The “passport” to summer in Grays Harbor takes visitors and locals alike to “2,224 square miles of fascinating and unique history.” The passport, a wonderful brochure, is as much a treasure map as it is a guidebook to the 14 museums of Grays Harbor County.

Individually, the sites are as diverse as the communities in which they take root, from Lake Quinault to the cranberry bogs of Grayland, on both sides of the Harbor, and from East County to the coast. On a journey through history, they harbor everything from mermaids to traces of Sasquatch, certified ghostly occurrences to beacons of luminescence, horse-less and horse-driven carriages to oddities of the ocean’s depths or some of the world’s tallest trees.

Photo by Angelo Bruscas

Photo by Angelo Bruscas

The past two years of Covid-19 precautions and closures have taken a toll with limited attendance and public availability at all the museums, but directors and longtime volunteers behind the scenes say the time was well served for this summer. They have revived the public passport experience to all the attractions, with one new museum added to the mix – the International Mermaid Museum at the Westport Winery.

“Here’s a road map where you can go to everything,” said John Shaw, who wears more museum hats than anyone in Grays Harbor County as the executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society, the Westport Maritime Museum, the Grays Harbor Lighthouse and the Cranberry Museum! Shaw is also instrumental in the reorganization and relocation of the Aberdeen Museum of History and now serves as the chairman of that board as well.

Hoquiam’s Polson Museum

Many of the facilities used the downtime provided by Covid-19 to establish new exhibits, take stock of their collections, or, as in the case of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam, clean house from top to bottom. For the Polson, that meant steaming off all the old wallpaper and painting everything in warm, bright and inviting colors, then putting everything back with new tie-together elements, even updating lighting. It was the first major overhaul since the museum opened in 1977

“The entire building got dismantled of everything, and then got repopulated with everything but in a different way than it ever had before,” said Polson Director John Larson, as a cadre of volunteers applied the finishing touches to a renovation project made possible because of the Covid-19 closures.

“In addition to all the other work, we have tried to come up with a cohesive tie-together for the exhibits, which is to use old-growth fir that came from our own mill here, so all the new lumber you see is from our mill,” Larson said.

One of the artifacts – the wall-sized map of “Chehalis County” before the name was changed to Grays Harbor in 1915 – now is part of a key theme as you begin to view the Polson treasures of history. The map, which Larson calls “our most prized map of all that we have in our collection,” is the cornerstone of an introduction to Grays Harbor exhibit.

“The idea is to do a better job of having interpretation that is more acutely centralized on Grays Harbor County. That’s our mission,” Larson said.

John Hughes, the former editor and publisher of The Daily World and longtime state archivist for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, can attest with first-hand experience to the richness of the Harbor’s museums.

“During my 15 years as a trustee of the Washington State Historical Society, I have visited practically all the community museums west of the Cascades and several in Eastern Washington. I’m amazed by the breadth of the collections and the dedication and professionalism of the volunteers,” Hughes said.

“The Twin Harbors are particularly blessed, with unique museums at South Bend, Raymond, Westport, Montesano and the crown jewel: The Polson in Hoquiam. What John Larson and his remarkable band of volunteers have created is a model for community museums, with painstaking attention to artifact inventory and innovative displays and exhibits,” Hughes said.

The reopened Polson Museum has a natural flow through the rooms that begins with a feel for what the county once looked like and its Native American heritage, along with the major impact of the timber industry. “We devoted an entire room just to the Native American basket collection,” Larson said.

“Some rooms just took a ton of time. Every door came off, all the windows got cleaned, we physically had to paint inside, upside, floor to ceiling. We also did a full inventory of everything we have, and the process allowed us to really weed through the collection and figure out the relevance of things. It was a very cleansing process.”

In years before the health precautions of Covid-19, the Polson Museum would host 4,000-6,000 people a year. The pandemic forced a precipitous drop in event usage, Larson said.

“We had been very busy with the bridal showers, baby showers, wedding parties and memorial services, so we are hoping that comes back,” he added.

The closure, in fact, was so helpful in museum maintenance that Larson is considering doing a partial one next year “because it was so productive to do this kind of custom mounting. You can’t operate a museum with that amount of chaos” caused by the work. “We’ll finish what we couldn’t get done on this closure next year; that’s the goal.”

Coastal Interpretive Center

Helping to establish the Coastal Interpretive Center’s stated mission of becoming a coastal destination attraction is now foremost to the new job taken by recently hired director Barbara Hayford, who was hired after the center, located in Ocean Shores, embarked on a major renovation inside during the pandemic closures.

Photo by Angelo Bruscas

“We’re basically representing Western Washington from the mouth of the Columbia River to Cape Flattery, all the way up the headwaters of these coastal river watersheds, from the headwaters to the Chehalis to the tops of the Olympic Mountains,” said Hayford, previously the director of the A. Jewell Schock Museum of Natural History at Wayne State College in Nebraska. She lists her passion as biodiversity research, conservation and preservation, which also will be the center’s mission.


“This is a job and a position that just suits me so well,” Hayford says. “And it’s a place I really want to live.”


Historic Road Map

To experience the fully reopened museums of the Harbor takes several days no matter which direction you travel. While many of the museums are free to visit – with donations encouraged, others do charge an entrance fee. Call or check online for the latest pricing information.

Here are five different routes to explore the museums in our area. Each route could take about a day, depending on where you are leaving from and how much you like to linger at the displays.

