Oregon Beach History: They’re All Public Because of Cars

Oregon’s beaches are one of the state’s crown jewels. That’s because they used to be a thoroughfare – and here’s that happened.  

Time was, it was a challenge to drive a car from one end of Oregon to the other. There were very few roads between one town and another, and those which did exist had been created for the benefit of bicyclists – cars were an afterthought. In 1900, the average car owner was a wealthy hobbyist, like the owner of a small airplane today.   

By 1910, a car was still a daring and expensive piece of modernity, but there were thousands of them in Oregon rather than dozens. Looking for roads to drive on, car owners discovered that they could drive on the hard-packed wet sand of the beaches, which stretch almost uninterrupted along the Oregon coast.  

In the 1910s, cars were still an exotic item. The transportation technology used by most people before the First World War was the railroad, and early in the 20th century railroads had begun to link the Willamette Valley to resorts on the coast. The state was happily selling off beachfront property to resort developers, who were fencing off sections of beach for private use.  

The Legislature thought this was a great thing, bringing in money for the state budget and producing new business activity. Many other people didn’t like it as much and thought the beaches should remain open to the public for everyone’s benefit.  

Oswald West was elected governor in 1911, in part on a promise to reclaim the beaches as public land. There were limits to how beaches could be taken back from private landholders by the state, both legal and practical. The question became one of whether the law of Eminent Domain could be used to take privately-owned property for a state park, and West knew it would be difficult to persuade the Legislature to take such an unpopular step.   

On the other hand, there was plenty of precedent for taking land for public roads, and people had already demonstrated that the beaches could serve as a road. So in 1913, the Legislature designated the beaches as highways. They established the State Highway Commission, originally bundled into the same department of the state government with Parks and Recreation and began work on Highway 101. They also bought land along the coast for what eventually became a necklace of state parks.  

The beaches remained open for public use without serious challenge until 1966, when a Cannon Beach motel owner fenced an area of dry sand. Republican Gov. Tom McCall staged a dramatic intervention, landing on the site with a pair of helicopters carrying scientists and surveyors. The incident was so famous, and so symbolic of McCall’s lifelong dedication to open public lands and environmental preservation, that the Governor’s official portrait in Salem depicts him standing on an Oregon beach.  

Can you still drive on the beach in Oregon? Well, it’s no longer designated as a highway, so not quite everywhere, but it is still legal in some locations: Lincoln City, Pacific City, Tierra Del Mar, a long stretch between Warrenton and Gearhart. You’ll be advised to bring a car with wide tires and lower the air pressure to get more contact with the sand – how people drove on the beaches in cars with those skinny little 1910s wheels is a mystery – but it is permissible even if it isn’t always advisable. In areas where off-road vehicles are allowed, like the Sand Lake Dunes Recreational Area, cars are prohibited.  

You really shouldn’t drive on the beach, though. The beach is more than a bunch of wet sand, it’s a living ecosystem, and driving on it causes as much disruption as driving in a meadow. Why not drive on the roads the Highway Commission built for you and just walk on the beach that Govs. West and McCall saved for you?  

By John M. Burt