November 20, 2003 11:00 pm
Spread across a high bluff on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Shore Acres State Park was once the estate of lumber and shipping baron Louis Simpson. ().
Spread across a high bluff on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Shore Acres State Park was once the estate of lumber and shipping baron Louis Simpson. ().

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

My wife and I have a deal: If I take her to Shore Acres State Park, then she won't divorce me. Judging by the number of still-married couples strolling the pebbled-concrete paths at the park, many others have preserved their marital bliss by making the same deal. Even so, it's clear that some of these couples see the garden differently.

"This almost makes me cry," says a woman near the entrance.

"Why?" her husband asks.

"It's so pretty."


She takes his arm and steers him along a row of English boxwood bordering the formal garden. Here beneath a coastal gray sky, a span of green boxes and rectangles lie spangled with tulip-reds and daffodil-yellows, though the show of flowers changes regularly during the growing season.

"People are always asking us about the best time to visit here," says a woman who belongs to the Friends of Shore Acres. "But anytime is the best time, depending on what you want to see."

So in this seven acre garden located southwest of Coos Bay, it's February and March for spring bulbs and daffodils, March and April for tulips, April and May for rhododendrons and azaleas, May through September for flowering annuals and perennials, and so on through roses and dahlias and into December, when they string thousands of Christmas lights through the garden to fill in the color-gaps left behind by missing or sleeping flowers.

"Every step reveals something new," the woman says to her husband as she steers him toward the Oriental garden. "It might be blossoms or flowers or water, maybe a stone or a bridge or a fence — but no matter where you go here, there's always something new to see."

"Oh," her husband says.

This design is no accident, for the garden was once part of the private estate of Louis Simpson, an heir to a lumber and shipping fortune. Simpson's father, Asa Simpson, was a 49er who traveled from Maine to California in search of gold. He soon learned, however, that the big money was to be found in logging rather than in mining, and in less than a decade his business consisted of cutting and milling timber along the Oregon and Washington coasts, then shipping the lumber around the world.

In 1899, Louis arrived in Coos Bay to manage his father's businesses there. One day in 1905, while wandering through the woods with some timber cruisers, Simpson followed an abandoned trail to the cabin of a man named Jake Evans, and there he stopped for a cup of coffee.

"While we were resting in front of the shack, I caught a gleam of reflected light from the ocean," Simpson said. "It was a perfect day, and the sun was shining gloriously." He decided to take a look around and found himself crawling through the dense underbrush.

"Finally, hot and breathless, I emerged upon a little open space," he said. "Immediately I saw what a place for a country home! I went back to the cabin and I said, ‘Jake, did you ever think of selling?'" And so for $4,000, Louis Simpson bought Jake Evans' 320 acres, and within a year began building the house that would become the mansion of Shore Acres.

Paneled in myrtlewood, lit by Tiffany lamps, and carpeted with Persian rugs, the mansion grew from a summer home into a year-round residence for Simpson and his wife. Further remodeling and expansion turned it into one of the largest homes in Oregon at the time, with a ballroom larger than many family homes and a swimming pool just a bit smaller than the Pacific Ocean.

During this time, Simpson's ships were bringing back exotic trees and shrubs from their voyages around the world, and a crew of gardeners was kept busy planting them in a garden that would take three decades to create. Even when disaster struck in 1920 with the death of Mrs. Simpson, then again in 1921 with the burning of the mansion, the garden kept growing.

Although it's gone through many changes in its more than 80 years of life, the garden still contains parts of the original. The Oriental garden, for example, still has a gravel path, copper cranes, and pond lilies, just as it did in the days when Simpson and his guests played tennis on the nearby courts. In addition, the stones lining the pond are the cousins of the boulders that Simpson's crews hoisted from the beach cove to the cliff top with teams of horses. But much of the beauty here lies in gentle discoveries.

"Look at this," says the woman steering her husband by the arm. Almost hidden in the shadows and blossoms of the pond's trees, she points a slender finger toward a bamboo tube poking out of a rock, dripping water into a leaf-dappled pool of water held in the hollow of a moss-layered stone. The pool is the size of two palms held together side-by-side.

"I've read about it, heard about it," the woman says about the garden. "But it's not the same as being here. A photo just can't capture it. You get immersed in the sound of water and birds and squirrels. I'm just overwhelmed by it."

"Oh," her husband says. And once again she takes his arm and steers him away, oohing and ahhing over the scent and the sight of flowers as they wander off over spots of lawn that curve against shaggy screens of green. They pass by Oregon's largest Monterey pine, its limbs spreading to the sky and reaching for the light. Near it stands a Japanese plume cedar, its trunk bent and gnarled, its boughs lacy green.

As striking as it is, the garden makes up only seven of the park's more than 700 acres; the rest contains hiking trails, picnic areas, and beach access, for the Simpson estate once stretched for more than two miles along the coastline, from Sunset Bay in the north to Cape Arago in the south. In fact, after building a second mansion soon after the destruction of his first home, Simpson found the expense of the estate so great that in the 1930s he began donating and selling land to the state.

Then came four decades of tough times for the park; it housed troops in World War II, survived the winds of the Columbus Day storm in 1962, and battled years of neglect caused by budget problems. But Shore Acres began its rebirth in 1975, when a re-dedication ceremony marked the beginning of the park's rehabilitation into one of Oregon's premier garden spots.

Now as the day slides toward evening and the garden toward closing, the colors of the flowers change with the scud of clouds and the shift of light. The woman steering her husband toward the exit leans against his arm and says something that's carried away on a whiff of ocean breeze.

Her husband clears his throat. "If you like," he says, "we can come back again someday."

"Oh," she says, smiling. And then she nudges me out of the garden and toward the sound of waves.