All Over The Map: Forgotten original ‘Unity’ name still inspires Ilwaco
Feb 2, 2024, 1:41 PM
On January 22, 2024, a devastating fire wiped out a commercial fishing wharf in the Pacific County community of Ilwaco and seriously damaged the town’s crab industry. With support from many generous people and organizations, hopes are that the industry – and Ilwaco – will soon bounce back.
A look into the history in this week’s edition of All Over The Map reveals that Ilwaco isn’t the original name of the town, and that this isn’t the first time its residents have faced adversity after a big fire.
Ilwaco is in Southwest Washington on Baker Bay near the mouth of the Columbia River on the backside of Cape Disappointment. The best place to learn about Ilwaco’s history is the town’s Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, a non-profit organization founded in 1983.
Madeline Matson is the museum’s executive director. She told KIRO Newsradio that the origins of the name Ilwaco are Indigenous, but there has been confusion about whether the namesake was a Chinook woman who lived nearby, or the man she married.
“Actually, what we have figured out is that Chief Comcomly, one of his daughters was named ‘Elowahka,’ and her husband was named ‘Elowahka Jim,'” Matson said. “And Elowahka Jim is who Ilwaco was named after, obviously (with) changed spelling and pronunciation over time.”
Though the community has been known as Ilwaco since 1876, that’s not the original name of the town.
“It was originally called Unity in celebration of the conclusion of the Civil War,” Matson said.
When what’s now called Ilwaco was settled in 1868, the Civil War had concluded just three years earlier. Pro-Union sentiments praising the successful preservation of the U.S. inspired the name Unity, Matson said.
Early settlers in the area around include Captain James Johnson and Isaac Whealdon, but credit as “founder” of Unity is usually attributed to J.D. Holman, who platted the town and became the first postmaster. Holman and the others had originally claimed land to the west for a community called Pacific City, but the federal government took over the real estate to establish Fort Canby, which forced residents to relocate to what’s now Ilwaco.
Matson said that Unity had the most southwesterly post office in Washington Territory, and Ilwaco now has the most southwesterly post office in the Evergreen State.
“It was always a community, and a community also based in commerce,” Matson said. “And it definitely has been that, especially at specific times through history. In the early 1900s, it was definitely the location on the peninsula that was the center of commerce, and so this is where the banks were located, and this is where people came to do business.
“That’s changed a little bit over time and I would say it’s maybe less the commercial hub that it was in the early 1900s,” Matson continued. “But it is definitely still a very important part of the region, and a very interesting and lovely community.”
Much of the documented history of Ilwaco is featured in a book by historian Lucille McDonald and published by Binfords & Mort in Portland in 1966. The book, “Coast Country: A History of Southwest Washington,” is still in print and available for purchase in the museum’s shop.
“We still say that it is actually a very good early resource for local history,” Matson said. “It’s definitely aged, but all histories age over time, and so that is a good place to start. You do have to take some things with a grain of salt, but it is a wonderful book and a good overview of the region.”
Among the more colorful stories told in the book is about what was nicknamed the “Clamshell Railroad,” a narrow-gauge line for which Ilwaco was the original terminus and which operated from 1888 to 1930. Ultimately, the line stretched from the former ferry terminal at Megler, Washington (where the bridge to Astoria, Oregon now crosses the Columbia River) roughly 25 miles north to Nahcotta in Pacific County. Also included in McDonald’s book is the drama for which Ilwaco residents were mostly just audience members: The time in 1893 when South Bend wrestled the county seat away from Oysterville.
As for the town’s more recent and much closer-to-home drama, Madeline Matson said Ilwaco is a “very hardscrabble community” that has seen plenty of disasters — hard times economically, but other big fires, too, including when Ilwaco High School was destroyed in a blaze in 1936.
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And though the town has been called Ilwaco for almost 150 years, Matson says the spirit of its original name – Unity – still inspires the people who live and work there to come together.
“This is the most recent tragedy for the community and something that we will continue to rise out of and recover from,” Matson said. “I think that the showing of the community support towards the crabbers and crabbing families has been wonderful, and continues to kind of get back at that ‘Unity Spirit’ of the original founding of Ilwaco, and all of us being in it together.”
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.