Oswald West made sure Oregon’s beaches belong to us all

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald April 30, 2009 12:21 pm

Tom McCall almost certainly would rank as the most beloved of Oregon’s 36 governors were a poll taken today.

But I harbor a special affinity for Oswald West.

He is not so well known as the flamboyant and ever-quotable McCall, who in his most famous pronouncement encouraged people to visit Oregon but admonished them to not even consider moving here.

Yet West’s relative obscurity in the state he governed is due not to any shortage of political accomplishment on his part, but it results rather from the irresistible erosive power of time.

West was elected in 1910, is the thing. He served one term, 1911-15.

This means, if I’ve done the math correctly, that unless you’re at least 94 years old you were born after West left office.

That’s not many former constituents left to carry West’s torch.

More to the point, it means that West, unlike McCall, who served as governor from 1967-75, had the misfortune of getting elected before television was invented.

McCall did give us the Bottle Bill, which is nice.

It led to a lot of recycling, anyway. Also the legislation ensured there is plenty of room on Oregon’s highway shoulders to accommodate hamburger wrappers, which take up precious shoulder space if you let them lie about in your car.

But McCall also gave us land-use planning, which remains generally popular but which infuriates certain people in a way nickel deposits can’t equal.

The gift West bestowed on Oregonians, however, seems to me such a vital part of the state’s essence — the piece of public policy which more than any other has made Oregon a uniquely wonderful place — that it relegates McCall’s contributions to the merely commonplace.

West gave us the right to get sand between our toes without worrying whether we are trespassing.

(He also, by extension, gave us the less pleasant right to get sand on everything else we own.)

What’s more, West pulled this off while simultaneously fulfilling a campaign promise.

I thought about Governor West last week when I spent a couple of days at the Coast.

I re-read the story about how West pledged during his 1910 campaign to preserve the public’s access to Oregon’s beaches, and how he achieved that goal by pushing through the 1913 Legislature an ingenious bill that designated those beaches as public highways.

West’s legacy seemed to me especially vivid while my wife, Lisa, and I stood on the beach at Pacific City and watched our daughter, Olivia, shovel sand into her purple plastic bucket.

Olivia is a month short of her second birthday and has the brief attention span typical of that age. But when she gets to digging she is not soon diverted.

Nor easily.

Before we started back to the parking lot — the seaside was blustery even by its tempestuous standards, also it was coming on supper time — I practically had to pry the yellow shovel from her plump little fist.

Olivia has quick hands, though. Despite being confined between her parents and pretending to be encumbered by holding onto my right index finger and Lisa’s left, Olivia managed to pull one hand free and swipe the shovel from me a couple times. And before I could reclaim the tool she plunged its blade into the damp sand and, in the frenzied manner of a child who knows her time for mischief is short, flicked a handful onto my jeans. The tan grains stuck to the denim until the next washing.

 What seemed to me remarkable about the pleasant hour we passed on the beach is that it wasn’t remarkable at all.

If you’ve lived all your life in Oregon, as I have, you tend to consider as routine your legal right to comb any stretch of beach you want.

I have only a vague memory of learning, when I was a teenager, that in most places beaches are treated rather more like backyards — as places that can be fenced, and owned by people who can holler at you to get lost if you stray past a boundary which might not be posted.

I remember too watching TV programs that showed a beach in, say, California, where people lay sprawled in orderly rows like a company of soldiers felled by a burst from a lone machine gun. The flesh-free gaps between their towels was no wider than the space between sailors’ bunks in the berth of a submarine.

I had never seen anything like this on an Oregon beach (and I still haven’t.) After I had thought about this for a time I decided that the discrepancy could not be explained solely by the chilly weather that predominates on our state’s share of the Pacific shore and which deters all but the hardiest of sunbathers from lying on the sand for more than a few minutes.

I came to realize that when people are afforded the freedom to choose any patch of sand they want, they usually pick a place with room enough for their elbows — and their lawn chairs and beer cooler.

Oceanfront property is worth a lot to developers, of course.

But Oswald West believed it is even more valuable than that — so valuable, in fact, that it should belong to everyone.

In doing so he argued for the family picnic over the hotel brunch, for the notion that people ought to be able to watch the sun dip behind Haystack Rock and against the edict that they have to buy a ticket first.

I started this column by touting West’s exploits as superior to McCall, but I fear I have not given the latter governor the credit he is due.

The two men — McCall a Republican, West a Democrat — were more alike than I perhaps implied.

In fact it was McCall who took up the fight that West, who died in 1960, must have thought he had won.

In 1966 the owner of a beachside motel flouted Oregon law by building a fence around a stretch of beach and allowing only his guests to go there.

McCall’s response — not for nothing did I describe him as flamboyant — was to order two helicopters to land on the disputed beach.

McCall’s media-friendly spectacle roused public support for the Oregon Beach Bill, which declares that all “wet sand” within 16 vertical feet of the low tide line is state property. The bill, which McCall signed into law on July 6, 1967, also guarantees the public “free and uninterrupted use of the beaches.”

Oregon honored Oswald West by naming a state park for him. The park, appropriately, is at the Coast, between Tillamook and Seaside. It includes many miles of beach.

I’m going to try from here on to remember West whenever I visit Oregon’s seashore.

He is that rarest of politicians who can count among his successes one which, nearly a century later and long after his death, still makes it so that a a little girl can pour sand into her new bucket.

Also her hair.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.