Story by Barton Grover Howe
In another town or on another coast, the red, white and black sign might be quaint: "Danger: Look out for forklifts." It seems like a relic among the T-shirt shops, packed restaurants, and tourist attractions that dot Bay Boulevard along Newport's Yaquina Bay, or a piece of kitsch designed to recall the city's history as a vibrant fishing town.
At least until you come face to face with a forklift.
Then it becomes a reminder to visitors that this is a working waterfront. Despite the groups of tourists cruising the street, the smell in the air is one of fish on ice and men at work. This is a real fishing town, from the Yaquina Head Lighthouse up north to the Oregon Coast Aquarium down south. And the people who live here wouldn't have it any other way.
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Although not incorporated until 1882, the town of Newport was founded in the mid-1860s, likely named by one of its founding fathers who was raised near Newport, Rhode Island. Even then, fishing and tourism along the Bayfront jointly defined the city. The city's first tourist hotel opened there in 1866, followed by another in 1867. Within a decade, the population of Newport was 250 people.
A sight to make any fisherman jump for joy:cleaned fresh salmon packed in ice (above). A forklift on Bay Boulevard is a familiar sight (below).
Today, Newport's population is about 40 times that and holiday-weekend visitors can more than triple it. Tourism-building efforts continue to make the most of the city's fishing industry. One of the biggest events of the year is February's annual Seafood & Wine Festival. The city has even trademarked the phrase, "Dungeness Crab Capital of the World," citing the more than 61 million pounds of crab brought through the port in the last two years.
The cooperative nature of Newport's two most famous industries manifests itself perhaps nowhere more than in the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Visitors flock to the aquarium to see the amazing jellies floating serenely in their tanks and the "Passages of the Deep" exhibit, where an acrylic tunnel affords a close-up look at a variety of sea cr
eatures including sharks, rockfish, and bat rays. But more than most aquariums, this one reflects the community it calls home. "We're a conservation organization in a resource-based economy," says aquarium CEO Dale Schmidt. "We need to tell about the extraction side. You don't see that in the (aquarium) industry very often." The aquarium's current featured exhibit, "Claws!" explores the amazing diversity of crabs, lobsters, shrimp, isopods, and copepods. But it also spotlights Newport's crabbing industry with displays on history, methods, and current efforts to protect the various fisheries off the coast. Indeed, when assembling the exhibit, aquarium officials reached out to fishermen and ship owners from around Newport for ideas. Schmidt sees this as good for the community, the ocean, and the people who play a role in both.
The city's fishing history pays dividends to the visitor in other parts of Newport as well. By 1874, the city had two lighthouses to guide fishing boats into the increasingly busy harbor. Today, both are open year-round to visitors. The smaller of the two is the historic wooden lighthouse in Yaquina Bay State Park, built in 1871. The
park is just northwest of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. At the north end of Newport is the iconic Yaquina Head Lighthouse, the tallest on the Oregon Coast. You'll find an excellent interpretive center here as well. Located on a headland, the grounds of the lighthouse have been designated an Outstanding Natural Area with two sets of tide pools to explore. Within just a few miles of the headland, the wide-open expanse of Beverly Beach to the north and Agate Beach to the south offer stunning views of the light that's been protecting Newport's fleet for 134 years.
John Nye's namesake beach (he put a claim on 160 acres there in 1866) has become a popular destination for visitors. A small tourist community with multiple hotels and lodging houses dotting the cliffs and beach since the 1880s, Nye Beach began to boom in the 1890s when settlers built a boardwalk that linked their small shops and cozy restaurants to the bustling Bayfront. That boardwalk is gone now, but the funky charm of Nye Beach remains. Whether it's grabbing the requisite bowl of chowder, or an atypical bowl of bread pudding, at the Chowder Bowl, or stopping in at Cafe Stephanie for coffee and breakfast with the locals, there are plenty of places to satisfy your appetite. And whether your tastes extend to the natural fiber clothing at Toujours, beads at Nye Cottage Beads, arts and crafts at Paper Falcon, tea at The Tea Party, or wine tasting at the Nye Beach Gallery, the shops here are like nowhere else in town. Nye Beach is also known for the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel, where the rooms are styled after famous authors and guests share conversation while enjoying family-style dinners.
