Those of us who enjoy Joanne Rideout’s “Ship Report” on KMUN radio know that wheat is one of the most frequent cargoes filling those freighters we watch sailing outbound. That’s been the case since the 1860s.

The Willamette and Tualatin valleys were known to the first settlers as great wheat-growing lands; the Hudson’s Bay Company exported the excess it received in trade to its other outposts and to Russian forts up the coast.

The Navy’s Lt. Howison reported to Congress in the late 1840s that not only were these regions good for the crop, but also the lands east of the Cascades: he compared them to the fabulous wheat lands of Russia.

It was a combination of excellent soil, large open pastures suitable for converting to fields, and a climate which produced, generally, the right moisture — spring rains, winter snow cover — at the right time, plus hot dry summers which allowed the grain to ripen. This was a quickly-renewable resource which the land produced in abundance, giving family farms excess production to trade for necessities. For a time, the State of Oregon accepted wheat as currency, equal to silver or gold.

Late in February 1869 Astoria’s newspaper reported that the “New A-1 American Clipper Bark Helen Angier was advertised by McCracken Merrill & Co. as sailing ‘For Liverpool, Direct.’” Not quite a year later, the Weekly Oregon Statesman of Salem said, “The cargo of wheat shipped last spring by Salem parties to Liverpool, in the Helen Angier, has been heard from. The wheat on board of her was sold as ‘California wheat,’ as is shown by the account of sales received. The shippers are gratified to know that the wheat sold for the highest possible price on a very low market, realizing 10s 4d [10 shillings 4 pence] to 11s [11 shillings] per 100 pounds. It arrived in good order.”

In September 1869 the Morning Oregonian printed, “To carry away the wheat exported during the past month [August 1869], 33 vessels were employed, of which 30 cleared for England — a much larger number than any previous month.” The word spread: the Pacific Northwest had fine wheat for sale, while the labor force of an industrializing world needed food.

The “wheat fleet” occupied Portland’s waterfront about four months of each year. The tall masts of the square-riggers loomed over the city’s buildings, suggesting the romance of far-away lands, the beauty of ships under sail, and the incoming prosperity of the trade; all the while the shippers had to deal with the realities of the difficult Columbia Bar and hazardous transit upriver to the city docks.

How were the city’s business interests to keep control of this profitable trade? Railroads were threatening to take it away, on one hand; on the other, Astoria and Puget Sound wanted it to themselves.

The Morning Astorian mused, in February 1883, about transportation of crops to come. “We observe in the Walla Walla [Wash.] papers of last week, a statement that a $300,000 grain elevat[or] was to be constructed there in time for the next coming harvest, by capital connected with the N.P.R.R. [Northern Pacific Rail Road — ‘the Villard system’]. If this is accomplished, it foreshadows an intended eastern transit of the future grain crops of Washington and of eastern Oregon, instead of seeking an outlet via the Columbia …”

The article went on to speculate, via a “semi-official statement,” that Pacific Northwest wheat could be shipped east to Minneapolis where it could be forwarded to Atlantic coast seaports for Europe and thereby avoid a long haul around Cape Horn.

“Walla Walla [and Palouse] wheat exported by railroad through medium of an elevator [where it is stored until the market calls for it], saves to the ‘granger’ — in other words, ‘farmer’ — from five to six cents per bushel for grain-bags required for all grain shipped westward; … so the producer saves grain-bag, insurance and nearly half a year’s bank discount by marketing overland, as his crop reaches the ‘U.K. or port of call’ via Minneapolis, in the form of flour, at least three or four months in advance of the period the same would have required [if shipped] via Cape Horn …” (From The Morning Astorian, as copied from the Portland Journal of Commerce.)

Portland historian Jewel Lansing writes, “Between 1850 and 1870 Willamette Valley wheat output was to increase tenfold, from two hundred thousand bushels to over two million,” and wheat historian Kirby Brumfield adds, “By 1890, wheat was a bonanza crop.”

