A reference from the University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences department on the subject of northwest windstorms includes a story suggesting what North Head Lighthouse once withstood.

Perhaps every 30 years or so our corner of the country has an unusually severe storm which bestows on us hurricane-force winds and sideways rain. “Along the coast,” the U-Dub report says, “winds exceeding 100 mph, and occasionally 150 mph, have accompanied these major storms, particularly on exposed headlands such as Cape Blanco, on the Oregon Coast, and North Head, just north of the Columbia River. Such storms have winds equivalent to category 3, and occasionally category 4, hurricanes….”

“The “Great Olympic Blowdown” of 29 January 1921 produced hurricane-force winds along the northern Oregon and Washington coastlines and an extraordinary loss of timber … An official report at North Head, on the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River, indicated … sustained winds reached 113 mph with gusts estimated to 150 mph occurred at [the lighthouse] at North Head, the strongest winds ever observed over Washington state. …

“The report of a Weather Bureau observer [Perry R. Hill] at the North Head station reveals the ferocity and sudden onset of the event. After pressure fell to its lowest level and wind speed temporarily dropped below 30 mph, he and a staff member of the station, Mrs. Hill, decided to travel to the nearby town of Ilwaco for supplies and mail. On the return trip from Ilwaco to North Head the errand became a life-threatening adventure:

“The road from Ilwaco to North Head,’ the observer reported in 1921, ‘is through a heavy forest of spruce and hemlock for some distance. On the return trip, shortly before reaching the heavy timber, the wind came with quite a heavy gust. We saw the top of a rotted tree break off and fall out of sight in the brush. ... We proceeded very slowly and with great care, passing over some large limbs that had fallen and through showers of spruce and hemlock twigs and small limbs blown from the trees.

North Head plank road

The plank road that once linked Ilwaco and North Head was a popular buggy and car ride, but could be extremely hazardous in a severe windstorm.

“We soon came to a telephone pole across the roadway and brought the car to a stop, for a short distance beyond the pole an immense spruce tree lay across the road. We left the machine and started to run down the road toward a space in the forest where the timber was lighter.

“Just after leaving the car, I chanced to look up and saw a limb sailing through the air toward us; I caught Mrs. Hill by the hand and we ran; an instant later the limb, which was about 12 inches in diameter, crashed where we had stood. In three or four minutes we had climbed over two immense tree trunks and reached the place in which I thought was our only chance to escape serious injury or possibly death.

“The southeast wind roared through the forest, the falling trees crashed to the ground in every direction from where we stood. Many were broken off where their diameter was as much as 4 feet. A giant spruce fell across the roadway burying itself through the planks [of the roadway] within 10 feet of where we stood.

“Treetops broke off and sailed through the air, some of the trees fell with a crash, others toppled over slowly as their roots were torn from the earth. In a few minutes there were but two trees standing that were dangerous to us and we watched every movement of their large trunks and comparatively small tops.

“Between 3:45 and 3:50 p.m., the wind shifted to the south and the velocity decreased to probably 100 mph or it may have been as low as 90 mph. Shortly after 3:50 p.m. we started toward North Head. We climbed over some of the fallen trunks, crawled under others, and pushed our way through tangled masses of tops that lined the roadway.”

The UW report continues, “The storm took particular vengeance on local bird life, with a canvasback duck blown through a plate-glass window and Ilwaco chicken farmers finding their charges blown miles away. …”

Hurricane report

From the Portland Morning Oregonian of Jan. 30, 1921:

“North Head, Wash., Jan. 30 —(Special) — The hurricane which yesterday swept over this section of the coast was by far the most severe storm which ever visited the north Pacific coast, based upon the wind velocity, which, according to official estimates, attained the unparalleled speed of approximately 160 miles an hour. According to records here, no such wind velocity ever has been reported anywhere.

“The anemometer tower at the weather bureau station was razed by the terrific force of the gale after the government instruments had recorded a wind of 132 miles an hour. All movable things in the path of the storm were swept away, and the damage to buildings and government property was quite large. When the hurricane was at its height the government wireless tower antennae were blown away, and the cottage which housed the family of the operator in charge of the wireless station was completely demolished, leaving them homeless. …

“Fully 80 percent of all matured trees on North Head were razed and the roads leading to North Head were blocked by fallen trees and debris. …

“The storm arose without warning. The wind increased from 40 to more than 100 miles an hour in three minutes. The barometer dropped .06 of an inch instantly and continued to go down. … No injuries were reported in this vicinity. …”

And from the Tribune of Ilwaco, Jan. 30, 1921:

“A hurricane struck Ilwaco and vicinity at 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon, leaving in its wake thousands of dollars’ worth of damaged property. Boats were torn from their moorings in Bakers bay and dashed to pieces against the bulkhead on Ilwaco beach. Many buildings were unroofed and electric and telephone wires were leveled to the ground. …

“The peak of the hurricane lasted for nearly one hour. … The force of the wind bulged the heavy brick wall of the keeper’s house of North Head light. …

“The hurricane took particular vengeance on chickens and shingles and the air was filled with flying shingles and screeching fowls. Some of the Ilwaco chicken farmers were this morning gathering up their fowls in the vicinity of Seaview, two miles distant.”

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