Thank you to Inn at Cannon Beach for being the sponsor of this article.

Words By Emily Molina, Photos Courtesy of Debbie Nelson, Cannon Beach History Center & Museum, Robin Risley, and Donald Masterson.

Six decades ago, the ocean waves swelled and devastated parts of Oregon’s Cannon Beach. But that historic tsunami also inspired the people to create an imaginative and magical event — the annual Cannon Beach Sandcastle contest. This year marks the 60th anniversary, a tradition that has grown and stood the test of time and tides.

It all began thousands of miles away on Alaska’s southern coast near Prince William Sound on March 27, 1964, at 5:36 when the 9.2 magnitude earthquake known as ‘The Good Friday Earthquake’ — and largest on record in North America — shook Alaska. Enormous waves swept over the once-sleepy town of Cannon Beach and much of the West Coast a few short hours later.

The longtime locals remember the event like yesterday, and the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum has preserved several oral history accounts. Artist and longtime resident Bill Steidel is one of them. He and a group of friends were playing poker when they received a phone call warning of an impending tidal wave. At first, they didn’t believe it. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve heard such a claim. But after another phone call describing a 30-foot wave crashing over the tops of trees, the group rapidly dispersed to higher ground.

Debbie Nelson’s father, Jim Webb, was one of six poker players there that night. Debbie, a lifelong Cannon Beach resident, and Mrs. Sandcastle event organizer from 2012 to 2022, along with spouse and key event sponsor Coaster Construction, John Nelson, was four years old at the time. 

Debbie and John Nelson

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She recounts, “My dad came home and grabbed us all out of our beds that night,” she said. “I remember grabbing my teddy bear, which I still have, and being tossed into the station wagon.” 

The local police officer/slash fire chief (he had both jobs) drove up and down the narrow streets of Cannon Beach with a bullhorn to notify residents and visitors to “Evacuate to higher ground; a tidal wave was coming!” Everyone that could help did by knocking on the doors of homes and hotel rooms. “Back then, and for years after, there was no elaborate alarm system like there is today,” Nelson said.

The tsunami left its mark all up and down the coast. The Ecola Creek Bridge, a main thoroughfare, washed away along with many buildings on the north side of town left underwater or destroyed. Fortunately, no lives were lost in the vicinity of Cannon Beach that day.

1964 Tsunami Aftermath1964 Tsunami Aftermath #2Emily Molina's Article, Photo #3 Emily Molina Article, Photo #5Emily Molina's Article Photo #4Emily Molina's Article, Photo #6Longtime resident and Mrs. Sandcastle from 2008 to 2012, Robin Risley, serving alongside her partner, Mr. Sandcastle, Tommy Huntington before handing the torch on to the Nelsons, recounts a memory told to her by Steidel’s wife.

Debbie, John, Robin, and Tommy“The town was pretty devastated. You would come in through the north end and go over the bridge. The bridge, and all the homes along the way were wiped out,” Risley said. “Bill’s wife told me that one of the houses had left a teapot on the stove, and it was still there.”    

After the tsunami, the tourism industry felt the impact. As shocked townsfolk began to pick up the pieces, it was the determined spirit of three local women that would inspire the community for years to come.  

Margaret Atherton, her daughter Billie Grant, and Marion Crowell combined forces to unite community members of all ages. They decided to take advantage of the extremely low tides that followed the tsunami and create a special beach day. Their hope was to, not only bring townsfolk together, but also reinvigorate tourism.

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And there in the shadow of Haystack Rock, that’s just what they did. A few months later, the first Cannon Beach Sandcastle Contest took place with little to no advertising. Only four or five sandcastles were made and mostly residents were in attendance. 

It was Peter, Dorothy, and Tim Lindsey, along with Jim Babson, and Steve Sobotnik who would make history as the first Sandcastle Contest winners taking first place in the Sand Sculpture category.

Emily Molina Article, Photo #9In addition to building castles in the sand, something more was built that day, a much-loved tradition that would grow and prosper with the continued support and beating heart of the people who loved their town and wanted more people to come experience it.

By 1978, there were as many as 1,213 contestants and 275 separate sandy canvases awaiting imaginative creations, according to the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum. 

Historic Sandcastle Contest Photo from 1970'sHistoric Sandcastle Photo from 1970'sIn 1984, during Risley’s tenure as Mrs. Sandcastle, nationwide coverage on Good Morning America and a feature in National Geographic would boost the event’s popularity exponentially, welcoming as many as 35,000 spectators to the tiny seaside town.Robin and Tommy unveil Sandcastle PosterAt the 50-year mark in 2014, the contest was officially deemed an Oregon Heritage Tradition by the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department, one of only 26 events throughout the state to achieve such an honor.