(Portland’s folklorist Stewart Holbrook, who was always good for a story, tells us: “At least one clear-eyed reporter … described exactly what happened to a sack of Walla Walla wheat before ever it reached salt water. It was first hauled, he said, to the railroad warehouse at Walla Walla City and there stored. Then it went by Doc Baker’s [rail] line to Walulla where it was transferred to a boat and taken to Umatilla; at Umatilla rapids it was transferred to another boat for Celilo; at Celilo it went through a warehouse and to a car of the portage railroad and was wheeled to The Dalles, and stored again even if briefly; then it was put aboard a boat and taken to Upper Cascades, and there transferred by portage railroad to Lower Cascades. Here it was put into the hold or on the deck of another boat for Portland. At Portland it was stored again, and at last was loaded into an ocean-going vessel, and so away to the deep.”

This looming complex economic reality galvanized Portland’s skillful invested interests to double-down on their insistence for better landmarks for those vessels approaching the River; a deeper shipping channel over the Columbia Bar; a deeper, safer shipping channel between the Bar and Portland; plus a system of locks at the Cascades and The Dalles to get shipments more easily downriver to Portland or Kalama.

It wasn’t only wheat, of course, that was causing the phenomenal business growth of the Columbia River drainage: it was also timber, canned salmon, wool, apples and other produce.

Astoria’s financial interests were troubled by the way that grain cargoes had to be shipped from Portland. Because of a sandbar at the mouth of the Willamette, numerous shallows and rocks and timber snags the length of the Columbia downriver, and the famous “Hog’s Back” — an underwater ridge — just upriver of Astoria, ships could not be loaded completely at Portland; they would ride too low in the water. The remaining cargo was “lightered” downriver — carried down on steamboats — and the full shipment completed at Astoria.

The Tri-Weekly Astorian hated that arrangement: “On Saturday [in October 1873] the brig Orient, drawing only nine feet of water, grounded on the hogs-back in going from Astoria to Portland. After some delay, and waiting for the tide, the brig passed over.

“What kind of a seaport is Portland when vessels of 300 tons must drag on the shoals and take the advantage of high tide to reach there. It is a burden on the business of Oregon. …

“Another proof of the suicidal manner in which the Columbia river commerce is carried on was furnished by the last voyage of the steamer John L. Stephens. About 18 hours ascending the river from Astoria, with a part cargo, and 26 hours descending to Astoria, attended by lighters, dragged heavily across the hogs-back, and received the balance of Portland freight at Astoria from the steamer Senator, which had followed down. … Taking the last trip of the John L. Stephens for example, they make the run from Astoria to Portland and back in 54 hours. That is one-third the running time between Portland and San Francisco is spent in getting over the shoals of the Columbia and Wallamet [sic] rivers above Astoria.”

Astoria interests really wanted a railroad out to the coast so grain could be loaded and shipped out here, but that would have cut out Portland’s stevedoring, storage, and shipping interests, and it just wasn’t going to happen. Handily for the Rose City, the nationwide Panic of 1873 dried up easy money for building railroads. The railroad wouldn’t reach Astoria until 1898.

The exports continued, apparently without regard to national financial troubles, per Oregonian editor Harvey W. Scott.

Ships continued to come, bigger all the time.

“A Wheat Ship Aground on Columbia River Bar,” said the San Francisco Bulletin. “Information has just been received at Portland by telegraph from Astoria that the British ship Leading Wind, which has completed her cargo of wheat for Europe, is aground opposite Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia. During a heavy gale the vessel dragged her anchor and ran on the sand. It is reported that the ship is strained and leaning, and that the cargo of grain is damaged, but it is hoped that the rumors are exaggerated.”

By summer of 1888, the Morning Oregonian was happy to report that, for the previous “cereal year,” a total of 97 grain ships “sailed from the Columbia last season,” and the trade was worth not quite $15 million dollars. “The number of larger ships coming here is continually on the increase.”

With the apparent wealth of wheat unceasing, and with the increasing flood of exports, an inevitable sequence of government efforts to smooth the way commenced. Two light houses — Cape Disappointment and North Cove [Willapa Bay] — had been built in the 1850s.

