Grays Harbor County

The Grays Harbor County Sign and Map of Washington showing Grays Harbor County in Red.

Introducing Grays Harbor County

Barely one month after creating Mason County, the Washington Territorial Legislature took the western end of the new county, added it to the western end of Thurston County, and created Chehalis County, the twelfth county in the new territory, and the fourth with a Native American name. The new county included a large inlet off the Pacific Ocean, Grays Harbor and North Bay, and ignoring any topographic features, had straight line boundaries, except, of course, for the western edge which followed the Pacific Ocean’s shoreline.

Shaped like an upper-case “L,” the County has the same boundaries today as when it first came into being. The name, however has changed. On June 9th, 1915, the County took the name of its most prominent feature, and became Grays Harbor County. Some references will tell you that it was the last county created in the state of Washington, but the County existed long before 1915. Only the name changed, and we will get into that later.

The County covers 2,224 square miles, of which 14% or 322 square miles is water. The 2018 population estimate suggests 73,901 people live in the County, a far cry from the 285 people counted in the 1860 Census, the first to enumerate the citizens of Grays Harbor County. From that humble beginning, the County has grown steadily, with only the 1940 and 1990 censuses showing a drop in population from the previous count.

History of Grays Harbor County

Robert Gray, a fur trader from Boston, sailed into the body of water he named Bullfinch Harbor on May 7th, 1792. Over time, Bullfinch Harbor became Chehalis Bay and then Grays Harbor, in honor of the first American to visit. (No one seems to know why the possessive apostrophe disappeared.) Many other sea-faring explorers had passed by, but either missed the bay’s opening, or found the waters to shallow for their boats. Henry Eld Jr, mapping the region in 1841 as part of Lt. Charles Wilkes’ team, found the harbor’s narrow entrance and shallow bottom suitable only for small boats.

History Link tells the story of Irishman William O’Leary who may well have been the County’s first permanent settler of European-American stock. O’Leary arrived from Oregon, canoeing the Chehalis River almost to where the river enters Gray’s Harbor. He planted a garden there, and built himself a cedar home, much in the local natives’ style. He apparently did not turn his homestead into a farm, but held himself apart, remaining, as History Link puts it “fiercely independent.”


Isaiah L. Scammon and his wife Lorinda came from Maine and built a home on their Donation Land Claim at the point where the sailing ships could proceed no further upstream. The Scammons took advantage of the location by building a “public house,” while Scammon occupied his time as a blacksmith. He also served, as HistoryLink tells us “as a postmaster, judge, church leader and school administrator.” Lorinda named their home Mount Zion, but changed the name to Montesano, or Mountain of Health, after someone told her that the Spanish phase meant “Mount Zion”. Noone ever disabused her of that notion. When the Territorial Legislature created Chehalis County, it named Bruceport in Pacific County as County Seat. It wasn’t until 1860 that Lorinda Scammon’s home became the seat of government, which continued for twenty-six years.

Native People of Grays Harbor County

Two main groups of Salish people were the original inhabitants of Grays Harbor County. The Quinault lived on the coast, around today’s Grays Harbor and Jefferson Counties. The Chehalis lived along the Chehalis River in what is now the southeastern portion of the County. In addition, several other smaller groups also lived in the area. This include the Hoh, the Queets, and the the Copalis-Oyhut. Most of these groups, small in number though they may have been, have given their names to communities and topographical features in the County.

The People of the Sands

Two main groups of Native Americans called what is now Grays Harbor home. The southeastern group were the Chehalis, who called themselves the People of the Sands. Liichaat, a tribal historian says “Our people fished and hunted from the mountains, across the prairies, to Grays Harbor and in the lower Puget Sound.” (Liichaat— ”Just These Few Words.”) A Salish speaking people, the Chehalis consisted of Upper and Lower tribes, depending on where they spent the most of their time.

Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens attempted to force the Chehalis to accept a treaty, but the native people refused and a war broke out. This is despite the fact that the Chehalis were traders, and had no history of warfare. In 1864, U.S. President Lincoln issued an Executive Order creating the Chehalis Reservation in what is now eastern Grays Harbor County, adjacent to the town of Oakville. That reservation covers 4,438 acres, and in addition to tribal government, other entities run by the tribe include the Great Wolf Lodge Resort, the Lucky Eagle Casino, and the Eagles Landing hotel. With 833 enrolled members, the tribe employs almost 1,500 people.

