Without much sun or surf, what could possibly draw enough visitors to the town of Tillamook (pop. 4,500) to make it one of Oregon’s top three tourism attractions?
Superficially speaking, tours of a cheese factory and a World War II blimp hangar, in a town flanked by mudflats and rain-soaked dairy country, shouldn’t pull in more than a million tourists per year. But they do. And after a drive down U.S. 101 or along the scenic Three Capes Loop, you’ll be mysteriously drawn to the huge white, blue, and gold building proffering bite-sized samples of cheddar.
Tillamook County is home to more than 26,000 cows, which easily outnumber the county’s human population. They’re the foundation of the Tillamook County Creamery Association’s famous cheddar cheese and other dairy products, which generate about $85 million in annual sales. Other important contributors to the local economy are fishing and oyster farming.
In 1940–1942, partially in response to a Japanese submarine firing on Fort Stevens in Astoria, the U.S. Navy built two blimp hangars south of town, the two largest wooden structures ever built, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. One of five naval air stations on the Pacific coast, the Tillamook blimp guard patrolled the waters from Northern California to the San Juan Islands and escorted ships into Puget Sound.
While all kinds of blimp stories abound in Tillamook bars, only one wartime encounter has been documented. Recently declassified records confirm that blimps were involved in the sinking of what was believed to be two Japanese submarines off Cape Meares. In late May 1943, two of the high-flying craft, assisted by U.S. Navy subchasers and destroyers, dropped several depth charges on the submarines, which are still lying on the ocean floor.
Until 1946, when the station was decommissioned, the naval presence here created a boomtown. Bars and businesses flourished, and civilian jobs were easy to come by. After the war years, Tillamook County returned to the economic trinity of “trees, cheese, and ocean breeze” that has sustained the region to the present day.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel