Westport, Point Chehalis

Westport, Point Chehalis

by | May 30, 2022

Westport is a community located on Point Chehalis, a peninsula between South Bay and the Pacific Ocean that partially encloses Grays Harbor from the south, about 53 miles (85 km) north-northwest of Astoria and 15 miles (24 km) west-southwest of Aberdeen, Washington. Grays Harbor is named after Boston fur trader Captain Robert Gray who discovered the embayment in 1792. He named it Bullfinch Harbor after Charles Bulfinch, one of the owners of his ship the Columbia Rediviva. But Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey, of Captain George Vancouver’s British expedition, visited the harbor a few months later and labeled it on his charts as ‘Gray’s Harbor’. Westport is named for the harbor facility which is home to a large commercial fishing fleet and recreational vessels. Point Chehalis is named after the U.S. Army post at Fort Chehalis which was established in 1860 at the present-day site of Westport. The name was derived from the Lower Chehalis word ‘ts-a-lis’ meaning ‘place of sand’. Early explorers pronounced the word ‘Chehalis’ and gave this name to the Chehalis River and the Chehalis people who are ‘people of the sands’. The area surrounding Grays Harbor dominantly consists of Quaternary deposits of sand. Point Chehalis is the tip of a large spit formed by the accretion of sand over thousands of years in the Columbia River littoral cell. Littoral cells divide the coast into spatial units that contain a complete cycle of sediment sources, transport paths, and sinks. The Columbia River littoral cell is approximately 103 miles (165 km) long and extends from Tillamook Head, Oregon to Point Grenville, Washington. Beaches in the Columbia River littoral cell, are characterized by wide surf zones, and large sand bars and spits. Historically, high accretion rates on beaches and spits have been attributed to large supplies of sand from the Columbia River. This widespread accretion resulted in new coastal lands, on which public and private infrastructure were built. Starting in the mid-1900s, 11 major and over 200 smaller dams were constructed in the Columbia River basin which has had a significant impact on decreasing peak streamflows and the transport of sediments. The presence of sand on any particular beach depends on the transport of sediment within the littoral cell. When structures such as river dams, jetties, and groins interfere with sediment transport, beaches within the littoral cell will erode. Several locations in the Columbia River littoral cell that historically had been accreting, are presently experiencing severe erosion most likely as a result of the reduction of sand transport from the Columbia River and along the coast.

The outer coast and estuaries of Washington were inhabited by thousands of Native people when first contacted by European explorers but there is little archaeological evidence of prehistoric human occupation. This is likely due to seismic activity at the Cascadia subduction zone which caused subsidence, tsunami inundation, and consequent burial and tidal flooding of low-lying coastal sites that native peoples occupied during previous centuries. Many prehistorical sites along the coast were also inundated by Holocene sea-level rise, and others have been buried by rapid sand accretion along the coast. Point Chehalis area was used regularly during the summer by local tribes such as the Willapa Chinook and Lower Chehalis. The Lower Chehalis bands fished the Middle and Lower Chehalis, Wynoochee, Wishkah, Humptulips, Elk, Johns, Hoquiam, North, Willapa, Niawiakum, and Palix rivers between Grays Harbor and South Puget Sound. Like many Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the Chehalis relied on fishing from local rivers for food and built cedar plank longhouses to protect themselves from the harsh, wet winters west of the Cascade Range. The first white settler at Point Chehalis was Thomas B. Speake and his family from Kentucky who arrived in the summer of 1857. Fort Chehalis was established in 1860 by Captain Maurice Maloney, 4th U.S. Infantry to protect white settlers from perceived threats by the Chehalis. The post was a camp and was never officially designated as a fort. It was abandoned in 1861 by order of Colonel George Wright, 9th U.S. Infantry, but later that year reoccupied to restore the confidence of the settlers in the vicinity and to protect the Indian agent while an agency was being established nearby. The post was permanently abandoned before the end of the year, and in 1868, the government ordered the buildings at the post sold. During the 1850s, Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated treaties with many Native tribes in western Washington and placed them on reservations. These treaties of Point Elliot, Medicine Creek, and Point No Point established 18 reservations. The Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz initially refused to sign but in 1860 entered into agreements with the U.S. government. The Chehalis Indian Reservation was established on the Chehalis River with 4480 acres (1812 ha) in southeastern Grays Harbor and southwestern Thurston Counties, and the main population centers are Chehalis Village and Oakville.

Westport was historically surrounded by dense old-growth forests and many homesteaders found logging more lucrative than farming. Westport and Grays Harbor became major logging ports in the late 19th century. In 1890, there were 13 sawmills around Grays Harbor that exported sixty million board feet of lumber, and the harbor’s shipyards built nine steamers and three sailing vessels that year. With the increase of vessels entering the port, the number of strandings and sinkings increased dramatically. In 1884, U.S. Congress appropriated funds for a harbor light to mark the entrance to Grays Harbor. The first site selected was Point Brown, on the north side of the harbor entrance, and arrangements were made to purchase 5 acres (2 ha) of land. But the following year, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided a first-order light was needed rather than a small harbor light, and a site at Point Chehalis was selected, surveyed, and approved by the Lighthouse Board. In 1897, the Grays Harbor Lighthouse was constructed on a low dune, the high point of the peninsula, and roughly 2,100 feet (640 m) from the high tide mark. The Grays Harbor Lighthouse was designed by Carl W. Leick who had designed several prominent structures in Astoria, including the Clatsop County Courthouse and the Captain George Flavel House, before moving to Portland and taking a job as the architect for the Engineering Office of the Thirteenth Lighthouse District. He designed 40 lighthouses throughout the Pacific Northwest with 22 in Washington, 11 in Alaska, and 7 in Oregon, which includes the second lighthouse at Cape Arago. The Grays Harbor Lighthouse may have been his greatest achievement. The octagonal tower stands 107 feet (33 m) tall and is the tallest lighthouse in Washington, and the third tallest on the U.S. west coast. The lighthouse is supported by a foundation of sandstone 12 feet (3.6 m) thick. The lighthouse walls are 4 feet (1.2 m) thick at the base and made of brick with a coating of cement on the exterior. A series of 135 metal steps, bolted to the tower walls lead to the lantern room. Windows originally provided light for the interior of the tower, but to cut down on maintenance, they were cemented over when the station was electrified. The lighthouse was commissioned on June 30, 1898. Today, the Westport economy relies on fishing, shellfish harvesting, seafood processing, and tourism. Read more here and here. Explore more of Westport here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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