Captain Doane’s Oyster Pan Roast
By Goldie Robertson Funk
Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 43 (April 1952) 154-157.
WHEN GOVERNORS and judges, legislators and lobbyists of the Northwest are but dimly remembered, the name of Captain Doane of Olympia, Washington, and his Oyster Pan Roast will still be household words.
For a whole generation most of the political maneuvers in Washington territory and state were devised in Doane’s Oyster House over hot plates of his famous Pan Roast. Not that Captain Doane assisted in the maneuvers- he furnished the Pan Roasts, the like of which were not to be had anywhere else in the world, partly because the native oysters that went into them were super excellent, partly because no one else knew the combination. It was the Captain’s own invention, and his secret until he died. Doane’s Pan Roast was the se plus ultra of good eating. It was the most talked about dish of its day- that is, the Captain’s day.
Not only was Doane’s Pan Roast a daily favorite of Olympians and visiting politicians, but travelers from everywhere who visited the Pacific States made a point of landing at Doane’s Oyster House, coming or going. Foreign visitors from many European countries partook of Doane’s Pan Roast and wrote home to their friends and newspapers about it. It is doubtful if any other human food has had wider spread or more fervid word-of-mouth advertising.
When the Captain came to Olympia to stay in 1880 and saw the limitless acres of oysters to be had for the taking on all the tidelands, he opened a little place on the north side of Fifth Street, just off Main Street, now Capitol Way. He raked and opened his own oysters in the forenoon and served them, fried or in oyster stew, in the afternoon and evening. Besides a large transient population, many young men had come from the East to find a permanent location. Doane’s oysters proved so popular that he bought a place across the street where Drees’ Art Store and Phillips’ Shoe Store now are. The oyster house itself did not occupy all this space. There was a beautifully kept lawn in the rear and on the east side. A huge barn, completely covered with ivy, rose like a hill on the south side. Here was the Captain’s famous rose garden, not so extensive as choice and well kept. The bushes were all tagged. If he was asked the name of a rose, he looked at the tag, went to a slate on his back porch, found the corresponding number and the name. He cared little for names- it was the colors and perfume he loved.
It was here the Captain invented his famous Pan Roast, here that politicians, statesmen, world travelers, the good and the great from everywhere foregathered to enjoy the delectable combination set before them, marvel at its inimitable flavor, and try to beg the secret from the Captain or his Chinese cook.
The Captain was big and burly and handsome and the very soul of hospitality. He met and welcomed his guests himself with a warmth and friendliness they never forgot. The cook prepared the orders; Jack and Wood, the two Doane boys, served them. Sixty gallons of oysters a day was an average. A Pan Roast required a large cupful of oysters, frizzled in four tablespoonfuls of melted butter, a cupful of tomato catsup, one tablespoonful of Worcestershire sauce, one scant teaspoonful of Tabasco, salt and pepper, poured piping hot over oven toast. This was served on a large platter with pickles, coffee, or beer, and for many years the price was thirty-five cents for the Pan Roast and five cents for the beer or coffee. Years later the price was fifty cents. Today no one hesitates to pay $1.65 for a plate of Doane’s Pan Roast.
Born in 1825, Captain Woodbury J. Doane was a sea-faring man out of Maine, on whose wild coasts he learned the ways of winds and ships on his father’s sailing vessel. He became master of a ship at an age when most other boys were still in public school. He married at 18. His young wife died, leaving a little daughter. In 1866 he married Elizabeth Pendergast in Victoria, B.C. Miss Pendergast was a sister of Mrs. Mitchell Harris’ mother. (Mitchell Harris was an Olympia merchant for sixty years. His wife, Topsy Lichtenstein was a Seattle girl.) Two sons, Jack and Woodbury, were born to the Doanes. The boys were their father’s chief help in his Oyster House for many years. His wife died in 1875. Employing Chinese to harvest the oysters, the captain began to ship oysters, the first ever shipped out of Olympia. For years past they have been shipped all over the world.
