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Monday, September 21, 2009

On a clear day you can see the mouth of the Columbia: A 19th-Century feat of engineering

Aerial view of the Mouth of the Columbia River This aerial photo was taken by Frank Wolfe and lent to me by Branden Wilson for use on the Astoria, Oregon, Daily Photo blog. It shows the south (Oregon) side of the Columbia River as it pours into the Pacific Ocean. The line you see going from Clatsop Spit into the ocean is a man-made jetty. The line crossing from the land to the left side of the photo (and disappearing behind the airplane in the lower left) is what's left of the train trestle used to carry rocks to the jetty project. When you see all the mud in the water, it's easy to understand how the sand bars are built and moved around.

I took yesterday's blog photo from near the point where the white ocean waves meet the line of the jetty. Now, if you look at the right-hand edge of the waves, where they encounter the mass of land at the end of Clatsop Spit, and take this as the starting point, estimate about 1 mile going left, and that is where the mouth of the river was at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806. That mile of beach and land is new, having accumulated once the jetty changed the flow of the water. It's pretty amazing. It took several expeditions to this area before Europeans even realized this was the mouth of a river. Due to the sheer size of the river's mouth, it had not been obvious, especially in bad weather. It was not until 1792 that Captain Gray discovered the river. Even Captain Cook had missed it in 1778, and Captain Gray had missed it on his first trip, a few years before his 1792 discovery. Others had also come this way and not recognized what they were passing. Today it remains one of the most dangerous bars to cross in a ship. I believe it was one of the pilots who said, there is one more dangerous, but this bar takes more skill. Don't ask. That's all I remember. The mouth of the Columbia has been dubbed "The Graveyard of the Pacific." Wikipedia quotes Saddler Russel as saying, "More than 2000 vessels and 700 lives have been lost near the Columbia Bar alone." (This "Columbia Bar" link helps explain why the elements here cause conditions to be so treacherous.)

But the mouth of the Columbia is also a beautiful and stirring place. Wildlife abounds, along with majestically scenic views and a taste of the incomparably-moody ocean. More scenes from both sides of the river to come later on this blog.

10 comments:

Vogon Poet said...

Great post, thanks to your friends for the image. I imagined a scenario like this, but not so bad! The funniest story in your link is how they called a place with a name like Cape Disappointment!
Keep an eye on your sister city, because my next post shows our Astoria!

Don and Krise said...

I've walked out on the jetty before. It's an amazing piece of work. A friend of mine tried his hand at fishing off the jetty just last week. This is a wonderful photo you posted too. I've never seen that view before. I'll check out that link too. Another informative post. Great job Sheryl!

Anonymous said...

I believe it is the Spanish Capt. Bruno Heceta who is credited as the first European to officially observe their was a great river in the west in 1775-- before Cook or Gray made the scene

Jacob said...

What an incredible photograph. It clearly delineates the massiveness and raw strength of the water! Mother nature is a powerful force!

tapirgal said...

@Anonymous: Good point. Heceta found it, but he wasn't sure what it was. According to Wikipedia, "His crew was so reduced that they could not handle the anchor so he could not easily wait for better conditions [to try to sail into it]. He wrote that the seething currents led him to believe it was the mouth of a great river or a passage to another sea. Later he guessed it to be the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He named the entrance bay Bahia de la Asunciõn."

Small City Scenes said...

Great post Sheryl. Too awesome to take in all at once. Imagine what it was like with the earlier explorers before modern man changed things a bit. My girlfriends father lost his life on the Columbia Bar many years ago. My friend was only 4 yrs old at the time. Her whole family were fishermen. Thanks for the great post and yesterdays too. MB

Anonymous said...

He knew what it was-bays don't discharge the amount of brown earthy colored water so far out to sea. Rivers do. Even in present time the color of the effluent is easily noticiable to even the greenest mariner. Heceta was a master mariner. Remember, too, that he was there long before the series of dams reduced the once raging untamed Great River to a series of lakes. Prior to the dams, the amount of muddy water coming down a river that drains almost 25% of the North American continent must've ran seaward at least fifty miles. I think it was probably a case of the British wishing to take all the credit for the discovery-but Heceta logged the lat/long of it and it's highly doubtful he wouldn't know the difference between a bay and a huge river

tapirgal said...

You're probably right, but I wonder why he named it Bahia rather than Rio. Any thoughts?

Lee Spangler said...

In any case, can you imagine the bar and mouth of this river without the dams and the jetty? What a dangerous spot and in sailing ships in all kinds of weather and seas, without good maps or provisions.
These navigators and their crews were incredibly courageous people.
Often we discount them as being shiftless or just pirates but "wow" what they must have experienced.

Unseen Rajasthan said...

What an interesting post !! Great..Unseen Rajasthan

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