March 20, 2003 11:00 pm

By Mark Highberger

for The Observer

The story of Bayocean on the north Oregon coast is a tale of grand plans and broken dreams, of eroding sand and breached land, and of a town that tumbled into the sea. "What was once destined to be the most popular beach resort on the Oregon coast is now in desolation," wrote a man who saw the town's destruction, "and the beautiful Bayocean I knew is no more, only a memory." It's a memory that begins with a dead goose and ends with a single jetty.

The beginning came in 1906, when a fellow named Thomas Irving Potter, out cruising the waters of Tillamook Bay in a rented boat, shot a goose with a revolver. (That is, Potter had the revolver; the goose was unarmed.) The goose ended up on the peninsula that separates the bay from the ocean, an area well-known to the folks in nearby Tillamook City.

"Originally the tongue of land was called the Sandspit, a wilderness of beach, hills, slough, trees and brush," wrote a man who grew up in Tillamook. "The Indians used it as a camping place. The early pioneers chose it as a picnic ground. In those days it could be reached only by canoe or boat."

When Potter landed on this four-mile long peninsula to retrieve the goose, he was impressed by what he found. "In those days the Sandspit was beautiful," writes a local historian, "almost beyond an artist's vision; practically untouched by man or erosion."

So Potter later described this spit of land to his father, Thomas Benton Potter, a Kansas City real estate developer who decided that upon the peninsula he would build a resort that would become what he called "the Atlantic City of the West." He started buying the land, whose homestead claims went back to 1867.

"Then to the Sandspit came the great change," wrote a man recalling the days when it took four hours of hard rowing with the tide to reach the peninsula. "Man with his dollars came and spent millions and it was no longer called the Sandspit but Bayocean."

If you venture out onto the spit today — driving west from Tillamook, following the shore of the bay to the dike that holds the peninsula's single road — you'll find that water and wind have either blown away or washed away everything those millions once bought. From the sign, a mile's drive along the dike takes you to a parking area; from the parking lot's gate, a mile's stroll down a sandy road leads you through an alley of Scotch broom and shore pines to a second gate, where you'll find yourself standing near what was once the edge of Bayocean's downtown.

Apparently, Potter gave no thought to the proverbial warning about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, for he planned that a luxury hotel and a huge natatorium "be built right on the beach." Joining these buildings, he said, would be a golf course and tennis courts, a movie theater and bowling alleys, a band stand and baseball diamonds. He platted additional property for homesites, with lots selling for as much as $1,800 (ocean view and indoor plumbing) to as little as $150 (dune view and outdoor plumbing).

If you turn left at this gate, taking a sandy quarter-mile trail across the dunes and to the beach, you'll pass near the townsite that Potter planned to unveil in a 1910 grand opening. But before that could happen, he faced a major obstacle — no road reached Bayocean. In fact, the entire northern coast was without a highway. So Potter began building a ship that would transport prospective buyers and investors from Portland to his resort town.

The result in 1911 was the Bayocean, the largest motor passenger vessel of its time on the Pacific Coast. Stretching the length of half a football field, the yacht could carry 100 passengers on a voyage that sometimes lasted three days to reach what Potter advertised as "Oregon's $1,000,000 Summer Playground."

Later that same year, a railroad track was pushed through to Tillamook. Then for less than $6 round-trip from Portland, passengers could take the Tillamook Flyer on its 91-mile route to Bayocean, which made "all of the stops at the most popular beach resorts." With more than 30 such stops, the trip took six hours. Once the train reached Bay City on the north shore of the bay, travelers took a ferry boat across to the spit.

If you pass through the second gate instead of turning left there, you'll find the road leading along the edge of the bay and out to the end of the spit where these passengers disembarked. Along the way you'll probably see pelicans and herons, mallards and curlews, sometimes loons and seals. "This is one of the nicest coast walks anywhere," says a woman along the road with her Labrador retriever. "A flat trail, incredible views."

Above her, rain streaks the sky of the Coast Range and drizzles gray against the town of Garibaldi, while the air stirs with the wings of gulls and the scent of salt and pine and sand. No wonder some of those train-traveling tourists fell in love with the place.

In fact, enough prospective investors and paying guests began arriving that Potter planned further developments for his fledgling town. Soon a gravity system supplied fresh water, a power plant generated electricity, and a switchboard connected telephones (without outside lines). It also had paved streets, which a former resident called "five miles of rough pavement filled with goose-egg cobbles."

The natatorium even offered hot showers and a "wave machine," though it probably didn't live up to Potter's claims of "artificial surf so real in its action as to fool Old Neptune himself!" After Bayocean's belated grand opening in 1912, a celebration featuring a brass band and fireworks, the resort experienced two years of prosperity. Building lots sold, developments continued. But then trouble hit.

The beginning of World War I, Potter's poor health, bad publicity, expensive developments, roadless isolation, and law suits by unhappy property buyers — these all contributed to the decline of Bayocean. "One by one," writes a Tillamook historian, "the cottages were abandoned, the hotels closed, the stores left vacant; the end had come." Yet it was left to a single jetty to deliver the death-blow.

To improve the harbor entrance of Tillamook Bay, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — against their better judgment but at the insistence of local citizens — built a jetty on the north side of the bay's mouth, a job they finished in 1917. When the jetty redirected the force of the waves, the beach at Bayocean began to erode. In 1933 the jetty was extended, the erosion worsened, and homes began to slip into the sea. Then a 1948 winter storm breached the spit, and waves surged into the bay.

Over the next few years, severe storms continued to batter the spit, hurling waves through what was left of Bayocean's streets and buildings. Then in 1952 the sea ripped a mile-wide breach in the peninsula and turned it into an island. "It hardly seems possible that such a vast destructive change could have taken place," said a man who saw the end of the community. "I still like to remember the Bayocean I knew in my early boyhood days in Tillamook."

Evidently, so did many other Tillamook citizens, who demanded that the Corps of Engineers repair the damage. So in 1956, the Corps built the dike that plugged the gap, and that now serves as the road onto what is once again a peninsula. Then with the planting of beach grass to stabilize the dunes and the 1973 construction of a south jetty, Bayocean's beach began to return.

A trail that takes you to the center of this beach is a half-mile past the second gate. Here a gap in the dunes takes you over sandy, shaggy hills and toward the roll and roar of breakers. Standing on this driftwood-scattered shoreline, you'll see part of Thomas Benton Potter's dream, part of the view that belonged to the town of Bayocean before it slid into the sea.