Captain Doane’s life was crowded with the adventures, dangers, and hardships that go with the exploring of new lands and waters in the days of sailing ships and uncharted waters. Lured by the discovery of gold in California, he arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He followed all the gold excitements from then until 1880, when he returned to Olympia to stay.
In 1862 Captain Doane took a steamer, crowded with gold seekers, up the wild and dangerous Fraser River during the rush to the “Eldorado of the Cariboo.” Viscount Milton, M.P., on a British expedition to the Western Canadian provinces, was among the passengers. In his book Northwest Passage by Land, written after his return to England, the viscount wrote, “Captain Doane, (commander of the Fraser River boat, was a jolly, red faced fellow of exceeding hospitality. He invited us to his cabin, the only furnished room on board, and bringing out a box of cigars and ordering a whole decanter of brandy cocktails to be made, at once desired us to. make ourselves happy. Every fifteen minutes we were called by thin negro bartender to have a drink. A refusal would have been deemed rude and we had to exercise great ingenuity to evade continual invitations.” He added that this steamer cost no less than 75,000 to 100,000 pounds. The whole machinery, including boiler plates, had been brought on mule back for many miles.
Once, when the Captain was a pilot on the Fraser River on the steamer Sea Bird, the vessel caught fire. Passengers and crew were panic-stricken, but the Captain remained steady. The viscount records, “The Captain stood at the wheel, while the flames wrapped around him, until the steamer beached. He was badly burned. When taken from the blazing vessel the passengers took up a collection to purchase him a valuable watch as a token of their admiration and gratitude.” After Viscount Milton returned to England, he sent the Captain a fine shaving set as a token of his own gratitude.
An oldtimer who knew Captain Doane well, Roderick Sprague, reporter, feature writer, and later editor of the Daily Olympian, wrote, “His adventures and experiences would make volumes of interesting reading.” During the 1850’s he made the inland trip, afoot, up through British Columbia along the northward course of the Mackenzie River and the Great Slave lakes to the headwaters of one of the tributary streams flowing into the MacKenzie. He mushed across the mountain ranges between Alaska and the British Northwest Territory, and followed the Stikeen River to its mouth. This was a trip that tried the hardiest of men, but he laughed at the danger and the hardships and the loneliness. Asked if he never suffered from the cold on his northern expeditions, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, some men did. In fact, when one man died on a mushing trip they found his provisions froze inside of him.”
Captain Doane was one of the moving spirits at the time the overland telegraph was being strung through Alaska to Siberia across Bering Strait. He accompanied the vessels taking up the cable, but, just at the time when all was ready to complete the work, the success of the Atlantic cable was proven and the attempt to run the wires overland was abandoned.
For many years the Captain was mate on the Eliza Anderson, one of the best known steamers on Puget Sound, making the run between Seattle and Victoria, BC. He also served for some time as mate on the Zephyr, an extremely slow boat between Seattle and Olympia. The Captain once remarked that parents who took their children on his boat “were letting them grow up in ignorance.” Once more, before coming to Olympia, adventure beckoned him. With Okanogan Smith he explored the Okanogan country where he discovered several valuable mining claims. He was financially interested in the Six Eagles mine as it came into production. To quote Roderick Sprague, “His life was a saga of strength and daring, pitting the might of his courage against the forces of fate and laughing at the challenge.” Few men have left behind them such a record. Except for such as Captain Doane, a type of pioneer that has already disappeared, the great Northwest would still be an unknown country. All over the Northwest are still men now in the sunset of life who can look back on the encouragement as well as the financial help received from this great-hearted man. He was a friend to man. No deserving person ever asked his help in vain. His heart went out to the young and ambitious. He died in Olympia on February 14, 1903. There his body lay in state in the beautiful home of Mitchell and Topsy Harris, where hundreds came to look upon the face of a beloved friend.
Olympia, still the home of the Olympia oyster, preserves its tradition of Captain Doane’s Pan Roast, but it is served in a modern setting, its picture windows framing an enchanting view of placid Puget Sound with shores and islands dark with evergreen forests, its horizon bounded by the sharp whiteness of the soaring Olympic Mountains.