18 Days in Pacific County, Washington
Two years and 4,100 miles of travel up the Missouri, over the Rockies and down the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark finally arrived within view of the Pacific Ocean. When President Thomas Jefferson wrote his charge for the Expedition to Captain Meriwether Lewis in June, 1803, he seems to have been well aware that the Corps of Discovery would arrive at the coast “without money, clothes or provision.” (T. Jefferson, 1803) In the hopes that Lewis and Clark’s party would find a port within reach “Frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation,” he had arranged for open letters of credit with consuls along the sea routes via Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, assuming that return ships would take all or part of the troupe along such a route.
The President was very foresighted in recognizing their dismal circumstances; for they were, indeed, without any of the vital necessities with which to face the winter rains and even fewer guaranteed supplies with which to attempt the return journey. Arriving at the Pacific Ocean in November, 1805, the Corps was unlikely to find any ships navigating those formidable waters.
It would be 40 years before the label ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ was applied to the waters these explorers had reached on foot. Yet the Columbia River – the largest river on the Pacific Coast of the United States – had first been noted as far back as 1570 when Ortelius acknowledged its place on a map.
The convergence of the river and the Pacific Ocean, however, was always difficult for vessels to traverse. In 1792, Captain Robert Gray had attempted, unsuccessfully, to cross the bar – with its shifting shoals – but found the current flowing from the river into the ocean to be too rapid and treacherous.
James Gibbs, author of Pacific Graveyard, (1964, Binfords & Mort), asserts that these waters became known as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ during the Gold Rush. Between 1849 and 1963, Gibbs records 234 shipwrecks in the area, including wrecks northward along the Long Beach Peninsula’s 28 miles to the mouth of Willapa Bay. Comprehensive detailing, including the often heroic stories of these events, is contained in Gibbs’ book. Today, two lighthouses Cape Disappointment and North Head) stand as testament to the dangers of the regions’ waters.
The waters remain so treacherous and strong that they provide the perfect training ground for students attending the US Coast Guard’s Lifeboat School. Established as a lifesaving station in 1878, this Coast Guard Station’s personnel and rescue equipment have been instrumental in many dramatic sea rescues, not without the occasional loss of its own brave crews in such efforts. (Extensive information about this critical resource can be found at: http://www.uscg.mil/d13/units/gruastoria/sta-cape-d/default.htm)
When Lieutenant C. Wilkes (USN) arrived in the area in 1841, he noted: “…Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia: all who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor.”
The Corps of Discovery spent 18 days exploring the area known today as Pacific County, Washington. Faced with oncoming winter, dwindling supplies, deteriorating clothing, lack of salt & meat, the party did not have the luxury to await the return of summer’s calmer seas for the likelihood of ship sightings. They were on their own and their return journey to the comforts of ‘civilization’ was dependent on their resourcefulness in creating adequate winter quarters. Their efforts to survive, their discoveries, the ultimate decision which may well have saved their lives are all recorded in these pages.