There's a reason why the shrimp in Nye Beach tastes so fresh and the halibut goes so wonderfully with the chips: it probably came from the docks at the other end of that long-forgotten boardwalk. Newport native Kaety Hildenbrand is involved in those docks in numerous ways. Daughter of a salmon fisherman and a faculty member with Oregon State University's Oregon Sea Grant Extension Program, she hopes visitors understand the difference between Newport and the theme park-esque places some of America's coastal towns have become. "There are real fishermen, and it's a real working waterfront," she says. "Yes, sometimes it's a hindrance and sometimes people complain about the smell. But when you're here it’s a real fishing community."
She hopes people visiting Newport realize those fishing boats carry real people, and that every year an average of one or two fishermen from Newport lose their lives at sea. It's their names that line the concrete memorial walk at the east end of Bay Boulevard, including the crew of the F/V Nesika that capsized and lost its crew of four in 2001. "That was our last whole boat that we lost," Hildenbrand says, before rapping her knuckles on the wooden table.
Newport's relationship to the ocean has other facets as well. OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, just south of the bridge off Hwy 101, is a hotbed for marine science and research, drawing distinguished scientists from all over the country. Hatfield also has a great visitor center with many exhibits and a terrific bookstore. Kids and grownups alike enjoy watching aquarists feed the wolf eel and resident octopus.
One of the city's proudest accomplishments is the Newport Performing Arts Center. Open since 1988, the 23,000-square-foot facility just south of Nye Beach holds two theaters and hosts productions year-round, from Broadway plays to dance performances and film festivals. It is also the venue for Newport’s Loyalty Days Pageant in May.
Even though the completion of the Roosevelt Military Highway, today's Highway 101, in the 1920s meant there were often more cars in town than boats, the city's heritage is never far away.
There are other fishing towns on the Oregon Coast to be sure. But imperiled salmon runs and groundfish populations have decimated the fishing fleets along the South Coast. Even in flourishing Astoria to the north, fishing-related jobs now account for less than five percent of the work force, versus 75 percent in service and retail jobs. In Newport's Lincoln County, however, fishing still produces more personal income than tourism: $95.4 million vs. $89.9 million in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available.
Newport is also well known for its recreational boating opportunities on the Bayfront, from sport fishing charters to a unique home-grown cruise offered by Don and Fran Mathews, owners of Marine Discovery Tours. Don and Fran, a retired Bering Sea-to-San Francisco crabber and a marine journalist, have carved a diverse niche on the coast with their Sea Life Cruise.
Their guests, ranging from busloads of students to global travelers, especially love the hands-on elements of their Newport experience, including navigation lessons and pulling crab pots full of Dungeness crab. Onboard storytelling, delivered by a naturalist, reflects the beauty and significance of this vital part of the community.
The Mathews added a second boat, the Oregon Rocket, to their docks in 2000. This aquatic adventure is aboard the same style of craft used by the Coast Guard for search and rescue. "It's a combination of searching for sea life and scenery at top speeds of 40 mph," says Captain Don.
Off the water, the Bayfront thrives with a feeling of history as well, although it's more the 1960s instead of a century earlier. Many of its attractions are a throwback from a simpler time, including Ripley's Believe It Or Not, with oddities from around the world, and The Wax Works, where you can enjoy wax sculptures of personalities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to hobbits and gangsters. At The Undersea Gardens, attend a show in the underwater theater, complete with live divers and a variety of underwater creatures. Down the street you can still hop a fishing charter or drop a float and trap in the water and bring in your own crab. Maybe your catch is a float itself; nearly a half-dozen different art galleries offer glass and other types of art. There are also dozens of other shops and restaurants offering paintings and pizza, bronzes and microbrews.
And of course there's Mo's, perhaps the most famous landmark in a town that plays simultaneous host to forklifts and forks lifted. Begun as a 24-hour cafe for fishermen in 1946, it's grown into a small chain of nationally recognized restaurants along the Oregon Coast. But if that small cafe has changed, the local mentality that created it has not. Jolee Becker knows that as well as anyone. It was her grandfather that partnered with Mo Niemi to open the cafe. As a child, she and her father would go out to Oregon Oyster Farms up Yaquina Bay. Later, she worked the lines, pulling oysters from the bay. "We were all about fish, which was good."
