The Graveyard of the Pacific – The Columbia River Bar, OR/WA

“Mere description can give but little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia; those who have seen it have spoken of the wilderness of the ocean, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor”
Commander Wikes, US Navy ~1860

The Peter Iredale was wrecked in 1906.

It’s been dubbed as one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world. Right here a fast-flowing narrow and shallow column of the Columbia River collides with the swells of the Pacific creating constantly shifting sandbars and up to 40-foot waves. Add to that one of the windiest and foggiest spots on the West (a mere 2500 hours of fog/year and up to 120 mph winds) and you’ve got yourself the mini-version of the perfect storm. It’s a mariner’s terror and in its time it’s claimed over 2,000 ships and 700 lives. In the late 1880’s a  20-year jetty-building project helped to stabilize the entrance to a single channel, but the crossing is still unpredictable and requires both constant maintenance and the aid of a highly specialized “Columbia River Bar Pilot” to complete.

Remnants of old jetties at Fort Stevens State Park

But it turns out the river has many other stories too. It’s been both elusive, fruitful and the source of a golden age of steam boats. For years explorers such as Haceta, Cook and Vancouver attempted to find the mouth of the Columbia and failed. In 1788 a fur trader (John Meares) found the bar, tried to cross but was thwarted by rough waters, eventually deciding that the river entrance did not exist. He named the area “Cape Disappointment” clearly reflecting his feelings on the matter (the cape was finally crossed in 1792).

One of several life-sized models at the fabulous Maritime Museum in Astoria

In the late 1800’s fishing became the new boom. A seemingly endless supply of salmon spawned some of the largest cannery operations in the West. Immigrants from Scandinavia joined scores of workers from China and created an industry which lasted well into the 20th century. Around the same time (1850) steamboats reached the Columbia and launched the epitome of luxury travel for the upper class.

The North Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment

These days both the canneries and the steamboats are gone, but you can still  touch the history of both sides of the river through the small town of Astoria, OR and by Cape Disappointment, WA. We spent a gorgeous (and surprisingly pretty) day by the Cape followed by a fabulous tour through the old town and Maritime Museum in Astoria (highly recommended!).

Which leads me of course to the obvious and (most interesting) last question. With all the wrecks around here, is the place haunted? Well, a local Coast Guard gave me the low-down that it may well be. A mix of sightings and a Ghost film crew have all passed through and claimed it so. We didn’t see any phantoms, but you’ll have to let me know if you do….

P.S. For those wanting to explore the WA side a little more there’s an awesome campground at  Cape Disappointment State Park with sites literally steps from the beach. Selection of full hookups too. It’s on our list for when we come back.

Let not the sea decieve you…a calm day belies undercurrents in the bay
Wild and treacherous coastline at Cape Disappointment
Cape Disappointment Lightouse…apparently haunted so they tell me
Hanging out by the Cape with Alex and Ellen on a particularly fine day
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  1. says

    I think the Columbia is the most exciting and beautiful river that I’ve ever seen. If my kids weren’t on the wrong coast, I’d live in Astoria. Love following your blog.

    I thought the Cox Tower in Astoria was incredible and the hills daunting, but what a view of the bridge and the river. Rich and I lived all year to spend most of our summer on the coast. If all goes well, Jack and I will be back there come this summer.

  2. says

    Just wanted to say I LOVE YOUR BLOG!!! Read it all the way through and look forward to the next entry. I love being on the road and I’m planning on a class B purchase next year. Not ready for full-timing (I’ll be a weekend & tailgater for a while!), but I’m loving living vicariously through you guys! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  3. says

    Again…the pictures are awesome. I went to the website to read more about Cape Disappointment. Very interesting. Thanks for a history lesson I knew nothing about.

    • libertatemamo says

      It’s definitely a cool little spot. If we come back to WA I’d stay at the local campground. Great location to explore the whole area.

    • libertatemamo says

      That’s something we missed doing while we were in Portland. I’ve heard so much about the waterfalls and canyons along the river. Gotta get back and see them!

    • libertatemamo says

      Very true…one man’s dissapointment is another man’s treasure. Mind you we were there on a reaaaaly calm and pretty day. Can’t imagine what it’s like in 120 mph winds!

  4. says

    Been to all of those places in the last few years, except for the state park. We are totally impressed with your Peter Iredale picture (as well as all the others). I believe what we need to do is slow down in any one place, look at all the angles and take lots more pictures. That particular picture would not have occurred to me, once I got our few full-size pictures straight on.

    • libertatemamo says

      Thanks! I like to putter around and take different angles/views of the same thing depending on the light and conditions.
      Definitely enjoy “hanging out” for that kind of photography.


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