Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The First House To Go


After figuring out the last house to fall into the ocean, I began to wonder which had been the first to go. The first clue came from a US Army Corps of Engineers study called "Report on Beach Erosion Studies, Tillamook Bay, Oregon, With Reference To Bay Ocean", published August 26, 1940. It said that "a total of 11 houses, 3 during the last winter, have either been wrecked or had to be moved since 1927..." The appendix included a photo taken by an unidentified local resident that I zoomed in to show just the house. The photo's caption read, "About 1928 - Looking north from the top of dune midpoint of spit. House in lower left destroyed by a storm the following winter." So, I knew the first house fell after 1927 and that there was a candidate that was just north of the Bayocean Hotel. 


Looking through all the photos I had collected, I came across one in Lorraine Eckhart's collection labeled "Ackley 53" with her note saying, "home of Mr. Burns lots 6-7-8 block 61" at the bottom. This would have been just 500' north of the Bayocean Hotel, though down on the beach like the natatorium. On my next trip to Tillamook, I looked through deed records and confirmed the lots were owned by Alberta Burns. Ancestry.com indicated that she was married to Elmer, a Portland machinist. I then found a story in the May 1912 issue of the Potter's Surf newsletter, saying that Mr. Burns was almost done with his cabin. But these were clearly different houses. Burns' had a dormer but was much smaller and had no chimney or side room.

I then recalled being able to just barely see a house north of the hotel in a photo by Donald Burkhart in his collection at the Oregon Historical Society (Org Lot 371). It is dated August 19, 1928. I zoomed in again to show just the house.  Though still not a great view, it has to be the Burns house, not the one in the Corps photo, because there is a dormer, no chimney, and no side room. Searching a list of lots in the same block at the Tillamook Clerk's office, I discovered that Georgia DeWitt had purchased parts of lots 10 and 11 adjacent to each other just north of Burns and took out a mortgage in 1913. Centering both houses on their lots, there would have only been 100' separating them, which is why DeWitt's house does not show up in Burkhardt's photo: his perspective hides it. The only possible explanation for the Burns house not being shown in front of the DeWitt house in the Corps photo is that it had already disappeared. And so, the question is answered: Burns was the first to go - sometime during the winter of 1928/1929 - and the DeWitt house succumbed a year later. 


You won't find anything said of these cottages being lost to the sea in newspapers. One reason was that they were little shacks compared to the summer homes of the Portland elite like Johann Poulsen on the high ground. Another was that the Burns and DeWitt families were not aware their cottages were gone until long after they were destroyed. The Webbers heard from locals who had been around during that era (Bayocean: The Oregon Town That Fell Into The Sea, p.78) that, "in at least one instance, a distant owner arrived on the spit to spend the summer but he couldn't find his house." They probably were afraid of being called stupid for building so close to the beach. 

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