The Columbia River Bar is not a local drinking establishment: it is where the enormous, swift-moving river, flowing like water from a fire hose, collides with the immense power of the Pacific Ocean. The two forces slam into each other at the entrance to the river creating the worst wave conditions on the planet.
Many of the early European explorers who were looking for the mythical Columbia River, such as Heceta, Cook, and Vancouver, missed the mouth of the river. The British fur trader John Meares sighted what he thought was a large river in July, 1788. He tried to cross the Bar, but abandoned the attempt due to the dangerously large breakers. He waited for a time for the seas to calm, but eventually concluded that the fresh water must be from a bay rather than a river. He named the northern cape Disappointment and the “bay” Deception. He recorded in his journal:
“We can now assert that there is no such river.”In May 1792, the American fur trader Captain Robert Gray waited out nine days of adverse conditions on the Bar before finally crossing into the river. He named the river for his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. For the Native Americans in the area, the river was called Hyas Cooley Chuck.
In 1811, John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company sent the ship Tonquin to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. They made arrangements with the Chinook to establish Fort Astoria. When the Americans set out to return to their ship, Chief Comcomly pointed out that the rough conditions on the river would make the trip across the Bar difficult in their small vessel. The Americans didn’t listen and set out anyway. Chief Comcomly, knowing that they couldn’t make it, simply followed in one of his canoes. When the traders’ boat capsized, Comcomly rescued them.
After 1824, when the Hudson’s Bay Company opened Fort Vancouver and shut down Fort George (formerly Fort Astoria), Comcomly lost his power as a trader. He then became a pilot, guiding the trading ships through the Columbia Bar.
The Columbia Bar is a system of bars and shoals that is about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long. The navigational channel is 2,640 feet wide at the west end and narrows to 600 feet within the jetties. Since 1792, approximately 2,000 ships have sunk in and around the Columbia Bar giving it a reputation as the “Graveyard of Ships.”
To guide ships through the bar today, there are about 16 highly trained bar pilots (who earn about $180,000 per year). They often have to board the ships in poor weather conditions. The pilot boats are all-weather, high-speed craft with full rollover and self-righting capability. In addition, the pilots also use a helicopter.
Shown above is a photograph of one of the pilot boats shown at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.
A ship crossing the bar is shown above.
The Columbia River Bar Pilots trace their history to 1846 when formal legislation was passed to provide formal licensing of the pilots. Captain George Flavel was granted State Pilot License Number 1 in 1851.
Flavel first encountered the Columbia Bar in 1850 in the brig John Petty. Sailing between Portland and San Francisco, he learned the treacherous intricacies of the constantly changing bar. He noted that the ocean tides and currents combined with the river current created a shifting sandbar. At this time the largest ships could enter only when there was a high tide and a smooth sea. As the first bar pilot, he soon gained a reputation as both a fearless pilot and a shrewd businessman. Flavel, along with a few partners, soon secured a virtual monopoly on bar piloting and ship towing.
In 1852 the General Warren, a steam-powered sailing ship, tried to cross the bar in a blinding snowstorm and unusually rough seas. The ship was carrying 800 live hogs, tons of wheat, and 60 passengers. The ship lost its foretopmast and sprung a leak. The pumps were unable to control the leak and the ship began taking on water at an alarming rate. Furthermore, the ship could not raise enough steam to make any headway in the rough water. Flavel, realizing that the ship was going to sink, ordered it beached on Clatsop Spit in an attempt to save the passengers. The ship began to break up and all but one lifeboat was lost. The ship’s captain persuaded Flavel and a handpicked crew of oarsmen to make for Astoria with the hope that they could return with help for the passengers and crew. Flavel made it to Astoria, but when he returned he found the ship destroyed with no survivors. One of the surviving oarsmen reported of Flavel:
“He was the bravest seaman I ever saw. It was only his pluck saved us in the boat and brought us to land safe.”In 1869 Flavel and his partners, with a subsidy from the State of Oregon, built the steam tug Astoria for use as a pilot boat.
With regard to crossing the Columbia River Bar today, the Columbia River Bar Pilots reports:
Pilotage across the Columbia River Bar and up or down the river is compulsory for U.S. vessels sailing under registry and for all foreign vessels, except foreign recreational or fishing vessels not more than 100 feet in length or 250 gross tons international.The South Jetty:
Between 1885 and 1895, the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built long, rocky jetties to keep the mouth of the Columbia River from moving around, to narrow the current to help flush out river sediment, and to keep beach sand from clogging the river mouth. Generally, waves and wind push Oregon Coast beach sand south in the summer and north in the winter—sometimes driving sand into shipping channels.
Water and wind piled sand against the south jetty, building the shoreline up and out. The current shoreline is about a mile farther out than when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the American Corps of Discovery here in 1805.
In the 1930s European beachgrass was introduced to keep the piled sand in place. Beachgrass is now considered an invasive weed.