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Since then, the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event has seen many iterations. Besides different categories for judging, there are various team entry divisions from the youngest ‘Sandfleas’ to the highest expert level ‘Masters.’

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Throughout the years, the prizes have grown, too. In the beginning, prizes were traditional brown paper lunch sacks filled with fun trinkets and saltwater taffy from Bruce’s Candy Kitchen. The introduction of prize medals and cash awards for higher levels came in the late 1970’s.  There was a one-time trophy received by James L Brooks, the grand prize winner in 1973, later donated to the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.

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What started as a one-day Sandcastle Contest also would transform into a weekend full of fun family activities, including a bonfire, and a 5K Fun Run & Walk.  

Marking the Plots 

The contest date, still determined by the tide schedule, is held every June on the Saturday with the lowest tide. Once the tide recedes that morning, volunteers mark the plots for each team using stakes and string.

Rumor has it that Steidel, who played a major role in the event for many years, had an innate sense of marking the perfectly straight 30-by-30 plots.

Later technology, in the form of a plotting wheel, was developed by Kris Frojen who spent many years marking and staking plots. By pushing the big wooden wheel in the sand, similar to a push lawnmower, things were a bit easier. Marks were made every three-feet where stakes were then placed.

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Sandcastle Culture 

Sandcastle Contest posters have been and remain a popular part of the competition’s culture. The first was created as early as 1966 when Billie Grant made a quick drawing that was shared with news stations in Portland. Henceforward, it was a much-loved art form to advertise the event.

In 1967, artist Steidel created the first of many Sandcastle Contest poster designs, which are displayed at area businesses during the festivities. 

Over the course of the contest’s 60 years, a number of talented artists would have the honor, but Steidel, 95, holds the record for creating more than 17 posters, including several anniversary editions.

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You can find a collection of his imaginative works overseen by son, longtime Sandcastle supporter, and former Mayor, Sam Steidel at Steidel’s Art, 116 S Hemlock StCannon Beach.  

Soon, posters became popular souvenirs. In fact, avid collectors sign up to get the same numbered print each year. Some of the earliest posters, if you can find them, are valuable. 

The 2024 poster marking the contest’s 60th anniversary was designed by local artist Donald Masterson. Having designed the 2006, and 2022 posters, Masterson uses his own style to pay tribute to the work of Steidel.

Donny's Poster 2006 Steidel's Poster 2014 Steidel's Poster 2019Donny's Poster 2022Donny's Poster 2024

Sandcastle Parade 

In 1971, artist Frank Lackaff, who settled in the region in the 1960’s and opened the Sketch Pad Gallery at a gas station, and later, a home and gallery on Hemlock Street, started the tradition of a Sandcastle parade. The parade would kick off the festivities about a week before the contest. 

By 1974 it was taken over by Jay Schwehr, an active community member known as the Cannon Beach lamplighter, lighting and maintaining several oil lamps situated throughout town for more than 3 decades. The parade featured everything from bands to clowns and ponies, to costumed participants, vehicles, and a one-time musher, and dogsled team.   

Schwehr made an interesting addition to the festivities around 1974. Towed behind his small tractor in the guise of a train engine, were three miniature train cars. He would even give free rides to anyone that wanted to go to Haystack Rock and back.

Sandcastle Parade Train ThrowbackSandcastle Parade Train Throwback #2Later, it would morph into what became known as ‘the dragon.’ Schwehr transformed cardboard moving boxes into the body of a dragon that were worn by children in the parade. They were led on foot through town by artist Jay Watkins clad in a one-of-the kind dragon head designed by Steidel.

Parade Mascot

According to Cannon Beach History Museum accounts, the dragon had a fiery finale when the local fire department used Watkins’ garage, where it was stored, in a practice demonstration.

The parade, which was scaled down by the 1980’s and 1990’s, was eventually integrated into the Fourth of July Parade.  

For the past decade, the Sandcastle Contest has had a float in Portland’s Rose Festival Starlight Parade. The early June event gets everyone excited about the upcoming festivities happening in Cannon Beach a few short weeks later.

Starlight Parade Photo Throwback

This year is no different, with a showstopping float design undertaken by Donald Masterson in celebration of the 60th Anniversary.

As one of the longest-running events of its kind in Oregon still today, it’s no surprise as to why the words sandcastles and Cannon Beach will forever remain synonymous.

This year, the contest, often referred to simply as “Sandcastle” by the locals, will be held on June 15th -- See you at Sandcastle 2024!