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‘This Nest of Dangers’: Filling in the blanks

Early mapmakers unveiled the mysterious Northwest coast

By NANCY LLOYD

For the Observer

Published on May 16, 2017 4:21PM

A 1857 map drawn for the U.S. Congress depicts the complicated terrain around the mouth of the Columbia River and Willapa Bay, then known as Shoalwater Bay. The area was still so little explored that mapmakers believed the Long Beach Peninsula had two distinct prongs, and omitted Long Island. The small island in the middle of the Columbia’s entry was a substantial hazard to navigation. Man-made changes in the river’s flow eventually pushed this sediment into Baker Bay south of Ilwaco. Pacific City, the first county seat and briefly touted at the time as a potentially major West Coast metropolis, was condemned by the U.S. Army when Fort Canby was created.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

A 1857 map drawn for the U.S. Congress depicts the complicated terrain around the mouth of the Columbia River and Willapa Bay, then known as Shoalwater Bay. The area was still so little explored that mapmakers believed the Long Beach Peninsula had two distinct prongs, and omitted Long Island. The small island in the middle of the Columbia’s entry was a substantial hazard to navigation. Man-made changes in the river’s flow eventually pushed this sediment into Baker Bay south of Ilwaco. Pacific City, the first county seat and briefly touted at the time as a potentially major West Coast metropolis, was condemned by the U.S. Army when Fort Canby was created.

Capt. George Flavel is often credited with being the first white bar pilot on the Columbia River. This key position, which he avidly defended, made him into one of the region’s wealthiest men in the second half of the 19th century.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest

Capt. George Flavel is often credited with being the first white bar pilot on the Columbia River. This key position, which he avidly defended, made him into one of the region’s wealthiest men in the second half of the 19th century.

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The California, an elegant small schooner, carried pilots out to waiting sailing ships off the mouth of the Columbia in the years of explosive West Coast development following the California gold rush.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest

The California, an elegant small schooner, carried pilots out to waiting sailing ships off the mouth of the Columbia in the years of explosive West Coast development following the California gold rush.

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Early Columbia River bar pilots established a reputation for guiding ships over the river’s notoriously dangerous entryway, a tradition that lives on today.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest

Early Columbia River bar pilots established a reputation for guiding ships over the river’s notoriously dangerous entryway, a tradition that lives on today.

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The Coast Survey, Part II


Newspapers were reporting that some were getting rich in California and maybe other places out West; readers who wanted to get out of bonded servitude, debt, or to “start over” were eager to know more. How did one get out there?

Sailing seemed the quickest way for men traveling by themselves and who had the money for passage.

East Coast sea captains who’d perhaps never sailed around Cape Horn to the frontier coast were facing a new experience but, hey, there was money to be made. How did those captains learn about making it to San Francisco or Astoria?

British publications helped, and magazine and newspaper reprints of military reports helped, and conversations with others who’d made the journey helped.

In 1853, James Imray in London published “Sailing Directions for The West Coast of North America.” While it repeated information gathered by English pilots, it noted that “…[N]o complete survey [had] yet been made of the West Coast of North America ….”

That British publication’s commentary included, “The Columbia River and its valley is by far the most important and interesting part of Oregon … being the great and only line of communication between the sea coast and the interior. … Although it possesses at all times a good depth of water, yet it is difficult and dangerous to enter, so much so that it can be said to possess but few advantages as a port … it also has the disadvantage of a shifting bar, so that it is impossible for large vessels to enter without a pilot.”


‘Without a pilot …’


Also, “…[T]he tide is frequently so strong that it cannot be stemmed by oars; … The land near the entrance of the river is well-marked, and cannot be easily mistaken. On the summit of the two capes [Disappointment] are several lofty spruce and pine trees, which the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company have caused to be trimmed of branches nearly to their tops; these serve as conspicuous marks.”

And, “… Within the entrance of the river, between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams is an extensive middle ground, which is dangerous on account of the little water on it. In one part it dries, forming a sandy islet. The depth of water on, as well as shape of, this bank depend very much on the freshets from the river.” [This was before dams controlled the Columbia’s significant flooding.]

Furthermore, “there are also extensive flats in the middle of the river, before the village of Astoria. … The site of Astoria is ill adapted for commerce, the navigable channel of the river being narrow, and only able to accommodate a few vessels. The river, although 3-1/2 miles wide here, has its bed occupied by extensive sands, over which there is but little water — [still true today]; these militate very much against Astoria ever becoming again a place of much importance.”

