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At one time it was a southern terminus of a narrow-gauge railroad which extended north to Nahcotta. The town was named for El-wa-co Jim, a Indian, who married a daughter of Chief Comcomly of the Chinook people.

Captain James Johnson visited the harbor in 1848, took up a donation claim and built a house, but left shortly afterward. Actual settlement was begun by Henry Feister in 1851, when he opened an ox-team transportation system for hauling supplies to settlers on Shoalwater Bay (Willapa Harbor).

By the late 1860s the town was a stopping point on the expanding stagecoach and ferry route between Astoria, Oregon, and the Puget Sound country. Stagecoaches were displaced in 1889 by a narrow-gauge railroad, variously called the Ilwaco and Shoalwater Bay Railroad and the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company. The road came under the control of the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company in 1889 and served the North Peninsula until abandoned in 1930.

Connecting with a ferry to Astoria, trains ran on a schedule that varied with the tides—it was only certain that no train would appear at the same hour two days in succession. Along the brief main thoroughfare, the trackage of the old railroad may still be seen.

Tall headlands on the west protect Ilwaco from blasts that seasonally rake the Pacific. The harbor, a haven for fishing vessels, has several salmon canneries; most of these have been closed since 1935.


Pre-1941 image of Ilwaco Railroad Terminal, on dock.

Source: State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives

Ca. 1939 view of Ilwaco.

Source: Washington State Archives

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company & Nahcotta

The 1889 Pullman passenger coach known as Nahcotta of the Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Company is historically significant for its direct connection to the broad patterns of growth and development of the Long Beach Peninsula. The coach is also significant for embodying the distinctive characteristics of its type, and period of construction. The car, a narrow gage passenger coach, is a rare property type and is significant at the national level. Approximately 20 passenger coaches survive from the early years of the Pullman Co. of Chicago. Of the coaches that have survived, the Nahcotta retains an extremely high level of integrity, offering a window into the early construction methods and finishes of wooden framed railroad cars. The period of significance for the Nahcotta begin in 1889, the date of construction, and ends in 1930, the year the line on which the Nahcotta ran was decommissioned. The coach represents the most common style of passenger car being built at that time at the Pullman Chicago works.

Colbert House

The Fred Colbert House – the oldest portion of which dates from the 1870’s – is representative of vernacular architecture at its best. The house is located in Ilwaco; a coastal fishing village in southwestern Washington. Its history and design reflect the role which it played in the area’s early salmon fishing industry. Prior to their marriage in 1870, Fred Colbert and Catherine Petit had both settled in western Washington in the 1860’s. Colbert was to become one of the first trap fishermen on the lower Columbia. While helping to establish and expand the fish-trapping industry on Baker Bay, he was drawn into the bitter “salmon wars” of the 1880’s between gillnetters and trappers. The Colbert House has undergone remarkably little change since it was occupied by the young, active family.