Olympia oysters, once abundant on the Pacific Coast from California to Vancouver Island, now teeter on the brink of extinction. These small but delicious oysters, measuring only 1 and a half inches, were a delicacy during the California gold rush and oyster saloons popped up all over to satisfy the demand. Soon the Californian coast was stripped of its oyster beds and the miners’ insatiable demand prompted the commercial harvest of Olympia oysters in Puget Sound.
In the mid 1800s, the village of Oysterville began to prosper after Chief Nahcati introduced the town’s founders, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, to oysters. The rich oyster beds of Willapa Bay were soon responsible for Oysterville’s growth, as the town became a major competitor with other oyster companies.
Willard Espy wrote in his memoir of Shoalwater Bay “Oysterville” that “the Puget Sound oyster, known as the Olympia, had a copper taste offensive to refined San Francisco palates. But the same gourmets who rejected the Olympia oysters sang hosannas” to the oysters of Shoalwater Bay.
By the mid-1850s, oyster saloons had become fashionable once more and gold miners couldn’t get enough of the fishy, saltwater flavour of these small bivalves that could be swallowed whole in a glass of whisky mixed with ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce in a concoction that came to be known as the Oyster Cocktail.
Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon didn’t so much advertise the quality of the oysters as he did the liquor:
“Having lived in Victoria long enough to find that good Malt Liquor is a scarce article, I would respectfully call the attention of the public to the fact that the genuine stuff can be had at my saloon, where can also be found the News from all parts of the civilized world. Call and see me at Duffy’s old place, on Waddington Street, Victoria.”
Steamers came daily to Muddy Bay, Oyster Bay, and Little Skookum to pick up sacks of Olympias. They brought down canoe loads of Olympia oysters down from Comox to the oyster saloons in Victoria. To fill the sacks, oystermen and their families worked at night when the tide was out and the oysters could be raked from the mud flats.
The oysters were forked up into a float which was then poled to the culling house anchored some distance from shore. There the oysters were forked into a sink float, an upside-down float holding two feet of water to keep the oysters fresh.
From the sinkfloat they were forked into a wheelbarrow, rolled into the culling house, up a plank and dumped onto the culling table. All day long, the cullers sorted out the larger oysters, knocking of barnacles, smaller oysters and debris with a culling iron and dropping the marketable oysters into a can, then raking the cullings down the hopper at the edge of the table.
This advertisement from Thomas Golden in 1859 promises “Fresh Oysters! Served up in every Style at the Phoenix Saloon. Families supplied at the shortest notice, by the quart or gallon. All orders promptly attended to.”