This Nest of Dangers: 
Prelude to the South Jetty

An 1851 nautical chart illustrates the incredible complexity of shoals at the mouth of the Columbia River, which greatly impeded navigation and commerce. Shipwrecks, many near-disasters and routine delays in moving wheat and other products over the river bar eventually led Congress to authorize construction of the South Jetty at Point Adams.

Beginning in 1869 with the vessel Helen Angier and the first direct shipment of wheat from Portland to Liverpool, the “wheat fleet” — many ships over many years — began to materialize off the Columbia. The wealth of the Pacific Northwest’s natural resources had begun to have value to the rest of the industrialized world, but there was a transportation “rat’s nest” involved.

The trouble came as vessels negotiated their way to and from the port at Portland: tip-toeing over the accursed Columbia River Bar, inching 100 miles upstream while dodging wretched and surprising sand bars, resting at the seawall while wheat, flour, produce, or lumber were loaded, carefully retreating downriver while avoiding shallow spots and, finally, reaching the “safety” of the tempestuous North Pacific.

The Los Angeles Herald reported in the early 1880s about federal appropriations for “river and harbor improvements … Cascade, Columbia river, $500,000; the Lower Willamette and Columbia, from Portland to the sea, including the bar at the mouth of the Columbia, $150,000; to protect the beach at Ft. Adams [Ft. Stevens], at the mouth of the Columbia, $20,000; …”

(The “Cascade” appropriation was for building the locks around the Cascade rapids so inland empire wheat and produce could reach Portland; the “Lower Willamette and Columbia” money was for dredging — removing sand and debris from a path through the rivers’ beds — so foreign ships of increasing size able to carry ever more volume could reach Portland’s harbor; and “protecting the beach at Ft. Adams,” because the spit on which the fort was built was washing away. There was no money appropriated for dealing with the Columbia’s bar.)

Wikipedia tells us that the Columbia feeds an average of 265,000 unimaginable cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific Ocean. A cubic foot of water, says the Internet, weighs almost 62-1/2 pounds and is, of course, 12” x 12” x 12” square.

I cannot imagine the volume and weight of one minute’s outfall.

Hydrological engineers must have had the heebe-jeebes when thinking out a project which would direct this much water.

The 1869 Coast Survey’s “Pacific Coast Pilot,” the navigational authority, said, “The entrance to Columbia River is … greatly obstructed by shifting shoals … [N]umerous surveys … prove so conclusively the great changes constantly going on in the channels … that no sailing directions … can be relied upon for any great length of time. … “When up with the bar, wait for a pilot.”

In 1879 Army Engineer G. L. Gillespie wrote his commanding officer, “It is not believed that dredging on the bar will be of any value. The season of severe storms covers a period of six months, and the material of the bar is so light and shifting that we may anticipate that a channel dredged during a short period of calm would be filled up during the first succeeding storm. [Those of us who were here when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 remember the fineness of that volcanic ash.]

“The place is so exposed, too, that the times at which a dredge could work would be rare and of very limited extent, and any dredging so done would not increase the confidence of the pilots.

“The only remedial measure, it seems to me, is to ascertain the best means of securing the full effect of the ebb through some elected channel, and then let nature undisturbedly work out its own course. …”

Gillespie was retired before his thinking was formulated and forwarded to Congress for funding. Perhaps, also, his superiors could not fathom a project which would direct this much water. In the meantime, Portland’s business community applied political pressure to everyone to do something. The North Pacific’s weather and waves continued to hammer the shore, while the Columbia rolled on to join the maelstrom.

(Decades later Army Engineers R.E. Hickson and F.W. Rodolf added to the description of difficulties, “the steep offshore slope along the Pacific Coast in this area, combined with high wind[s] … results in heavy wave action …” which makes “beach erosion and hydrographic studies difficult.”)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is as old as the nation, having put up fortifications at Bunker Hill, and at one time, together with U.S. Navy, having run the U.S. Lighthouse districts.

Following the Civil War they turned to helping develop the infrastructure of the American West.

