The Cannon Beach Sandcastle Contest, which celebrates its 51st anniversary this year, is, like all sandcastle events, an exercise in living with impermanence, in creating order and beauty while preparing for its destruction, in learning to let go.

For several sunny, enchanted hours, thousands of visitors descend on Cannon Beach’s shoreline to watch dozens of sand sculptors build mighty, majestic figures: castles and dragons, sea creatures and cartoon characters — the inspiration seems inexhaustible.

Just about everyone has a good time: The sculptors — amateurs and masters — revel in the teamwork and craftsmanship, while the spectators stroll among the plots, awed and entertained.

But the end is written into the beginning. By sunset, all physical evidence of the sculptures will be erased, taken by the tides. And the canvas of the coastline will be blank once more, ready for another troupe of imaginative beachgoers to momentarily shape nature to their will.

Cannon Beach’s Sandcastle Contest — the oldest in Oregon — falls on June 20 this year and is the grand centerpiece of a three-day shindig.

The festivities kick off at 5:30 p.m. with the Sandcastle Parade; the line-up begins at 5 p.m. at Spruce and Second streets.

This will be followed by a “Bucket & Shovel” dinner with salad, spaghetti and clam chowder options on offer at the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce Community Hall from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

The Sandcastle Contest itself begins the next day at 7:30 a.m. down on the beach. Awards will be announced at 12:30 p.m. (Registration closes at noon June 19.)

That night, a folk music concert featuring several local musicians will be held at 7 p.m. at the Community Hall.

Then, at 8 p.m., a beach bonfire will be held at the Tolovana Wayside. S’mores will be served, but attendees must bring their own chairs.

Finally, a 5K Fun Run takes off from the beach at Second Street at 9 a.m. June 21; registration begins at 8 a.m.

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Confusion has cropped up lately among some locals regarding the origins of Cannon Beach’s Sandcastle Contest, which received the Oregon Heritage Tradition award from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department last year.

That last year’s Sandcastle Contest was variously billed at the “50th Sandcastle Contest,” the “50th annual Sandcastle Contest” and the “50th anniversary” of the first contest doesn’t help matters (though, to be sure, any of those distinctions qualifies the contest for the heritage tradition award).

The orthodox narrative pins the first sandcastle-type event in 1964, the year of the Good Friday Quake — a 9.2 megaquake in early spring that originated in Alaska and sent tsunami waves crashing along Pacific Northwest shores.

However, the Library of Congress states that the event began in 1965 “as a promotional event for this small Oregon coastal town.” Furthermore, the Seaside Signal archives from summer 1965 advertise the “1st annual Sand Castle and Sculpture Contest,” which took place July 29 that year.

So what happened here?

In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, which occurred on March 27, 1964, Cannon Beach became a ghost town.

The wall of water and the debris it pushed up Ecola Creek knocked out the Ecola Creek Bridge, eliminating Cannon Beach’s north entrance. The incident sparked a “mass exodus”; many residents sold their property and left Cannon Beach for good, according to Elaine Murdy-Trucke, executive director of the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum.

That summer, a group of locals formed a sandcastle event held in August, according to documents submitted to the state Parks and Recreation Department.

“The intention was to kind of boost the morale of the community and to show that the beach is not a scary place, that it is safe to come,” Murdy-Trucke said.

That first sandcastle event — which is not terrifically well documented — was a relatively rinky-dink affair, mostly concocted as a lark for the children, many of whom came dressed in costumes, she and other sources said.

“It was mainly a community event that year,” she said.

Murdy-Trucke added that, like today, the event included a parade, though it definitely did not include master sand sculptors and high-stakes judging.

So a sandcastle event of some sort almost certainly happened in 1964. On this point, Bill Steidel, Peter Lindsey and Billie Atherton — three people who were either involved in the event or were around at the time — all agree.

Because the first event, in 1964, was planned as a one-off, it wasn’t designated “first annual” because there was nothing annual about it yet. But, on the basis of that experience, the town decided to make it an annual event the following year, complete with judging categories and cash prizes.

This means that the “first annual” Sandcastle Contest, as publicized in the Seaside Signal, was, in fact, the second contest, that the “second annual” contest was the third contest, and so on.

“The first one was not the first one,” said Treva Haskell, who co-founded Bruce’s Candy Kitchen in Cannon Beach in 1963.

So — if one starts counting from 1964, as tradition dictates — the 2014 celebration marked both the “50th annual” event and, yes, 50th anniversary of the first event. But it was actually the 51st consecutive contest, not the 50th Sandcastle Contest — unless one starts the clock in 1965, when it officially became “annual.” This year, then, marks the “51st annual” event but the 52nd consecutive event.

Historical hair-splitting aside, one thing appears beyond dispute: The Good Friday Quake, a formative event that could have destroyed Cannon Beach, ended up revitalizing it. By creating the Sandcastle Contest, the locals used the traumatic episode to their advantage, purposefully founding a legacy defined by opportunity rather than tragedy.

And the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 visitors that drove to Cannon Beach specifically for the Sandcastle Contest last year prove that the legacy endures.


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