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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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