Additional lighthouses commissioned for the region were Point Adams (1875), Tillamook Rock (1881), Cape Meares (1890), Columbia River Lightship (1892), Grays Harbor (1895), North Head Light (1898), and Desdemona Sands (1901).

Life-saving stations, in addition to Cape Disappointment and Willapa Bay, were established at Point Adams, Tillamook Bay, Grays Harbor, and Klipsan Beach (known as “Ilwaco Beach”).

In the mid-1860s the City of Portland began arranging for the dredging of the Willamette; half a dozen years later, the Corps of Engineers was at work improving the ship channel in the Columbia. Down through the years, Portland’s business interests would insist that the shipping channel between the Bar and the docks in the city be deepened, to accommodate the ever-larger incoming ships.

In the late 1870s a group of bar pilots, operating the schooner Rescue, unsuccessfully attempted to break Captain Flavel’s pilotage monopoly at the mouth of the River.

In the 1880s, Congress authorized, and the Corps of Engineers implemented, the building of the South Jetty, hoping to make for a predictable and stable shipping channel over the Bar.

In 1888, the Astoria newspaper reported the adoption of a better, safer, stronger lifeboat for the Life Saving Service: “…six of them will be put in use this winter. They are much lighter than those now used, are built of mahogany, and are self-righting and self-bailing. Three of them will be shipped to the stations on the Pacific.”

“Grain is an awkward cargo,” maritime historian Basil Lubbock writes. Ms. Rideout expands on that thought: originally packed in burlap bags weighing approximately 112 pounds each, those bags had to be packed into the ship’s hull as tightly as possible, up to the ceiling, so they could not shift in rough seas.

(For instance, in May 1901, the San Francisco Call reported the British ship Cromartyshire had put in to the California port from Astoria, having endured a “terrific sea, which threw her on beam end, her starboard side being completely submerged. Three thousand bags of barley were jettisoned to right her and still she listed 40 degrees when she entered the [San Francisco] harbor. The crew was working neck high in water, but remained at the pumps until the moment of landing.”)

Other hazards to a cargo of wheat involved water: wheat is dry when bagged and loaded; if it is exposed to too much rain, the grain can expand once its inside the hull and under extreme conditions can burst a hull. Moist grain can mold and so release carbon dioxide; once its aboard in an enclosed hold, it can be a deadly threat to the crew working inside that hold.

Wheat can also spontaneously combust; and wheat dust is explosive, given the right conditions. A wheat fire in a grain elevator is a fearsome and impressive thing; it must be terrifying at sea.

When wheat is shipped in bulk, as it is these days, the individual grains are subject to rolling around; if a ship rolls beyond about 20 degrees, the wheat’s angle of repose, the grains can shift and throw the vessel out of balance.

Not the easiest of cargoes, not the easiest place to buy it: but wheat was so profitable that the financial interests just had to figure out how to how to develop a system to make its sale work, and they did.

I grew up on an Idaho wheat ranch, part of which overlooked the Snake River north of Hell’s Canyon. Occasionally, we would clamber into the war-surplus Jeep and bounce out to the western edge of the farthest field, climb through the barbed wire fence, walk a few yards out, keeping a careful lookout for prickly pear and rattlesnakes, and peer 2,000 feet down into the canyon. Way far down there was the beautiful Snake River. My cousin called it, “Fifteen minutes down and four hours back up!”

Miles and miles on to the north and west, the Snake joins the Columbia, flowing downriver toward the sea, where I look out my window at it just before it enters the great western ocean.

The “Ship Report” tells us that many of the freighters we watch today coming and going are in for, or out with, wheat. I sometimes wonder if one of those ships doesn’t carry a bit of wheat from the acreage where I grew up.

“The ‘wheat fleet’ occupied Portland’s waterfront about four months of each year. The tall masts of the square-riggers loomed over the city’s buildings, suggesting the romance of far-away lands, the beauty of ships under sail, and the incoming prosperity of the trade; all the while the shippers had to deal with the realities of the difficult Columbia Bar and hazardous transit upriver to the city docks.”


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