The tender, golden-shelled razor clam that grows in abundance on our coast has long been a source of local pride and a renewable resource that draws thousands of hunters to our sandy beaches every year. It was the pioneering newcomers in the late-1800s that saw the economic value in the humble bivalve — long a succulent staple among the native population — who developed methods for distributing the tasty treat worldwide. In celebration of the last digs of the season, here is a chowder of clam tales and methods used to acquire and distribute the sweetest shellfish in the world.
The first local attempt at clam canning occurred in 1896 and reported on in the Aberdeen Herald. Robert Forbes put up a few dozen cans “as soon as dug out of the sand they have all of the freshness that makes them so palatable to the visitor at the beach. If anybody can find a market for them, Mr. Forbes can, and should he be successful in this he expects to engage extensively in the business.” Canneries soon opened in Copalis, Moclips, Westport, Hoquiam and Aberdeen.
In 1905, Guy Halferty opened the Sea Beach Packing Company at the foot of G Street in Aberdeen and quickly became the leader in razor clam processing. Five years later, Halferty launched a “novel” restaurant in Seattle which the Aberdeen World described as “purely for the distribution of the Grays Harbor nectar of clams and the clam itself. Mr. Halferty has so far made the enterprise pay and thinks that eventually his efforts will be crowned with large financial success. It is Mr. Halferty’s intention to establish these clam restaurants in Tacoma, Portland, Spokane, San Francisco, and possibly in Chicago and New York and even in London, Berlin and Paris. Mr. Halferty’s idea is to make these restaurants advertise Grays Harbor.” How successful he was in Europe is unknown, but he did succeed in getting Grays Harbor razor clams into bellies across America.
In 1913, the Sea Beach Packing Company placed full-page ads for minced sea clams in national publications. Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Women’s Home Companion, The Delineator, and Pictorial Review were all used to spread the word with “astonishing” results. To further advance the market for the local product, P.S. Guilford, who owned a clam cannery in Westport, began a campaign “aimed at teaching cooks throughout the country to the toothsomeness of the canned razor clam. He expects to start with the Willamette Valley and if successful there to extend the campaign southward and as far eastward as Chicago. He reports that razor clams canned on Gray Harbor are being well received wherever introduced.”
By the mid-1920s, Grays Harbor razor clams were shipped to the four corners of the world. To fill the huge demand, canneries employed hundreds of professional diggers to supply the firms with 15 tons every day; a superior shoveler could bring in 300 pounds on a good minus tide. Some of the most expert clamsmen dug in the breakers where the water was anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet deep. How they could see the clam “shows” in the foamy waters remained a mystery to the amateur excavator.
The popularity of sport digging was described in a story in the Aberdeen World in March 1928 illustrating how the hobby can be enjoyed by all members of the family:
If one should ask, “What is the most popular occupation for the entire family?” someone would probably answer, “clam digging.” The answer seems not without plenty of reason for all one has to do is to inspect anywhere from a mile to 15 miles of this beach extending south, and plenty of families will be found at low tide worrying themselves and sometimes their neighbor diggers, in search for clams. These “antics” oftimes are the direct cause of a poor dig in the immediate vicinity, for the clams easily take fright and go downward, not to appear again until another day.
However when everything is working right, one sees “Pa, Ma, and little Cuthbert and Sister Jane” all working industriously to head the bivalves indirectly toward the cannery. Pa, with or without boots, goes far out into the surf, pecks around with the butt of his clam shovel, stirs up the clams, shoves the blade down again, and as he flips the clams out, Ma is there to pick them up and if she has a shovel, she oftimes gives Pa a race, which puts Cuthbert and Sister Jane to work gathering the clams up and putting them in the buckets or taking them to the boxes.
It may seem strange, but one sees men and women, lots of them, surf digging without boots of any kind and without taking off their shoes. Occasionally, a person appears in knee boots. Such a one either gets a boot full of water in short time or takes the boots off and goes barefooted. The water seems cold enough to the hands, so it must be icy to the lower extremities.
Judging from all that one sees on the beach in clam season, clam digging is not only a favorite occupation, but it is a popular sport.
To wrap this all up, a story from the Aberdeen Herald in 1897 described a unique way to dig for clams using the paddle-steamer Montesano which would make today’s conservationists cringe. “When the steamer goes to the Humptulips after a raft of logs it usually anchors over night on the mud flats, and when the tide has gone out to the proper depth and the boat settled firmly on the mud the cook gets the engineer to start the engine slowly and the moving wheel washes the clams out by the bushel.” That’s certainly one way to bag a limit.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants who woke him early on many a cold morning to take advantage of a good minus tide. On a side note, he has never met anyone named Cuthbert.