It was clear to those reading California and Oregon newspapers in the 19th century that the Columbia River needed dredging and its bar needed taming — that bar whose large waves regularly slammed ships down into following troughs, bashing them against a suddenly shallowed bottom, cracking keels and ribs, starting leaks, wounding those vessels and sometimes killing them.

From the Sacramento Daily Record-Union of March 1880: “The other day, with two steam tugs attempting to take her out to sea, the British ship Dilharree went ashore at the mouth of the Columbia river. The wreck came just in time to italicize a petition being numerously signed for presentation to Congress for an appropriation to construct a breakwater at the mouth of the river. … the trade and commerce of the Northwest need a liberal and fostering care from the general Government, and it is only reasonable that the second greatest river in America should receive all the expenditure necessary to make it a safe and convenient entrance.”

A year later The Daily Astorian huffed, “… We have the same old story to tell in reference to the action of congress with regard to the improvement of the Columbia river bar. Every creek and mud flat of the United States discernible by the aid of a magnifying glass has its appropriation for improvement but nothing is allowed — absolutely nothing — for the Columbia river bar.”

The shipwrecks continued.

The Daily Astorian, on Feb. 10, 1881, printed the report of Capt. Charles Taylor of the schooner Emily Stephens: “Left Humbol[d]t bay [California] January 27th with a cargo of 83,000 feet of redwood lumber. First day out ran 110 miles in nine hours. Heavy gale increasing from S.E., was compelled to heave to [parking the boat at sea] that night. Experienced a continuation of heavy gales until I arrived off the Columbia river bar, vessel straining and leaking considerably while laboring in a sea-way, necessitating a careful attention constantly to the pumps ….

“Wednesday, February 2nd. — Commenced with moderate S. E. wind, heavy sea and thick fog. At 11 A.M. bursted [sic] jib, and at noon, blowing a gale, hove to; …Columbia bar distant about 35 miles; pumps attended to.

“Thursday, February 3d. — Thick fog, heavy sea, moderate wind from the southward, latitude 46 degrees 13 minutes, longitude 124 degrees 21 minutes; the bar bearing E. by N. half N., distant 15 miles, too thick to run for it. Fog continued rest of the day.

“Friday, February 4th. — Commences with light southerly wind and thick fog. Eleven A.M. sighted the land northward of the bar. Noon, cape Disappointment, bearing S. E. by E., distant 12 miles. Fog shut in thick again, had to stand off. Midnight, cape light bearing E. by S. half S., distant 12 miles.

“Saturday, February 5th. — Light southerly wind and thick weather; at daylight stood into the land. Noon, too thick to make it out. Stood off again. Midnight, blowing fresh from southeast.

“Sunday, February 6. — Commences with a strong S. E. gale. Four P. M. blowing very heavy. Hove to under a close reefed foresail. Noon, wind shifted to S. W. and cleared up. Made all sail and steered for the cape … having drifted 26 miles to the N. W. Midnight, calm. Pumps carefully attended to.

“Monday, February 7. — Commences with light southerly wind and fine, clear weather. Cape Disappointment bearing at noon, E. by S., half S., distant 14 miles. Afternoon, calm. Six P.M., wind S.E. and overcast. Midnight, wind variable from S.E. to S.W., squally, with rain.

“Tuesday, February 8, 1 A.M. — Wind S.W. Six A.M., wind west, fresh. At daylight made all sail and steered for the north channel. Eight A.M., got to the bar and found it breaking clean across. Tacked ship and stood for the south channel and run in to within half a mile of number four buoy on the end of Clatsop spit, when it fell dead calm and the vessel commenced drifting over to the middle sands. Let go the big anchor, she ran out thirty fathoms of chain, when it parted [broke]. Let go the other and lost it also. The vessel then drifted stern first into the breakers on the middle sands, she shipped a heavy breaker and smashed our steering gear up, stove in cabin door and filled the cabin.

“Having had a signal of distress flying ever since we lost the first anchor, and no assistance coming, seeing we could do no more for the vessel we launched the boat being the only means left of saving our lives. After being in the boat an hour and a half and making no headway, and the vessel drifting away from us all the time, the tug Columbia came out and rescued us about 3 P M. She then went out the south channel and found the vessel had drifted clean over the middle sands with but little damage. The tug’s crew put a hawser and pilot on board, took the vessel in tow and arrived in Astoria with her at 7 P.M. when Capt. Flavel took full charge of her.”