Discouraging.

And when the “Sailing Directions” got down to lengthy specifics about crossing the entrance they began, “Directions. The following are the instructions given by Commander Wilkes for running into the river; but they must not be followed, as, since the survey by the Exploring Expedition in 1841, great changes have taken place …”

Oh, the irony.


Filling in the gaps


The U. S. Coast Survey, a federal agency established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, took up the work of the privately-operated “American Coast Pilot,” begun in 1796. It printed charts — nautical maps — and instructions for sailing the then-known North American coast.

There was turmoil in the federal government during the mid-years of the 1800s between the old guard and a new group of scientists who saw more exact ways to explore, measure, and define the characteristics of the Pacific sea-coast. The struggle resolved with the scientists winning the day and the survey schooner Ewing setting sail from New York for California.

NOAA (the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Survey, successor to the U. S. Coast Survey) tells us, “More than any other organization, it was the Coast Survey that helped tame this frontier coast. A small group of dedicated surveyors (…who made the arduous trip from the East Coast … to the western margin of North America …) helped make this coast as safe for commerce and travel as any in the world in the short space of a few years beginning in 1849.”

That 20,000-mile-trip around rowdy Cape Horn was hard sailing; things got even worse once the Ewing reached San Francisco as crew members deserted the ship for the gold fields. Lt. William McArthur that fall described the California scene: “This country is truly one of the greatest wonders of any age. The increase of population is truly wonderful. Let us estimate San Francisco at 100,000 souls, Sacramento City 40,000, and Stockton 35,000 or nearly. Eighteen months ago there was scarcely 100 people in all three. …”

Imagine the chaos …

Between April and August of 1850, the Ewing called at the Columbia River, which McArthur described as “‘beautiful and some places and some points of view the grandest that the eye ever beheld.’” He had experienced that gorgeous, deceptive weather which we residents know and love, concluding, “‘The dangers of navigation of this truly magnificent river have been vastly exaggerated. We have crossed the bar sometimes as many as ten times a day for weeks together….’”

Next, Coast Survey superintendent A.D. Bache “determined to send a crew of young men of great energy” to the Pacific Coast. “These men would undertake ‘for one year to do any duty, however hard or manual, incident to the survey on the western coast.’” He named George Davidson to head the crew, which was to measure and map the entire coast as well as siting lighthouses and military forts.

“… With the exception of the weather and other hardships attending the work, it had evolved into a routine. Astronomic latitude, longitude, and azimuth were observed at the highest point of the cape; a topographic survey of Cape Disappointment and the surrounding area was conducted; a lighthouse site was selected; and magnetic observations were conducted. Originally the magnetic station was observed close to the Baker Bay camp site, but magnetite sands [black sands] on the beach caused erratic readings and the station was moved to coincide with the astronomic station. …

“George Davidson and James Lawson went east in November 1854 returning to San Francisco in April of the following year. The trip was nowhere near as arduous as that of 1849 and 1850 as regular steamship service had been established and the trip from East Coast to West Coast only took a month. …

“Of all regions in which the Coast Survey worked, the segment of coast from Cape Mendocino north to the limits of United States Territory [at the 49th parallel] presented the most challenges. Although all areas on the Western Coast presented severe natural challenges, the northern areas also had the added danger of hostile native Americans and, at one point, even the possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain. Add to this mountains and forests coming down to the edge of the sea in many areas, a damp and cool climate, great storms from the Pacific slamming into the Northwest Coast on a fairly regular basis, few harbors of refuge for mariners seeking shelter from a storm, and few centers of civilization to ease the rigors of working in the wilderness. …”

It took eight years to complete the Pacific Coast survey. The written results were published in 1858, first in a San Francisco newspaper and then governmentally as “Appendix No. 44, Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey.”

George Davidson’s report to his supervisor commences, “‘For nearly eight years the duties which you assigned to me in California, and in Oregon and Washington Territories, kept me moving continually along the seaboard in every manner of conveyance, and familiarized me with almost every mile of the coast, along which my various trips and explorations have amounted to an aggregate of between fifty and sixty thousand miles. … several years of [my] failing health prevented the execution of more than regular duties, until the growing desire to leave the Pacific coast forced me to occupy the remaining leisure moments in arranging the matter while yet freshly photographed upon the mind. …

“‘Before the recent conquest of California and the discovery and development of its vast mineral wealth, comparatively little was known of the hydrography and geography of its coast, except by the few navigators trading along its seaboard, or the daring otter hunter, familiar with every cove, rock, and headland. …