The Quinault

At the time of the first white explorations of Washington’s coastal regions, the Quinault had the largest community visited. Living on the coast at the mouth of the Quinault River, the people who take their name from the river are a Coast Salish tribe affiliated with other coastal tribes, including the Hoh, the Queets, and the Quileutes. The 1855 Treaty of Olympia established the Quinault Reservation covering 10,000 acres centered on the tribal village of Taholah. In 1873, the reservation grew to cover 220,000 acres, which includes 23 miles of Pacific Coast.

The reservation is adjacent to Olympic National Park. Lewis and Clark estimated that 1,000 people made up the Quinault nation, but like so many other native groups, the Quinault were not immune to European disease. By 1870, only 130 Quinault survived. Today, the tribe counts over 3,000 members, of whom some 1,400 live on the Reservation. With its health center, the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino, the Quinault Sweet Grass Hotel, a seafood processing plant, and timber business, the Quinault are the largest employer in Grays Harbor County

The Grays Harbor County Courthouse, Montesano, Washington
The Grays Harbor County Courthouse
Montesano, Washington

Montesano, The Grays Harbor County Seat

Upon the creation of Grays Harbor County, the Legislature placed the county seat at Bruceport, in neighboring Pacific County. In 1860, the seat moved to the farm of J.L. Scammons, who owned property in the Montesano area, and in 1886, the County’s voters chose to move the seat to the newly incorporated town of Montesano. Despite several efforts to move the county to the Aberdeen area, Montesano has remained the seat ever since.

As noted above, Lorinda Scammon’s home became the de facto seat of Chehalis County in 1860, and remained so for twenty-six years. In 1870, Samuel Henry Williams purchased land in the Medcalf Prairie and platted the town of Montesano. The Washington Territorial Legislature incorporated the town on November 26, 1883, and Chehalis County voters chose to move the seat of government to the new town. The first federal census after incorporation (1890) counted 1,632 residents in the town. That number has grown and shrunk over the years until the 2010 Census registered 3,976 inhabitants. The 2018 estimate is 4,028.

Things may be peaceful today in Montesano and Grays Harbor County, but the selection of the town at the confluence of the Wynooche, the Satsop and the Chehalis Rivers caused many disputes in the County. As early as the mid 1880s, challenges arose again and again from those trying to move the Seat to one of the cities on Grays Harbor itself. Cosmopolis came after the prize first, sweetening the pot by offering to build a $10,000 court house. Montesano partisans countered and said that they would build one that would be even better than what could be found in nearby Thurston County, home of the Territorial Capitol. Not to be outdone, the folk in Cosmopolis offered to build the “best courthouse in Washington Territory.” This challenge came down to a vote, and in a remarkably peaceful process, Montesano won.

Again in 1905, the harborside communities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam joined forces to either get the Seat moved to their area, or split the County. This challenge was not so peaceful, and ended up going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the process, the Washington State Legislature approved a bill to divide the County, the Governor signed it, but the state’s Attorney General rejected the bill. There is much to this story, including the influence of timber company Weyerhauerser which was a major employer in the County. Weyerhaueser did not want to have its taxes raised, as would surely happen if county division occurred, and all but forced its employees to work against division.

Ultimately, the County remained in one piece, the Courthouse, by now an outstanding sandstone edifice, remained in Montesano, but in a sop to the folk in Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis, the Legislature changed the County’s name from Chehalis to Grays Harbor, the last such change to date in Washington State. For a fascinating read on this history, I recommend David L. Chapman’s piece in the Fall 2001 Columbia The Magazine of Northwest History.

Boats moored on the west bank of the Wishkah River, Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County, Washington.
Parked on the Wishkah River
Aberdeen, Washington

The largest city in Grays Harbor County, Aberdeen

Placed at the confluence of the Wishkah and Chehalis Rivers, and, perhaps more importantly where the rivers flow into Grays Harbor, Aberdeen is by far the largest city by population in the County. The 2010 U.S. Census counted 16,896 residents, which is almost double the next largest of the County’s cities. If we include the contiguous cities of Hoquiam to the west and Cosmopolis to the southeast, the combined area population is 27,271, almost a third of the County’s total. The history and development of the three cities is similar, indeed intimately connected, but the three have remained separate political entities over the years.

Fish and lumber brought the first “white” settlers to Grays Harbor. Native people had lived in the area subsisting on fish for centuries. The timber was so thick that the only way to get between the fledgling communities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, a distance then of three miles, was by traveling on the water.

