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‘This Nest of Dangers’: Astorian speaks up, boosters for maritime economy

By Nancy Lloyd

For the Observer

Published on November 1, 2017 3:22PM

In the early 1870s wheat shipments were a major source of marine traffic on the Columbia River.

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library, OrHi3686

In the early 1870s wheat shipments were a major source of marine traffic on the Columbia River.

The Astorian’s editor DeWitt Clinton Ireland was an enthusiastic booster of his town’s desirability as a maritime port. However, his arguments tended to minimize the dangers of the Columbia River bar. This 1881 billhead was issued soon before Ireland sold the newspaper.


The Astorian’s editor DeWitt Clinton Ireland was an enthusiastic booster of his town’s desirability as a maritime port. However, his arguments tended to minimize the dangers of the Columbia River bar. This 1881 billhead was issued soon before Ireland sold the newspaper.

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DeWitt Clinton Ireland

DeWitt Clinton Ireland

Shipping news was front, top and center in one of Astoria’s early newspapers.

University of Oregon

Shipping news was front, top and center in one of Astoria’s early newspapers.

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From its inauguration, Astoria’s first newspaper, the Tri-Weekly Astorian, itemized the ship traffic coming and going in the Columbia. In August 1873, it reported:

“Movement of Vessels. … On the way to this port:

“Schooner Hera, from Melbourne; British bark Lieut. Maury, sailed from San Francisco July 30th; Br. bk. Vesta, sailed from Liverpool, April 12th; Br. bk. Shylet, Liverpool, via Victoria; Br. bk. Oneata, 588 tons, McDowell [the captain], from Tyne via Molendo and Callao, arrived from Molendo at Callao 22d; Br. ship Loretta, 1,944 tons, from Tyne via Callao, sailed March 6th; Br. bk. Duncairn, Chambers, from Tyne via Bombay, arrived at Bombay prior to April 22d; Br. bk. George A. Holt, Northon, from Wear via New Zealand, sailed Dec. 20th, 1872, passed the Lizard February 6th. [Many of these vessels would be in for wheat.]

“Arrived [at this port]:

“U. S. str. [steamer] Shubrick, San Fran. August 2; Str. California, Sitka, August 1; bktne. [barkentine] Melancthon, San Fran. July 29; bk. [bark] Clara Louise, Honolulu, July 25; bk. Edward James, San Fran. July 15; ship Confidence, San Francisco, July 12; Br. ship Middlesex, London, July 10; bk. Garibaldi, Hong Kong, June 20; bk. Forward June 23.”

Lots of traffic was passing Astoria without leaving much money in town.


The same year, 1873, beginning July 1, that new newspaper published a “Report on the Harbor and Shipping of the port of Astoria,” and it would reprint the same article in the next 17 issues, through Aug. 9. This unusual journalistic device — reprinting an article so many times in a row — was startling. Why would the editor do it? Perhaps he was hoping the “exchanged” newspapers would reprint it across the region. Perhaps he wanted to convince powers-that-be that Astoria, rather than Portland or Seattle, was the logical shipping point in the region.

After all, it had become clear to commercial interests that the Pacific Northwest had valuable commodities for sale. The question was, where would these products best (and most cheaply) be shipped from, the Columbia River or Puget Sound?; from Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, or from Portland, 100 miles upriver?

Puget Sound was quite a bit north of the Columbia and required a longer sail through often-difficult seas. (The captain of the Calmar declared, after his vessel had limped into Seattle in 1949, “The waves [in the North East Pacific] were the worst I’ve ever seen in the Atlantic or Pacific, and I’ve been at sea since 1912.”)

What about the Columbia River? Its bar’s deadly notoriety was well documented. And the sail up to Portland? A contrary wind could make for a long and nearly impossible sail upriver past sandbars and tree snags. Lewis & Dryden reported that the brig Sequin in 1848 “was fifty-four days from Astoria to Portland.”

Because the river to Portland was shallower in critical spots than it was at the river’s mouth, the increasingly larger wheat ships — think “seagoing warehouses” — of the early 1870s that could get out of the river fully loaded could not get down the river fully loaded. Part of a shipment would be loaded at Portland and the rest of it, being “lightered” [shipped in a separate vessel such as a barge] downriver, would be loaded at Astoria. Handling the cargo twice was expensive.

Astoria’s newspaper made the city’s case:

“Report on the Harbor and Shipping of the port of Astoria. Facts Important to the Public.”

“At a meeting of the Astoria Chamber of Commerce, held in May last [May 1872], a committee was appointed to prepare statistics of the harbor and shipping of the port of Astoria for use at the Farmer’s Convention. …

“… The water front of Astoria, varying from a quarter of a mile to a mile in width, affords over six miles of secure anchorage for the largest classed vessels, in from six to twelve fathoms of water. No storms have yet visited the harbor that effected any damage to shipping riding at anchor in the bay, or lying at the wharf. …

“The central portion of the harbor is just twelve miles inside the Columbia river bar, on which there is twenty-four feet of water at extreme low tide, and thirty-four at ordinary high tide. After crossing the bar, the depth holds still greater all the way to Astoria, so that any vessel able to cross can safely venture to our docks. …”

So far, so good.