Graduating from Newport High School in 1997, Becker left Newport to go to school in California and then for a job in Chile. But four years ago she came home and rejoined the family business. She's pleased Newport remains true to itself. "Even if you go down to the Bayfront where most of the tourists are, you see more fishermen than you do tourists, except for maybe one month out of the year." And that's just the way she likes it. "Growing up, it was always, 'the stinky Bayfront,' " she remembers her friends saying, never appreciating the story that was wrapped up in those smells. Because more than just the smell of fish and forklift engines, there was and is something else: a town whose history and culture is very much alive.
When You Go
Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce (800-262-7844; 541-265-8801; www.discovernewport.com)
Aquarium Village - Gift, antique, and specialty shops, from live glass-blowing and swords to an antique mall and yarn shop. (www.aquariumvillage.net)
Pirate's Plunder - Antiques and collectibles. (541-867-6000)
Pyromania - Glass gallery and studio. (541-867-4650)
Toujours Boutique - Natural fiber clothing.(541-574-6404)
Canyon Way Bookstore and Restaurant (541-265-8319)
Sandcastle Toys (541-574-1901)
Nye Beach Merchants - Pedestrian-friendly shopping, from urban chic
to Native American treasures. (www.nyebeach.org)
Lincoln County Historical Museum - Log cabin museum is part of the History Center and focuses on the history of pioneering, the local Siletz tribe, and logging and fishing industries. (541-265-7509;
Burrows House Museum - Built in 1895 and also part of the History Center; features period rooms of the Victorian era. (541-265-7509)
Yaquina Bay Lighthouse - Dates from 1871, fully restored, now has a historical museum and gift shop. (541-265-5679)
THEATRE AND GALLERYS
Newport Performing Arts Center (541-265-2787)
Forinash Gallery - Fine art photography. (541-265-8483)
The Wood Gallery - Art-work from more than 450 artists. (541-265-6843)
Breach the Moon - Art and jewelry. (541-265-9698)
Marine Discovery Tours - Bay and ocean tours on the 65-foot Discovery with a naturalist onboard. In the summer, ride in the Oregon Rocket for scenery, sea life, and speed. (800-903-BOAT; marinediscovery.com)
Oregon Coast Sailing Company - Ocean and bay cruises on a 40-foot sailboat with Captain Robert Carman. (541-547-4016; www.oregoncoastsailingcompany.com
April's at Nye Beach - Fresh Northwest cuisine; extensive wine list. (541-265-6855)
Brewers on the Bay (Rogue Ales)—Overlooks the Yaquina Bay Marina; pub food. (541-867-3664; www.rogue.com)
Local Ocean Seafood - Fish market and grill; chefs prepare seafood dishes in a central open kitchen. (541-574-7959; www.localocean.net)
Mo's Restaurant & Annex -
Famous for delicious chowder since 1944. (541-265-7512; www.moschowder.com)
Rogue Ales Public House (541-265-3188)
Tables of Content - Dinners served family style in oceanfront dining room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. (541-265-5428; www.sylviabeachhotel.com)
Panache - Located next to the Performing Arts Center; features local organic produce, wild fish, and hormone-free meats. (541-265-2929; www.panachenewport.com)
Saffron Salmon - Upscale on the Bayfront. (541-265-8921)
Quimby's - Fresh Northwest cuisine in a casually elegant setting. (541-265-9919; www.quimbysrestaurant.com)
Shirley's on D Bay - Hearty portions, lots of seafood, popular with locals and tourists. (541-574-8400)
Champagne Patio Restaurant & Wine Shop - Tucked away in Sea Towne shopping center, great food and wine. (541-265-3044)
Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center (541-867-0100; www.hmsc.oregonstate.edu)
Oregon Coast Aquarium (541-867-3474; www.aquarium.org)
Undersea Gardens (541-265-2206; www.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not (541-265-2206; www.marinersquare.com)
The Wax Works (541-2652206; www.marinersquare.com)
Yaquina Head Lighthouse/Outstanding Natural Area and Interpretive Center, Oregon’s tallest lighthouse at 93 feet, dating from 1872. Tide pools, whales, seabirds, and more. (800-262-7844; www.blm.gov)
Newport Marina Store and Charters (877-867-4470; www.nmscharters.com )
Newport Tradewinds (800-676-7819; www.newporttradewinds.com)
Captain’s Reel Deep Sea Fishing (800-865-7441; www.captainsreel.com)
Oregon Coast November/December 2007