Though not the first to settle in the area, Samuel Benn and his wife Martha were perhaps the first to recognize the possibility of a city growing in the waterfront forest land. The Benns, who moved into the area in 1868, started buying up land and then reselling it to people willing to build their dreams on the salmon and trees so abundant in the area. Soon canneries and sawmills grew up, along with hotels, saloons, and other places of business. Fire destroyed much of the city in 1902 and 1903, but the city rebuilt, this time with brick.

Aberdeen prides itself as “The Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula.” It has been known, in its earlier and more rowdy days, as “The Hellhole of the Pacific.” And today, as the birthplace of Kurt Cobain and Kris Novoselic, the founders of the Grunge band Nirvana, Aberdeen’s official welcome sign announces “Come As You Are,” the title of a song by the band.

A view of U.S. Highway 101 near Humptulips, Grays Harbor County, Washington, the Pacific Coast Scenic Highway.
The Pacific Coast Scenic Highway
U.S. Highway 101
Near Humptulips, Washington

Other Grays Harbor County Communities

Adjacent to Aberdeen, just to the west, is the city of Hoquiam. Like its larger neighbor, Hoquiam (2010 population 8,726) was founded on the promise of timber. Located where the Hoquiam River flows into Grays Harbor, it seemed a natural place to collect timber, mill it, and ship it off to the world.

James Karr, possibly the first “white” settler in the area, moved north from Oregon in 1859, but he was soon joined by Ed Campbell who brought the post office which he named for the local native name for the river, a Salish term that apparently means “hungry for wood.” Soon thereafter, a school was established, then businesses and the community grew. It has remained independent of its larger neighbor, and is the only city in Grays Harbor County to have a “Historic Business District,” approved by the City Council in 2013. The City has twelve of Grays Harbor’s twenty-two listings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ocean Shores, 2010 population 5,569, is the third most populous city in the County. Located on the northern peninsula separating North Bay from the Pacific Ocean, Ocean Shores is truly a coastal town, as is Westport on the southern peninsula (2010 population 2,099). While the opening to Grays Harbor separates the two cities, as coastal towns they have much in common. Ocean Shores is home to the Coastal Interpretive Center, the Quinault Beach Resort Spa, and the Stage West Community Theatre. Westport has the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, the tallest such facility in Washington, as well as a Maritime Museum, an Aquarium and the adjacent viewing tower which is a great place to watch whales.

Elna and nearby McCleary (2010 populations 3,107 and 1,653) lie in eastern Grays Harbor County. McCleary is known for its annual Bear Festival, which in years past served hungry visitors actual bear stew. Today, Washington State laws make the hunting of bears problematic, so the festival organizers have started using beef in their traditional recipe. I haven’t heard of any complaints.

Elna, just a few miles west of McCleary is probably best known for the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) fiasco that led to people calling the utility WHOOPS! Just west of Elna, drivers along U.S. Highway 12 see two large cooling towers from a nuclear energy facility that got shut down when WPPSS defaulted on over $2 billion of bonds. Today, the facility has been transformed into a business park, but the cooling towers remain in place.

The remaining two cities in the County are Cosmopolis and Oakville. Cosmopolis, which once vied for the role of County Seat, lies just to the southwest of Aberdeen, and Oakville, home of the Chehalis Indian Reservation, is on the eastern edge of the county, just west of the Thurston County line. In addition, there are numerous unincorporated communities and “census designated places” scattered around the county.

The front of the Lake Quinault Lodge, Olympic National Park, northwestern Grays Harbor County
Lake Quinault Lodge
Olympic National Park

My Drive Across Grays Harbor County

To date, I’ve been in Grays Harbor Country twice. The first time was while on an aborted cross country drive that would have taken us from San Francisco to Boston via the Pacific Coast, the Canadian Rockies, and on east across the U.S. I didn’t make it past my family’s cabin in western Montana, but along the way, we did drive up U.S. 101 from Aberdeen and even camped on the beach part way along. I don’t really remember much of that drive.
On October 24, 2016, while my partner was at a conference in Seattle, I took a drive around the Olympic Peninsula. On that drive I crossed Grays Harbor County east to west, then south to north. I’ve written that trip up and accompanied it with my photographs on Behance.net.

Of course there is much more to see in Grays Harbor County, and on future trips I will visit the two peninsulas that frame Grays Harbor itself, as well as some of the Native villages on the north coast, and, of course, Oakville in the southeast.

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