In those days before telegraph, radio, telephone, television and internet, newspapers were the way of getting the news around. (Other options were hand-written letters between correspondents, such as during the Revolutionary War, and gossip, such as in today.) News stories about shipwrecks and maritime issues remain a key source for modern historians.

Newspapers traded copies with each other — those free subscriptions were called “exchanges” — and were often the most-looked for mail when the stage coach, train, or ship arrived. Editors freely borrowed text from each other, thereby filling their columns with News, “news,” and old wives tales. All text helped filled the columns which carried the advertisements which paid kept the papers going.

The type in newspapers up until the early 1900s was set by hand, often in cold dimly-lit quarters, letter by letter, space by space, period and comma by period and comma. Typesetters had to be able to read upside down and backwards, and distinguish “b” from “p” from “d” and “q,” in different type fonts, at a glance. After the paper was printed, all those little pieces of lead were sorted back into the wooden typecases. Journalists tended to be a nomadic lot, gathering knowledge as they drifted, often westward, from one community to the next.

Newspapering was hard work, and reprints among publications helped lessen editors’ loads all the while helping to keep the body politic headed upstream.

The Oregon Territory’s first newspaper, in 1846, was the Oregon Spectator of Oregon City; Portland’s Oregonian began in 1850; Salem’s Statesman Journal in 1851. The Astoria Marine Gazette was launched in 1864 (and carried advertising for the election of Abraham Lincoln); predecessors of The Daily Astorian started in 1873.

In Olympia, O. T. — Puget Sound country was then still part of the Oregon Territory — the Columbian began in 1852, Seattle’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1863.

The first paper in California was the Californian published in Monterey beginning in 1846. Soon after, San Francisco’s wonderful Alta California — this historian’s dream — began publication. It carried news from up and down the Pacific Coast.

While newspapers can be fickle sources of definitive information, they can be helpful sign posts to topics, suggesting when, where, and what to search for. For instance, the following excerpt from a May 1842 edition of Jackson, Mississippi’s The Weekly Mississippian suggests at least one American state of mind about possession of that western land south of the 49th parallel:

“The Hudson’s Bay Company has an exclusive monopoly of all the fur trade north of the United States, from Hudson’s Bay on one side, to the Pacific and Russian settlements on the other, and have a very large number of employees, who traverse this immense region in every direction, having posts or stations all over the same; … Is it not high time that our government, … should arouse itself to the protection of its own interests in Oregon? … Give the English only the north part of the Columbia river; let them plant ten guns upon Cape Disappointment, and all the navies in the world could not take the command of the river from them. The Cape and Tongue Point are two perfect ‘Gibraltars’ on the Columbia; …”

The article concluded with a comment on the state of the Columbia River entrance at that point:

“At present, or until the channel is buoyed out, and a light-house erected on Cape Disappointment, it is unsafe for vessels of greater draught of water than from ten to twelve feet to attempt entering the Columbia between the months of November and April, on account of the prevalent westerly winds which make heavy breakers on the bar.”

Seven years later, many U.S. newspapers printed the entirety of the federal act establishing the Territorial Government of Oregon. That item included determination to immediately build two lighthouses in the Territory: “… Sec. 27. And be it further enacted, That the sum of fifteen thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby, appropriated out of any moneys in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, to be expended under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, for the construction of light-houses at Cape Disappointment, at New Dungeness [Puget Sound]; and for the construction and anchoring of the requisite number of buoys, to indicate the channels at the mouth of the Columbia river, and the approaches of the harbor of Astoria … Approved August 14, 1848.” From The Weekly Standard of Raleigh, North Carolina.

In November 1851, the Buffalo (N. Y.) Daily Republic told readers of that Great Lakes city, “… The steamship Cherokee arrived about ½ past 5 this P. M., with California dates [newspapers] to Oct. 1st, with an immense number of passengers and $2,200,000 in gold dust. …” That was a lot of gold dust!

The article went on to say, “…The intelligence from the coast survey is very satisfactory. Two parties of the corps have been stationed the last three months at Cape Disappointment, for the purpose of determining its geographical position, and establishing a site for the light house, to be erected there … The topographical party, A. M. Harrison chief, James S. Lawson assistant, have completed a survey of the Cape, together with Sand Island and Point Adams, the maps of which have been sent to Washington. The site for a light house has also been selected. …”

As California’s gold mining prospered, as steamships began to arrive from the East Coast, as Oregon and California businesses boomed like heating popcorn, and as ever more ships traveled up and down the Pacific coast, ever more vessels bashed their lives out against the sands of our river bar.

