I remember going to Shore Acres State Park as a child. It wasn’t to visit the beach, walk in the sand and bravely stick our toes in the bracing Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t for a hike. It wasn’t even on a sunny day. It was when wind rattled the roof and driving rain swept across our little sister towns nestled in the curve of Coos Bay. The storm meant, not far away, on a cliff at the sea’s edge, something exciting would be taking place.
Winter storms always meant wave watching. Wind lashed us, driving salty spray against are frozen noses and cheeks. We sheltered in the nook of a tree, which afforded little respite from the dull steel skies. The ocean stewed gray and mighty at the base of the cliff below. Wind drove the waves against the rocks, again and again with no way of retreat. The swells piled one on top of another until they broke in furious booms. The fuming water burst skyward, exploding as high as a building, before collapsing back on itself to build again.
This is summer though. There are no waves. There is no wind today. There is nothing to remind me of winter except a thin veil of fog on the horizon. In fact, it is an unusually calm day. The sea is flat and placid. Ocean kayakers take advantage. Twist and stroke, twist and stroke, they paddle in the coves and caves along the bluffs. The tidepools chewed into the black stone are a deep azure blue. Log-like harbor seals have hauled themselves up on the rocks, yawning, their clamor subdued by the warm sun. Among them are this year’s fuzzy, aging pups. A group of tourists enthusiastically cheer on a gray whale, as a the giant passes oblivious to its accolades back into the depths.
The cliff rocks at Shore Acres State Park
I wonder (minus the kayakers and tourists) if this is a sight like Louis J. Simpson saw when he first chanced upon the property while scouting for timber in 1905. Sandstone carved into sculptural nubs by wave upon wave of saltwater. Trees stunted and turned by the wind. The juxtaposition of the verdant green forests of the southern Oregon coast, sheered by the jagged, tilted cliffs into the deep blue of the ocean. Shore Acres is a majestic place. Its features shaped by centuries of ocean and the wind. The park attracts thousands of tourists every year. Simpson envisioned a beautiful country estate, but little endures of his efforts to tame these wild bluffs between Gregory Point and Cape Arago.
Simpson purchased the 320-acre plot of land for $4,000 and immediately began clearing it. The property was a gift to his wife, Cassie Hendricks, a Christmas present. In 1906, construction of the estate’s first home began. The home was initially meant to be a summer retreat, but Simpson “spared no expense” in its development.
The house was built abutting the bluffs. The three-story mansion had a steep-sloping gambrel roof which reached to the windows of the first story. Dormer windows set into the roof stretched across the front and back, allowing visitors to look out over the ocean. A pillared veranda ran along the rear of the house, where guests could relax in wicker furniture. Simpson eventually added an additional wing to the main building, which included an indoor swimming pool, a Roman bath room, a palm room and a ballroom.
Inside the doors of the pillared porch, the entry hall was paneled with Oregon myrtlewood. Tiffany glass lamps, oak and myrtlewood furniture, Persian rugs, ornate wallpaper and glass-paneled bookcases showcased the house’s heavy Edwardian interiors. Simpson imported stone for the main fireplace and commissioned lamps to be specially created for the primary rooms of the house. Bedrooms inhabited the upper floors and the north-end of the mansion held the kitchens. An electrical plant on the property generated electricity for the house.
Simpson, the son of a lumber and shipbuilding magnate, was wealthy. He devoted much of his life to developing the town of North Bend and several surrounding communities, both for business and recreation. In the summer of 1913, Simpson also opened the Sunset Bay Inn, a few miles north of Shore Acres. This is the current site of Sunset Bay State Park. Although it no longer exists, the inn incorporated similar architectural elements to the Shore Acres mansion.
The road to the mansion was passable by carriage and cars. It ran 13 miles from Coos Bay, past Sunset Bay, through forests of Douglas fir and pine. Fern, salal, salmonberry and huckleberry grew thick in the underbrush around moss covered logs and babbling creeks. Visitors passed the cement posts of the main gates before entering the circular gravel drive, flanked by hedges and palms. A large mowed meadow stood across from the house. The stables and carriage house were on the north-end of the mansion. Beyond them, a path led along the cliffs to the tennis courts. The gate posts still are visible along the park’s Carriage Path.
Blanket flower along the path to the tennis courts
To the south of the mansion Simpson tasked Donald James with developing formal gardens for the estate. James worked as head gardener from 1914-1921. He was replaced by Mike Bastendorff, who continued in the position until 1933. The gardens are the one physical part of Simpson’s legacy to endure. The gardener’s cottage is the only remaining original building at Shore Acres. One also can still see the lily pad-covered pond of the Japanese-style garden at the far end of the park. Two bronze herons hold stationary poses in its murky waters, their reflections iconic to the park. The gravel paths have been replaced by cement. The beds are different in their geometric placement. But, an assortment of dahlias, roses and exotic ornamentals bordered by carefully manicured hedges remain true to the gardeners’ original designs.
