I’ve been coming to the Oregon coast for decades now, and every time, I appreciate its timeless beauty.
Long before ships and mills were built near what is now The Mill Casino in Oregon, there was plenty of forest and sea. This corner of the continent near present-day Coos Bay, about 125 miles southwest of Eugene, was—and still is—particularly lovely. Rivers burbled clear and cold through the pines, offering fresh water filled with trout, while fat, marble-fleshed salmon patrolled the shoals to the west. Here among the gnarled cliffs and moody mountains lie the visceral ties between people and nature and the bonds that influence them both. In no other place is that more true than at Shore Acres State Park, one of three state parks near Coos Bay, where history and culture intertwine.
On my recent trip there, I drove past the crabbing docks and along the clam-rich sandbars of the coast, pushing past Sunset Bay State Park and its crescent of sand guarded by sea stacks where the tide pooling can be exceptional. Shore Acres came next, about two miles down the road, and I pulled in. If I continued on the road, I would have reached Cape Arago State Park, another two miles beyond, which has its own enticing features. But Shore Acres has always been my favorite.
Waves bashed the coast as a light wind curled off the Pacific. In the early 1900s, an entrepreneur named Louis J. Simpson came to this site and built a mansion, a marvel of turn-of-the-century living with a heated indoor swimming. Simpson’s father, Asa Meade Simpson, had grown wealthy harvesting California timber for a booming gold rush, and in 1857 Asa Simpson established a factory on Coos Bay—the only natural, deep water Pacific port between San Francisco and Seattle—to build the boats he needed to move the timber. Louis J. Simpson expanded on his father’s vision and founded a town, North Bend, which became the busiest shipyard on the entire west coast. The lavish mansion at Shore Acres served as Louis’s home.
Walking around the grounds, I got a sense of what living at Shore Acres must have been like back in Simpson’s day. The views are surely the same, including a sandstone shoreline so twisted by time, the rocks could be taffy. The air comes heavy with the scent of salt and wood and earth. The gardens Simpson built are among the park’s finest features—a five-acre paradise anchored by a lily pond and flanked by hundreds of dahlias, azaleas and rose bushes that bloom through September. Come Thanksgiving, the gardens transform into a dazzling holiday display with 300,000 lights strung around the grounds.
Hiking north along the shore toward Sunset Bay, watching the sun sink into the purple Pacific, I came across a patch of concrete that the earth had nearly reclaimed, not far from an observation area with interpretive signs. It took a moment for me to realize I was standing on the remains of Simpson’s seaside tennis court, where an errant serve would send the ball careening into the water below. It’s easy to imagine the baron and his fellows standing here sipping Pimms No. 1 in their leisurely whites as the sea breezes tousled their hair. I don’t know if they really did that, but I like to think that they did.
Fortunes come and fortunes go, and for Simpson the tide turned in 1921 when his wife died and, less than three months after her passing, a fire consumed the mansion. Simpson vowed to build an even bigger home—this one some 220 feet long—but the Great Depression hit him hard and the property fell into disrepair. Little by little, his empire dwindled. In 1942, Simpson sold Shore Acres to the state of Oregon, which turned it into a park. Only the gardens and this little patch of court remain.
Despite knowing of his hardships, I still imagine Simpson standing on his court that day with me, looking back, happily. He lived large, traveled far and entertained friends and family. Life wasn’t a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but an ocean of infinite what-ifs filled with risk and immense rewards.