Razor Clam Festival History

The harvesting of razor clams has been a long-standing tradition on the Long Beach Peninsula for many decades and has been the draw for many visitors to come west and explore the area while collecting their bounty of Pacific Razor Clams. It should be no surprise the Long Beach Razor Clam Festival has a long history.

In 1940, Wellington Marsh, Sr., and the people of Long Beach organized the first of many Clam Festivals. Thousands of visitors came out to the beach, dug their clams, enjoyed the delicious clam chowder, and sampled the “World’s Largest Clam Fritter” that was made in the “World’s Largest Frying Pan.’” In 1940, the pan used was on loan from the city of Chehalis, with Long Beach commissioning the construction of its own pan the following year.

The fritter was constructed using 200 pounds of razor clams, 20 dozen eggs, 20 pounds each of flour, cracker meal, and corn meal, 10 gallons of milk, and 13 gallons of salad oil. Ralph Smith, and numerous other locals, would dig the clams and donate them to the Festival. Earl Coughman, of Coughman’s Bakery, and Red O’Connell of the Siberian Café (commonly known as Red’s Sandwich Shop), and Wellington W. Marsh, founder of Marsh’s Free Museum (home of Jake the Alligator Man), were among those that volunteered to cook the feast.

The stories hold that a couple of girls helped grease the pan by “skating on large slabs of butter” across the surface of the pan. The cooks even used garden hoes and two-foot-square shovels to maneuver the fritter in the pan. The original location of the Festival with the frying pan feast took place on 3rd Street North and Pacific, across from the Dennis Company and next to the Redman Hall. Years later they moved the event to 3rd St. South between the Long Beach Tavern and the Long Beach Pavilion, which in those days was referred to as “Whiskey Alley.”

The following year a new frying pan was unveiled; this time Long Beach would have their very own frying pan to boast as the “World’s Largest.” This was made possible through the Chamber of Commerce and was manufactured by Northwest Copper and Sheet Metal Works of Portland. The Pan, from base to handle, measured in at a whopping 14.6 feet long. The original “Worlds Largest Frying Pan” was used from 1941-1948 and still can be seen in downtown Long Beach, right next to the giant Squirting Razor Clam wooden sculpture at 5th Street South and Pacific.

In April of 1948, to promote the Razor Clam Festival, the Long Beach Chamber sponsored a tour across the state of Washington and into Oregon. The World’s Largest Frying Pan was towed behind the Peninsula Dairy truck, becoming known as the Clam Bed Express, and was driven by local, Herb Johanson. The tour actually had live razor clams in tow – the group rested live clams in a sand bed made in the bed of the dairy truck and brought along seawater to keep the bivalves alive.

The tour also had its Bathing Clam Beauty swim suit models, Frances (Winn) O’Neil and Cis (Swanson) Bittner. The most interesting sight was that of the Bathing Clam Beauties in their clamshell swim suits, made by Claudia Wilson. Many locals joined in the thirty-car caravan as well, including Bert, Red & Smokie O’Connell, Jack Smith, Art Strand, Marion Jacobson and Claudia Wilson. Half a dozen of the cars even had wooden clam sculptures strapped to the tops of their roofs. The troop made stops in South Bend, Raymond, Olympia, Seattle, Yakima, Spokane, Lewiston, Idaho, and went down into Oregon to Pendleton and back west making stops in both Portland and Longview before making the trek back home. During its tour through the Emerald City, the Seattle Police Department provided the clam entourage with its very own motorcade escort.

The Festival’s final year was in 1948, believed to have been due to the decline of the Razor Clam population. Beaches had been exploited and clam numbers had dwindled. The Washington State Director of Fisheries warned that the coastal Razor Clam populations could not withstand the current level of harvest. It had been estimated that in 1946, that clam diggers had taken six million pounds of clams from the beaches of Copalis, Grayland, and Long Beach. Another point of speculation in the event’s demise includes the financial reality that the festival brought in many tourists without gaining any revenue from participation fees, making it expensive to produce. Adding salt to the wound, visitors were fed well enough from the giant fritter, chowder, and fried clams that they did not seek meals from local restaurants. It wasn’t a sustainable business model, despite an overwhelming success at bringing visitors to the area.

It wasn’t until the city’s Main Street Dedication in 1994 that city leaders looked into using giant clam pan again. Sadly, they found out that the bottom had almost completely rusted out. The City of Long Beach made the decision to restore the pan, repairing it with fiberglass rendering the pan unusable for cooking in the future. It then commissioned a welding company in Astoria to construct a new aluminum pan. This pan was inaugurated, cooking a giant fritter, at the Main Street Dedication in 1994. It was then placed in Fish Alley downtown, and was used as a small stage. In 2014, the second year of the Annual Long Beach Razor Clam Festival’s revival, the pan was refurbished and is still used for the giant fritter cook-off done by students.

Contributing Sources: Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, Cowlitz County Historical Society, Washington State Historical Society, Chinook Observer, First-hand accounts from Frances (Winn) O’Neil, David Glasson and Randy Dennis.