In the meantime, members of the public wrote to the editor of The Daily A: “The Columbia Bar. Astoria, Nov. 21, 1881: Mr. Editor: Different people express themselves differently. Some say the Edith Lorne was lost because she did not take a tow. They forget the Dilharre that went ashore with two tugs holding her; the bark Rival, a small light vessel that parted or slipped the tug’s hawser; the ship Nimbus that reached the sea but sank in the ocean a few hours after from the effects of bumping as she crossed the bar; the bark Pilgrim, that bumped at the same time going out and went into San Francisco for repairs, and the Aberystwith Castle which also bumped but continued on her voyage; the steamer Ajax that knocked her rudder post off; the steamer Great Republic a total loss, the thumps that the present San Francisco steamers get in crossing but which are not published in the papers.

“Some say that the tugs are not powerful enough. What has that to do with the striking of steamships [which aren’t dependent on the wind]? What had it to do with the bark Rival, a small coaster and owned by one of the owners in the tugs? What had it to do with the striking of the three vessels that struck at the time the Nimbus sank, loaded with grain? Power in tugs cannot put water under a ship’s bottom.

“Ship owners will say that vessels drawing over seventeen feet of water should not come to the Columbia river. The bar pilots formerly said that it was not safe for vessels drawing over eighteen feet to cross, but it was met with the statement that the tugs were light. The Portland Board of Trade issued circulars to the world that vessels should not come drawing over eighteen to nineteen feet, but it was said, one of the board was interested in small vessels, and the whole board in having only such vessels come to the Columbia river as could ascend to Portland.

“The trouble is with the bar — the entrance to the Columbia river. Whatever selfish interests may have been entertained by the pilots and the Portland Board of Trade, there was soundness in their advice. The loss now of three cargoes of grain and the wreck of the several vessels prove it.

“The fact that the largest vessels, and especially wooden vessels, do not, cannot come, testifies to the same. The difference of nine cents per bushel, or $4500 per cargo, on wheat between San Francisco and the Columbia river show it. The one to four weeks’ detention of ships now lying in our harbor, waiting for an opportunity to get to sea; the long detention of vessels outside demonstrates the same.

“We may say the wind failed at the critical moment; the pilot should not have essayed a crossing in the night time, or without a tug, or when there was a swell on, or the tugs are too small to go against the swell; but these are all based on the premise that there is danger, an obstruction in the way which should be avoided, and if some of the “ifs” had been followed, trouble and disaster would not have occurred.

“That obstruction consists of two shallow, tortuous channels with shoals between and around at the entrance to the Columbia. In the channels the water flows in opposite directions much of the time, and the tides set over the sands instead of between them, so that vessels cannot drift in or out on the current. Combine the two channels and there would be a straight and deep channel through which a vessel could be safely and without delay taken by wind or steam; and on the current of which a vessel without either propelling power would have an even chance to be borne in or out to places of safety.

“Col. Gillespie estimated the cost of the work at $430,000. The wheat to pass out this year is estimated at 305,000 tons, which at $3 per ton extra foots up $915,000, or double the amount in one year of the permanent improvement. One favorable point in the improvement would be that no portion would depend on the completion of the whole to become effective. Every foot of the [jetty] would do good whether the whole work was ever completed or not. [signed] Observer.”

(In December 1881, The Astorian observed, “From the report of the U.S. Chief of Engineers for 1881, we learn that by the jetty system a twenty-foot channel has been obtained and maintained at Galveston, Texas, where formerly a depth of but eleven feet existed …”

(I would translate that comment to say to the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Congress, “See, you’ve done it there; now try it on the Columbia.”)

“Why We Want the Bar Improved,” roared The Daily Astorian’s editor J. F. Halloran in February 1882. “Following is a list of the wrecks and losses on Columbia river bar during four years ending Dec. 31, 1881, caused by reason of the depth of the channels being too little:

“1878. About Jan. 1st, three vessels struck on the bar going out south channel in tow of tugs. The Aberstwythe Castle was able to continue her voyage and the Pilgrim was obliged to put into San Francisco for repairs. Cost of repairs, delay, etc., not known here. The third ship, Nimbus, sunk in the ocean a few miles off shore; total loss of vessel and cargo: Value of vessel (estimated) $40,000; value of cargo $92,496, [Total] $132,496.

