 1918.

“A general improvement of the city will take place during the coming season and those who are interested will strive to make Gearhart one of the best places on the coast to spend the summer and winter months,” wrote the Signal. “Here’s success to Gearhart, our neighbor.”

Voters “almost unanimously” voted for adoption of a new charter, defining boundaries, naming officers and establishing laws governing street improvements.

Gearhart’s first mayor was P.A. Lee, from 1918 to 1920. F. L. Hager served as auditor and Judge D.B. Schroeder as treasurer. W.H. Moffett, D.B. Hensley, Fred Ober and Henry Ober Sr. were the city’s first councilors.

Shortly after, William Samuel Badger, a contractor and road builder who moved to Gearhart in 1915, was appointed to fill a vacancy. With his selection, Badger was the first African-American to serve in public office in Oregon, a state with racial exclusion laws on the books during his term and remaining law until 1926.

He later owned a wood and coal fuel supply business. With his wife, Emma, he operated Badger’s Chicken Dinners for 23 years.

“The city of Gearhart has only been incorporated for the past year and the officers elected will put that beautiful little summer resort on the map where it belongs,” wrote the Signal in 1919.

By 1920, the city of Gearhart had a population of 127. Since then, it has grown — for some, too fast; for others, not fast enough.

R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.


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