“Now as to the safety of the Columbia river [bar]. … we are enabled to approximate very closely, and set the number [of vessels that have crossed the bar] down at an average of five hundred a year for the last twenty-one years, or since 1852. The following is a complete list of all the losses or wrecks that have occurred on the bar since 1852, which year may be considered the beginning of wisdom as regards the channels, currents, &c., on or about the bar. …Mendora [sic] and Merrithew, …came in without pilots, wind failed after getting in…; … Oriole…; … Detroit … going out at night; … Desdemona … came in without a pilot …; … Woodpecker …: Industry … coming in without a pilot; … W.B. Scranton ….

“Only eight vessels in twenty-one years. Eight out of 10,500. One out of 1,312, or one-thirteenth of one per cent of the shipping coming into the river. Of this number, four were coming in without pilots. It further appears that nearly every loss during the time under review was the result, not of a rough bar, but of the wind failing after the vessel had crossed, thus leaving her to drift on the sands. It also seems that each loss of vessels coming in occurred when they were sailing against the tide, instead of with it. There being no tug to go to their relief, of course, there could be no rescue. It is safe to say that, had there been a tug at hand, every vessel thus far lost on the bar might have been saved.

“Since the placing of the [steam] tug Astoria upon the bar, or pilot grounds in 1869, there has been no loss, and with proper care on the part of tug and pilots, there need be none for many years to come. …”

Wait a minute.

This writer’s carefully curated list of wrecks attributable to the Columbia River bar between those years reads quite differently: 1853: January, bark Vandalia, all hands lost; January, bark Mindora; January, bark J. Merrithew; September, bark Oriole; month unknown. 1854: February, steam tug Firefly, four lost. 1855: December, brig Detroit. 1859: December, schooner, Rambler, four lost. 1861: May, schooner Woodpecker. 1864: January, barkentine Jennie Ford, one lost. 1865: February, bark Industry, 17 lost; March, brig S.D. Lewis; 1867: May, barkentine W.B. Scranton. 1870: April, schooner, Champion, two lost; month unknown, schooner, Abe Lincoln. 1871: December, steamer U.S. Grant.

That’s 15 wrecks.

Then there’s the picky bit about how the editor counts years: “21 years,” if written in 1873, has to begin with 1852. Eighteen-fifty-two was awful for wrecks: January, steamer General Warren, many lost; March, schooner Juliet; May, brig Potomac; November, steamer Columbia, schooner Machigone, nine or ten lost, brig Marie, nine lost, December, brig Bordeaux, none lost.

Seven more wrecks.

If the editor didn’t mean to count 1852, then he would have had to calculate into 1874 in order to reach “21” years, a year later than he wrote his article. (Three or four more wrecks happened between August 1873 and the end of 1874.)

I have counted between 18 and 22 wrecks as the result of ships crossing the bar during the time used in the article; Tri-Weekly Astorian editor DeWitt Clinton Ireland tallied eight. His statistical study and that part of the port’s argument are based on flawed data.

We should never minimize the Columbia River bar’s capacity for destruction.


“The question,” continued the editor, “is now never raised about Sandy Hook [New Jersey] bar, at the entrance of New York [City] harbor, being too shallow and rough for the extensive and profitable employment of all classes of vessels, yet there is five feet more water on the Columbia river bar at high tide, than there is on Sandy Hook at a corresponding stage of water. …

“Therefore, it is a simple problem of whether Oregon will build up and maintain a seaport town worthy of a great State, within her own borders, or whether such a place will be sustained on Pugut [sic] Sound, or California, at an annual cost of one-fourth the agricultural wealth of the State.”

Apparently Oregon would not or could not. As this article was being published the U.S. economy was falling into a serious depression. Money for business expansion was evaporating in a credit crunch not equaled until the Great Depression of the next century.


In October 1873, the Tri-Weekly Astorian sought again to make its point:

“O, How Long. Steamer Ajax left Portland Saturday morning with a small cargo to enable her to cross the shoals which beset the passage of ocean vessels to and from that city. River boats left soon after with passengers and freight which were transferred to the Ocean steamer as fast as deeper water was reached. Finally, at 5 P.M. Sunday the steamer Ajax arrived at Astoria with all that it was possible to get over the ‘hog’s-back’ [the shallow sand bar east of Astoria which bedeviled fully loaded vessels] with, although the ship was but about two thirds loaded. Being far behind the [scheduled departure] it was necessary to go immediately to sea with the two thirds of a cargo.

“Do the farmers of Oregon suppose a steamer worth $300,000, and carrying a crew of over 50 men can suffer delays of several days in the river each trip, carry but a part cargo and run as cheaply as if laden fully and with dispatch? …

“The same boat that takes on grain at Cascades, Oregon City, Salem or Albany could carry it direct to Astoria, but no, they must discharge at Portland, where the grain is handled, put on to another river steamer (perhaps of the same company) and carried on down the river to St. Helens or Astoria according to the draft of the ocean vessel to be loaded. The injurious effects of this course [are] seen in the fact that wheat is enough [less costly] in Oregon to warrant its shipment to California. How long must Oregon, producing a first-class wheat, suffer these extra expenses?”


The nation found itself in a serious economic depression, courtesy of post-Civil War financial over-expansion, particularly in railroads. Little money was available to expand rail lines out to the coast. Without those lines there was no cheap and easy way to get bags of wheat from the shipping points all the way down to Astoria; they would continue to be shipped from Portland.

The “wheat fleet” of wind ships would continue to pass Astoria on their way to and from Portland.


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