“‘… [In] 1849 …the Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey first despatched a party to give definite shape to our shores. If the early adventurers and discoverers made their explorations in small crazy vessels, with wretched and untrustworthy instruments and methods, it is no less true that the first Coast Survey parties made theirs with inadequate funds, and under difficulties and privations that the well-housed Californian of to-day can never fully appreciate. …’ “

The length of that coast studied between 1849 and 1857 was over 3,100 miles. “…[W]ithin a few short years,” says NOAA, the group “…had visited every nook and cranny along the full extent of the coast, determined geographic positions, observed thousands of angles in conducting primary and secondary triangulation, mapped much of the shoreline, and cast the lead [to measure the depth of water] thousands of times.

“On top of this they found time to record their observations of this wild coast leaving an invaluable record for future generations. …” [including]:

• “Cape Disappointment — This cape is the only headland from Tillamook to latitude 47° 20’ that breaks the low line of shore. It presents a geological formation not before met with on the seaboard, being composed of horizontal columnar basalt …

“When the evening fogs from the northern bays do not cover the cape, we have sometimes experienced a dense fog rolling down the river about sunrise, enveloping everything below the top of the cape upon which we have stood, when it looked like an island less than a hundred yards in extent, and surrounded by the river fog, that must be felt to be appreciated. We were 35 days on this cape before obtaining a single [clear] night’s observations….

• “Columbia River Bar — During heavy weather, and especially in winter, the sea breaks with terrific fury from northwest of Cape Disappointment well to the southward of Point Adams; and we remember the mail steamer trying for 60 hours to find the smallest show of an opening to get in. Sailing vessels have laid off the entrance six weeks, waiting for a fair opportunity to enter, and many lie inside for weeks trying to get out.

“Few places present a scene of more wildness than this bar during a southeast gale, contrasting strongly with many times during the summer, when not a breaker is seen to mark the outline of the shoalest spot. From the summit of Cape Disappointment we have often watched the bar in varied states of wind and weather, and crossed it when calm and [when] breaking....”

As the Report got down to the detailed instructions for entering the Columbia River through its difficult Bar, the author summarized, “… the passage is badly obstructed by shifting shoals that lie two or three miles outside of the line joining the points. The numerous surveys that have been made of this river prove so conclusively the great changes which the channels through the shoals undergo that we shall not attempt to give any directions concerning the present north and south channels. The best advice we can offer is, when up with the bar, wait for a pilot.”

• • •

Early-day bar piloting, according To P.W. Gillette

Clatsop county pioneer P.W. Gillette arrived in the early 1850s. In The Pacific Monthly of June 1901 he described the beginning of piloting ships across the Columbia River Bar.

“For many years after 1811,” he wrote, “there was but little traffic in the Columbia. As the business of the Hudson Bay Company increased they had two or three ships making regular trips … The company kept among their servants someone who was capable of piloting their vessel in and out. … [Some references, including Michael Haglund’s “World’s Most Dangerous,” cite Chinook Chief Comcomly as the first bar pilot. He is believed to have often made his home at the site of the National Park Service’s modern Station Camp Unit at McGowan just east of the Chinook tunnel.]

“Alexander Lottie [other references, including descendants, spell the name ‘Lattie’] was among the first, if not the first, pilot on the bar. He was also a river pilot, and took the Hudson Bay Company’s ships up to Vancouver. … [Lattie’s descendants mention his having learned piloting from the Indians.]

“Captain John Scarborough, an Englishman, was also one of the earliest pilots. …

“The first pilot on the bar of the Columbia not connected with or under the influence of the Hudson Bay Company was one Captain Rieves [sic]. In May 1848, he took a crew of Indians and went outside to bring the Hudson Bay Company’s bark Vancouver, but lost her on the bar. …

“Some time in 1849 Captain White and his son, Cornelius, bought the schooner Mary Taylor and put her on the bar as pilot-boat, with himself and J. G. Hustler as pilots. … Both Captain White and Hustler hailed from New York.

“Not long after the Mary Taylor made her appearance, Captain George Flavel arrived in from San Francisco with the fine schooner California, and put her on the bar as an opposition pilot-boat. Aided by a larger purse and perhaps better management, the Mary Taylor was forced to retire. …

“After that, for more than a quarter of a century, Captain Flavel had almost undisputed possession of the pilotage at the mouth of the Columbia, which was notorious as a dangerous bar.”



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