“1879. About June, steamer Great Republic, owing to crooks of channel, drifted on the sands; total loss of vessel, nearly so of cargo, and ten lives lost. Value of vessel (estimated) $150,000. Value of cargo $30,000. [Total] $180,000.

“1880. Early in the year the steamer California, now Eureka, knocked off her rudder post in crossing out and went into dry dock for repairs. Cost unknown here. March 10th, the ship Dilharre in tow of two tugs was unable to turn in the elbow of the north channel, struck on the sands and became a total loss. Value of vessel (est.) $45,000. Value of cargo $77,228. [Total] $122,228.

“1881. About November, the ship Edith Lorne, sailing out, stuck fast and became a total loss. Value of vessel (est.,) $30,000. Value of cargo $44,000. [Total] $74,000. This does not include vessels wrecked out of the channels about the mouth of the river. And now must be chronicled the latest disaster, the loss of the Corsica.”

“The Corsica Wreck. Astoria, Or., February 21st [1882]. — The British bark Corsica, outward bound, foundered off the Columbia River Bar this morning. Captain Veysog makes the following statement: ‘We left the Fort Stevens anchorage at 11 a.m. yesterday in charge of pilot Lyons, the tug Astoria towing. We were drawing 19 feet and 6 inches of water. The bar was apparently smooth, with no breakers; the wind was light northeast to southeast. We set our square canvas and proceeded favorably as far as the bar in the north channel. After reaching the bar, we found a heavy swell setting in from the southwest. In crossing we struck several times. After striking the second time, I asked the pilot to take the ship back, but he said, ‘If I attempt to do that you will lose your ship.’ We sounded the pumps and found twenty-three inches of water. All hands were then set to work at both pumps. The sea had now got very rough and the ship was pitching bows under, and I asked the tug to lay by me. The water was increasing on the pumps, and gaining at the rate of fifteen inches an hour. The tug Fearless now came alongside and laid by me, the tug Astoria proceeding to Astoria. I inquired if there was any place to beach the ship, or if they could tow me inside to save the cargo, but they replied in the negative. The ship kept afloat longer than I expected, but at five o’clock in the morning she foundered. The locality was off Cape Disappointment, bearing northeast about twelve miles distant. We steamed all around, but saw no vestige of her, after which we returned to Astoria, with all hands saved. The value of the cargo was $46,838.

“Portland, February 21st. — The cargo of the Corsica has been sold to a French firm and insured for $7,140 in the Commercial Union and for $3,000 in the London Provincial. The vessel was built in 1869, was of wood and owned by John S. Hatfield & Company of Glasgow. The Carnegie crossed out immediately ahead of the Corsica, and the Stirlingshire only a short distance behind her. Captain Jessey, the Bar pilot of the steamer Oregon, who crossed inwards half an hour before the Corsica got out, says the water was remarkably smooth,” according to the San Francisco Bulletin.

In 1882, after lengthy study of this Gordian Knot of a major waterway, the Army engineers recommended to Congress, “… the construction, at as early a day as possible, of a jetty, slightly convex to the north, extending from the shore near Fort Stevens (on Point Adams) in a northwesterly direction towards a point about 3 miles south of Cape Disappointment, this jetty to stop short of that point or be prolonged beyond it, as experience may indicate to be necessary.” I.e., experience would have to show how long the jetty — the South Jetty — should be. Their hydrological studies could not tell them exactly what it would take to correctly direct the outflow of the river so as to scour out and maintain a deeper shipping channel.

They continued, “In view of the exposed location and the difficulty in maintaining any structure, the board proposed the jetty be brought to the height of low tide, or higher, if experience showed necessity therefor.” So only experience would tell them how long, and how high, the South Jetty should be.

This daunting project was profoundly difficult, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to pick their way slowly through its complexities.

Construction of the South Jetty would begin in 1885.

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