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When Marshfield and Empire Became Coos Bay: Votes That Changed S. Oregon Coast History

Published 12/08/22 at 5:45 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

When Marshfield and Empire Became Coos Bay: Votes That Changed S. Oregon Coast History

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(Coos Bay, Oregon) – What's in a name in Coos Bay, on the south Oregon coast? Well, that's a bulging story for that area, to be sure. A few twists and turns later, plus nearly a century, and you have this still-emerging hotspot. (Coos Bay-area photo copyright Manuela Durson, used by strict permission to Oregon Coast Beach Connection only - see Manuela Durson Fine Arts for more)

The quaint little town, once actually known as one of the biggest in Oregon, started out under the name Marshfield – as well as Empire (or Empire City). It's really two towns that became one, and with North Bend almost becoming a part as well. The area's long history of votes, studies and big personalities makes for quite a trip.

Thanks must be given to the Coos History Museum, its Steven Greif and curator Heather Christenbury for quite a bit of this information, while another chunk came from numerous articles over the last century from various papers.

When Marshfield and Empire Became Coos Bay: Votes That Changed S. Oregon Coast History
Marshfield long ago, historical photo courtesy Coos History Museum

A short while after European settlers started taking over, in the 1850s, a man named J.C. Tolman named one of the first settlements Marshfield, after his birthplace in Massachusetts. The very first was Empire City in 1853. 1874 was the year Marshfield incorporated, officially becoming a town. In 1903, Louis Simpson (yes, the guy whose name is all over that mansion at Shore Acres) founded North Bend.

Each frontier town grew relatively quickly, with timber, fishing and shipping causing the bay known as Coos Bay to become a center of commerce.

In 1905, the idea first came up in the Coos Bay Harbor newspaper, suggesting Coos Bay for a name of a new town that would bring together all three. The idea came up again in 1906, and by 1911 Marshfield voters were asked to decide, defeating that 563 to 160 (according to Richard Wagner's book about the city of North Bend called The Uncommon Life of Louis Jerome Simpson, provided by the Coos History Museum).

Still, all three were rather disconnected from each other and the rest of the Oregon coast until 1916, when the railroads began running into town. Then, a real tourism “boom” started to happen. It was then that some fairly serious growth began there.

Yet that was nothing compared to the economic and population explosions that began in the '30s as new roads, Highway 101 and cars spurred some major action. By 1935, this brought interest in consolidating Marshfield and North Bend, proponents which included Marshfield mayor Charles H. Huggins and Oregon governor Charles Martin. The governor asked other state authorities to create a study looking into this.

Meanwhile, in '35, North Bend's city council turned the idea down. The idea couldn't be voted on because state law said the towns had to be connected – or contiguous. There was still a break between them of land with no town affiliations.

In '41, writes Wagner, the state passed a law enabling this, seemingly tailored to the Coos Bay situation (remember the governor had created that study). 1943 saw a petition to put the matter to vote, and Mayor Ryan of North Bend was actually compelled by law to do so.

After more studies and a long stretch of finding representatives for each little area, including that non-municipality between Marshfield and North Bend, November 16 brought the vote. Some 450 new Oregon coast voters registered to chime in.

In North Bend the idea was slaughtered by 1079 against and 186 for. Marshfield was 775 for and 146 against. That “no man's land” between was 11 in favor and 12 against.

The next time, North Bend was left out of the proposal, and then on November 7, 1944, Marshfield voted to change its name to Coos Bay by a margin of 106 votes.

Or? Oops.

North Bend in the '40s, courtesy Coos History Museum

On December 12 of 1944, the Marshfield city council yielded to a large group of angry locals who wound up with over 200 signatures on a petition to halt the change to Coos Bay. They cited long distance telephone operators around the country didn't acknowledge a “Coos Bay” system, tons of train tickets and other paperwork with the old name were wasted, and half the population were getting mail under one town name and the other half under another.

So on December 28, yet another vote was held and Coos Bay won again by 684 to 583.

The issue was finally put to rest and Coos Bay was born. Yet that city was still hungry.

Coos Bay's The Hollering Place, still a part of what's known as the Empire district

Some 20 years later, the idea to envelop Empire was born, possibly by a former mayor of Coos Bay. On January 8 of '65, Empire voted to merge with Coos Bay, by 1,329 to 181 for Coos Bay residents. Those in Empire were a bit closer: 463 to 387.

On February 8, the merger was official. Coos Bay started its slow path to south Oregon coast stardom.

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