Route 1: Starting at the epicenter, the Polson Museum in Hoquiam, for its overall emphasis on the history and culture of the entire area, it’s a 28-mile drive west to the Coastal Interpretive Center to witness its vastly improved exhibits of ocean- and coast-based collections and Ocean Shores artifacts.

Route 2: Take another day to continue farther north, up State Route 109, to the next stop – the Museum of the North Beach in Moclips, with its unique collections of coastal history and legends of the North Beach, and its ongoing development of a future new home just down the road. Then continue north to Taholah. The Quinault Tribal Museum includes a large display of artifacts, basketry, carvings and family collections. Make sure to stop at the Lake Quinault Museum, which has artifacts from life in the rainforest from pioneers to present day. It’s located in the old Post Office building on the south shore.

Route 3: Another full day can take you museum hopping to the south of Grays Harbor. Travel down State Route 105 stopping to see the eye-catching wonders in the International Mermaid Museum at the Westport Winery, with its ocean ecology themes. Then head to the stately Westport Maritime Museum in the old Nantucket-style Coast Guard station and its visual wonder – the Fresnel lens from the Destruction Island Lighthouse. After that, on the other side of Westport you can climb 125 feet above sea level on a visit to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, all the way up to its Fresnel clam-shell lens and the surround view of the coast and Harbor. The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Route 4: Another day’s historic route is through the museums of east Grays Harbor County and the Chehalis Valley. Depending on what direction you are coming from, start at the McCleary Museum at Carnell House, with its history of town founder Henry McCleary and his logging company and door factory. Then travel west to Montesano. As the county seat, it has two museums: the Chehalis Valley Historical Society Museum on Pioneer Avenue highlights logging and homesteading in the area; and the Running Anvil Carriage Museum on Black Creek Road features more than 30 restored carriages in several buildings.

Route 5: On yet another day, a full circuit can take in the Cranberry Museum in Grayland and then the Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond, in neighboring Pacific County, with its world-class collection of restored horse-drawn vehicles and artifacts from the 19th century.

The passport to highlight the museums was developed pre-Covid as a project made possible by the Grays Harbor Foundation. Most of the museums may have this handy guide available, or you can visit for information on how to obtain one.

The Road Ahead

John Shaw said each museum has developed its own identity even if they have common purposes. “Everyone seems to have grown up organically, with funding mechanisms that fit their particular museum.”

“I don’t think the museums feel they compete with each other,” Shaw added “We find the opposite, that people like to go from place to place.”

Some of the destinations on the museum passport are pretty much the way they have always been, such as the Lighthouse, but worth revisiting just for the view. Some were still in the process of trying to reopen, such as the Cranberry Museum or the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport.

At the Cranberry Museum, Shaw says, “We had a great summer and harvest in 2021 and will be open in June, and expect to be open Friday through Sunday starting in July and running through the harvest and Harvest Festival.”

Several, such as the Lighthouse, Westport Maritime Museum and Coastal Interpretive Center, have showcased local art and artists this year to add to the attractions. Others plan to expand or, as in the case of the Museum of the North Beach, move into a new home one day. The Coastal Interpretive Center recently adopted a new long-range strategic plan.

“We want to be a world-class institution,” Hayford says. “We’re not going to build a Smithsonian out here, but we will be the institution that represents this geographic area, and we’re going to do it as well as any other institution does, even though we may be small. When I get super excited, it’s when I am just thinking about this region.”

photo by Angelo Bruscas

Grays Harbor Museums

McCleary Museum & Heritage Center
314 South 2nd Ave., McCleary
(360) 470-2340
Open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sat. & Sun.

Chehalis Valley Historical Society Museum

703 W. Pioneer Ave., Montesano
(360) 470-6181
Open from noon to 4 p.m. Sat. & Sun.

Running Anvil Carriage Museum

445 Black Creek Rd., Montesano
(360) 249-3645
Open Most Days

Grays Harbor Historical Seaport

500 N. Custer St., Aberdeen
(360) 532-8611
Check website for current status

The Aberdeen Museum (temporary location)

200 W. Market St., Aberdeen
(360) 533-1976
Open 1 to 4 p.m., Thurs. & Fri. and from 5 to 8 p.m. the first Friday of the month

Polson Museum

1511 Riverside Ave, Hoquiam
(360) 533-5862
Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Weds. – Sat. And noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

International Mermaid Museum

7 South Arbor Rd, Aberdeen
(360) 648-2224
Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Grays Harbor Lighthouse

1020 Ocean Ave., Westport
(360) 268-0078
Seasonal Hours

Westport Maritime Museum

2201 Westhaven Dr, Westport
(360) 268-0078
Seasonal Hours

The Cranberry Museum

2395 State Route 105, Grayland
(360) 267-3303
Expected to reopen this summer

Coastal Interpretive Center

1033 Catala Ave SE, Ocean Shores
(360) 289-4617
Seasonal Hours

Museum of the North Beach

4568 State Route 109, Moclips
(360) 276-4441 • Seasonal Hours

Quinault Tribal Museum

807 5th Ave. Plaza Suite 1, Taholah
(360) 276-8215 ext. 245
Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mon. – Fri.

Lake Quinault Museum

354 South Shore Rd., Quinault
(360) 288-2361
Open Memorial Day – Labor Day • From noon to 5 p.m. daily In Pacific County

Northwest Carriage Museum

314 Alder St., Raymond
(360) 942-4150
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum

4115 State Route 105, Tokeland
(360) 267-8240
Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues.- Sat.
Closed from noon to 1 p.m. daily.