“Graveyard of the Pacific”
was not easily tamed
The century-long quest to make the Columbia River Bar reasonably safe got off to a rough start in 1853, when the ship bringing construction materials for its first lighthouse became one of its early victims.
By Finn J.D. John — August 28, 2016
On the morning of Sept. 18, 1853, the American bark Oriole was heavily laden with building materials and waiting for a favorable breeze to kick up so she could cross the Columbia River Bar.
Around noon one did, and the Oriole unfurled canvas and got under way, battling against the river’s current with a slow southwest breeze filling her sails.
If you’re familiar with these old-time bar stories, you can probably guess what happened next. The breeze petered out, leaving the ship becalmed and drifting at the mercy of the currents. The currents drifted the ship across a shoal, and she struck bottom in 17 feet of water. The current continued dragging her across this sandbar, pounding the hull against the bottom with every wave trough. The rudder was torn free almost immediately. Seams opened up, and the pumps clogged with sand.
The weather being fair, the crew was able to abandon the Oriole in reasonably orderly fashion, and fifteen minutes later the ship drifted free of the shoals, turned on her beam ends, and sank out of sight.
For the men in the lifeboats, shivering through the long, cold night until the morning sun could light their way to Astoria, it was a particularly powerful and ironic reminder of the importance of their mission. They had come to Astoria as part of a construction crew tasked with building a lighthouse at the mouth of the deadly River of the West – a project that, when finished, would help other ships avoid the Oriole’s fate.
Unfortunately, it would be a while before they could start. The Oriole’s cargo had been the materials that they were supposed to use to build it.
From the very first time a ship of commerce ventured out on its treacherous waters, it was clear to everyone involved that the federal government was going to have to spend money – lots of money – to make the Columbia River Bar safer for ships to cross.
The first ship to officially survey it was a British ship, in 1837 – at the time, the Oregon country was under a joint occupancy agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain. The ship’s commander, Sir Edward Belcher, immediately identified the biggest problem with the bar: It was a 25,000-acre patch of shallow open water, six miles wide, with a six-knot current racing across it and a sandy bottom that shifted dramatically from year to year. One year the north channel might be the only way in; the next, that channel could be impossible, and the only available channel might be one that runs directly into the teeth of the prevailing summer winds. And short of conducting a full survey every time one arrived off the bar, one never really knew.
It would be many years, and millions of dollars, before this problem was solved with the construction of the jetties; it would also take railroad equipment, of which there wouldn’t really be any in Oregon until the 1880s. So the government had commissioned a lighthouse on the north side of the river as a suitable first step. With its help, at least ships coming in from the sea in the darkness or fog would be able to tell where the river was. And the Oriole had been dispatched from San Francisco to get the process started.
Thanks to the Oriole’s sinking, it wasn’t until 1856 that the Cape Disappointment Light was placed in service, and it was soon followed by additional lights at Point Adams, North Head and Tillamook Rock, along with a dedicated lightship securely and permanently anchored offshore. After that, it was possible for ships to know where they were on the bar, even after dark. That, combined with regular surveys and an intrepid cadre of bar pilots who kept up on its shifting status month by month, made the crossing much safer – safe enough for the ports of Portland and Astoria to thrive.
Meanwhile, the government also tried to mitigate the human damage with life stations and lookout towers, so that if a ship did get into trouble on the bar, help could be sent at once. Ladies from Astoria would come to the shore to watch these life-station rescuers practice during the summertime, refining and improving their skills for the deadly winter storm season when their skills would be put to the test, sometimes on a weekly basis.
Then, in 1885 – two years after the transcontinental railroad first arrived in Portland – the government finally was able to set about solving the real problem on the bar, by starting construction of what we know today as the South Jetty.
A big receiving dock was built at Fort Stevens, and railroad workers got started running a spur line from the dock out to the site of the future jetty. Five steam locomotives were barged down the river to the dock, with 65 dump cars to be filled with rock.
The jetty construction technique was simple in concept, but not exactly easy to do. A railroad trestle was built out over the sea. The locomotive would push the dump cars, loaded with giant boulders barged in from upriver, out over the water, where the rocks would be dumped in. Then, back it would go for another load, and repeat the process until the rocks on both sides of the trestle were solidly mounded up into a secure, wave-proof man-made peninsula of sorts. Once this was all done, the rails would be taken up and the top of the jetty flattened and regularized so that people and vehicles could easily get out on it for any repairs or modifications that might be needed in the future.
It took almost a decade, from planning to completion, to finish the job. In 1894, it was done.
By the time it was done, the South Jetty had already changed the flow of the river. In place of the old fan-like network of treacherous channels through the sand, the current of the river had now scoured a single channel 30 feet deep along the jetty and out to the sea. It had cost just over $2 million to do – well under the budget estimates of $3.8 million, but still one of the biggest U.S. government projects of the 19th century.
It still wasn’t quite enough, though, for the bigger steamships of the new century. So in 1914, the government started construction of the (much shorter) North Jetty, running it right over the top of Peacock Spit.
This did the trick. The channel entrance narrowed to 2,000 feet and now deepened itself even more. Ten years later, in 1925, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a bar survey and found the channel had deepened to about 40 feet – shy of the 50 that engineers had hoped for, but enough.
The engineers then happily proclaimed the Columbia River Bar to now be “eminently safe and easy of navigation.” This might have been overselling it a bit – hundreds of mariners who heard those words would be drowning on that bar over the subsequent half-century or so.
But today, the bar – the deadly central feature of the famous “graveyard of the Pacific” – has been, if not tamed, at least pacified enough that a careful skipper can cross it more than twice a week and still qualify to buy a life insurance policy.
(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)