The Information Center at the garden’s entrance
A short trail connected the gardens with the Simpson’s private beach. First Creek drains down the cliff into the ocean at the small cove. Beyond the beach, Simpson cleared another 200 acres, which held a dairy and coops for the estate’s Rhode Island Red chickens. The farms provided food for the family and staff.
Cassie Simpson died in 1920. The following year, a devastating fire claimed the mansion. Tens of thousands of dollars in possessions and Simpson family art was destroyed in the blaze. While no life was lost, the home was a complete loss. Simpson was forced to move into the one of the staff homes in the gardens.
Simpson and his second wife, Lela, began construction of a new mansion on the estate in 1927. Contractor John Granstrom and architect Fred Magnusson were hired to do the work. This house was simpler than its predecessor, with a weathered-shingle exterior and white trim work. There were 17 principal rooms, with the bedrooms on the second floor, each with a private bath. An arched doorway drew visitors to the main entrance, as two long wings extended from the central hall. The lumber for the house was salvaged from the Brush, which wrecked on Simpson Reef near the property.
But, this home was not to be either. Simpson’s fortune was waning. Lavish living and a failed bid at Oregon governorship was taking its toll. In 1932, Simpson sold a 134-acre parcel of land to the state. This would become Cape Arago State Park. In 1936, forest fires from Bandon made their way to the southern portion of the estate, destroying the dairy barns, cookhouse, chicken coops and farmer’s cottage. As the fires approached the gardens, the family was forced to flee to the city. The house survived the fires, but upkeep became increasingly difficult.
In 1941, with the onset of the United States’ involvement in World War II, the Army closed the road south of the Cape Arago lighthouse. The house was isolated. The following year, Simpson sold the remaining 637 acres of Shore Acres to the state for $29,000. During the war, the army used the property for barracks and an officer’s club. When the war finally ended, the State Highway Commission began developing Shore Acres as a park. The Commission deemed the house too costly to renovate. It was razed in 1948.
On Jan. 17, 1949, Simpson died at his Barview cottage.
A view to the north from the cliffs at Shore Acres State Park
Additions to the park were acquired in 1956 and 1980. Restoration to the gardens and updates to visitor infrastructure began in 1970. The park is currently operated by the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department. In 2003, the Friends of Shore Acres replaced the existing information center at the garden’s entrance to one reminiscent of the first mansion’s architectural style. The high roofline and white pillars give visitors a taste of what the Simpson’s mansion would have looked like.
The wisteria-covered pergolas along the flowered paths of the gardens are long gone. Firs and pine have grown up or come down. The cement squares that mark the old tennis courts are being growing over with grass and slipping closer to the cliff edge where the waves break. A small, circular observation building marks the spot where the magnificent mansion once stood. But one thing endures. The view that Simpson saw on that day in 1905. A rugged panorama of the Pacific coastline.
It is easy to imagine a life here. Sun sifting softly through a lace umbrella. Feet crunching in the gravel garden paths, as bees buzz, hungry in the pink blooms of climbing roses. The laughter of children, crisp in white cotton, as they tug at skirt hems, eager to hurry on. Eager to rush down to the small beach and frolic in the cool waves, push their fingers into the coarse sand and mound up sandcastles.
To picture, the sweep of round headlights across the mansion’s hedges and white trim. The glow of lights in the window, beckoning party-goers in the night on this lonely jut of coastline. The swish of loose, beaded dresses, clink of champagne glasses and the gay laughter of revelers. Stepping out onto the veranda into the brisk evening air. In the darkness below the dancers’ feet, the ocean beating in its deep bass voice like a slow drum.
It is unfortunate that no relic of the mansion could be preserved. But, perhaps, Simpson’s misfortune were something else. A curse, a sign, a covenant of the earth. This was not a place that a man could own, much less tame, no matter how much money he invested. This is a place where the wind and sea come to meet. Proof, that Shore Acres belongs to no one but them.
Shore Acres State Park is open 8 a.m. to dusk. Friends of Shore Acres maintains an information center and gift shop at the garden’s entrance. A daily parking fee of $5 is required to park inside the entrance gates. The Oregon Pacific Coast Passport or any Oregon campground receipt also is accepted as a permit. There are several small parking areas along Cape Arago Highway if visitors wish to walk in. The Sunset Bay to Cape Arago Trail also will take you on a meandering hike into the park, with stunning views along the way. Be forewarned, unless they are service animals, dogs are not permitted outside of vehicles.
Tip: Visit the park from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and you will be in for a treat. The Friends and OPRD put on an extravagant, ever-growing Holiday light display in the formal gardens.
Read more: Find more information about the Simpson family and Shore Acres in Stephen Dow Beckham’s book, The Simpsons of Shore Acres.