Traditional academic histories of the Oregon Country frontier touch on Robert Gray’s ship Columbia and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, then launch into the wagon trains of the 1840s and ‘50s. But, interrupts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “…there was another frontier — a frontier of uncharted waterways, bold and precipitous mountains doing perpetual battle with the on-rushing swells of the North Pacific, wild and tumultuous storms that could drive the unwary sailor upon an iron-bound shore …”

Water-borne pioneers reached these shores from the 1500s onward, accidentally, and from the 1700s onward, intentionally. In the mid-19th century, as the handy and cheap new “newspapers,” together with peoples’ ability to read, spread across the United States, the reputation of the deadly Columbia River Bar spread.

After a particularly visible Columbia Bar shipwreck — the 1846 Shark, the 1852 General Warren — newspapers restated the demand for lighthouses, buoys, bar pilots, and steam vessels to carry pilots and tow ships through the difficult winds, hidden sandbars and panic-inducing waves.

The federal government was at work, but communications were slow — telegraph wires did not run coast to coast until 1861 — and provisioning projects out way out west took a long time. It was a many-months’ sail around the tip of South America through ice and hurricanes and the brand-new “clipper ships” had too little cargo room and high freight rates. Crossing the isthmus at Panama took less time, perhaps, but more effort and money — transporting goods by canoe, mule or the slow-to-be constructed railway — all the while experiencing the unfriendly environment — mosquitoes, mud, malaria, alligators …

In 1849 the U.S. Coast Survey, the scientific arm of the government, set to measuring, mapping, and defining that newly-acquired Pacific coast and recording the sailing instructions by which to navigate it. The Survey focused on the entrance to the Columbia River and reported its findings periodically in the California newspapers.

Sept. 25, 1850, Daily Alta California: “Lt. Com’d’ W.P. McArthur …: Sir: When comparing our chart with that of the Exploring Expedition [1840-41] the changes of the channels and shoals at the mouth of the Columbia river will be found to be numerous and considerable. …

“To these changes in the channel is to be attributed the great dread which navigators have had of the Columbia. There is now a good pilot at the mouth of the Columbia and I have recommended a light house on Cape Disappointment and five buoys to be placed in such a manner as best to point out the channel. … The greatly increasing commerce of Oregon demands that these improvements be made immediately …”


December 1850: “Lt. Comd’g W. P. McArthur and Lt. W. A. Bartlett, U.S.N. assisting: From March to October the prevailing wind along the coast and for many miles to the westward is fresh from the northwest, being freshest from 10 am to 2 pm and not unfrequently falling light during the night. During this season … the northwest wind blows with almost the regularity of a trade wind causing a current of about a half a knot per hour along the coast setting to the southward.

“During the months of August and September fogs prevail; there are no heavy gales of Wind and little or no rain.

“From October to March the wind is variable both with regard to velocity and direction; heavy gales occur from the southeast south and southwest generally accompanied by protracted rain and causing a very heavy sea and swell along the coast.

“The current sets generally to northward varying in velocity with the strength of the wind.”


Feb. 24, 1851: “W.A. Bartlett, Lt. Com’g. U.S.N. Dear sir: … I have been addressed by a large number of the ship masters and owners of vessels trading into the Columbia to urge upon the proper departments of the Government the necessity of hastening the work of building the light houses and placing the buoys already provided by act of Congress. …”


July 28, 1851: “A.M. Harrison, Sub-assistant Coast Survey. Dear Sir: I send with this report a tracing of Cape Hancock or Disappointment on a scale of 1/10,000. It embraces the proposed lighthouse site and three miles of the shore … Although ninety feet lower than the hill upon which the [Survey] observatory is situated … it has the advantage [because] the fog banks … generally rest upon and above the summits of the most elevated hills, while those below are clear and unobscured. So I am informed by persons who sail in and out of the river. Lighthouse hill is one hundred and ninety two feet high; Observatory hill two hundred and eighty seven feet.

“… The angle commanded to seaward by a light placed as recommended would be much greater than one on Observatory hill unless the Government chose to go to the expense of time and money in felling a large quantity of trees … of no ordinary size. A person standing on the proposed site commands a View to seaward of one hundred and thirty four degrees. …”


Sept. 29, 1851: “A.D. Bache, Sup’t. US Coast Survey to Hon. Thos. Corwin, Secretary of the Treasury. Sir: I have the honor to transmit … a minute survey of Cape Disappointment or Hancock at the entrance to Columbia river Oregon for the location of the light house … of the elevation of forty feet which he proposes for the light. It should be a sea coast light of the first class and will be visible nearly twenty-five miles. I would recommend that so much of the adjacent woods should be removed as will render the establishment secure from the near approach of fire.”

With this, bids would be let for a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment and the materials for it and others on the West Coast would be shipped around Cape Horn.

NEXT: The U.S. Coast Survey leads the way on western exploration.

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