Navigation may be a nightmare near the Columbia River Bar, where the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River converge. Because of the 2,000 or more ships that have sunk here since 1792, this region has the moniker “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The bar can become dangerous at times due to terrain, weather, and water. Via a little passage, the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The river water slows down as it rushes towards the ocean, discharging sand and silt. Almost six miles into the ocean, this sand and silt have formed a fan-shaped sandbar.
Around 2000 ships have sunk and over 700 people have perished in the past 200 years due to a combination of unreliable weather, a frequently mist-covered shoreline, and currents brought on by the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even if advancements in technology have reduced the number of losses along this stretch of coast, the moniker endures to the present day.
Discover the history of marine transportation, from the time of dugout canoes through the era of sail. See a brief documentary about the eventful history of life and business on the Columbia River, including the risky task of the pilots who sailed the Columbia River Bar. See the 44-foot motor lifeboat that is driving through a wave during a rescue operation as you walk the bridge of a World War Two cruiser. Take part in four hands-on, interactive displays, including one where you may steer a tugboat. At the river’s mouth, you can board the Lightship Columbia, a National Historic Landmark that previously directed sailors to safety.
1846: Shark The U.S.S. Shark attempted to leave the Columbia River on September 10, 1846, after completing its mission in the Oregon Country, but was thwarted by the perilous bar. Despite the ship disintegrating, nobody was hurt. Across 70 miles, debris was scattered, with part of it finding rest on a beach south of the river mouth. The location known as Cannon Beach got its name from the discovery of three diminutive cannons known as carronades and a capstan from the ship. The Columbia River Maritime Museum has two refurbished carronades on display.
1879: Great Republic Few of Great Republic’s 900 passengers were aware it had run aground on Sand Island. The bar pilot miscalculated the strong outgoing tide, and that, along with the ship’s slow speed, contributed to the Republic’s demise. Water surged into the damaged hull and bilge pumps failed to pump it out. All passengers survived, but the last lifeboat heading for shore capsized, and 11 of the 14 crew drowned. A raging gale thwarted hopes of re-floating the ship.
1846: Shark After completing its mission in the Oregon Country on September 10, 1846, the U.S.S. Shark tried to enter the Columbia River, but was prevented by the dangerous bar. No one was wounded despite the ship’s disintegration. Debris was dispersed over a distance of 70 miles, with some of it coming to rest on a beach south of the river mouth. The finding of three miniature cannons called carronades and a capstan from the ship gave the area known as Cannon Beach its name. Two restored carronades can be seen at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
Peter Iredale in 1906 The British sailing ship Peter Iredale was traveling to the Columbia River on October 25, 1906, to pick up a supply of wheat. Just south of the Columbia River’s mouth, at around two in the morning, the crew noticed the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. H. Lawrence, the ship’s captain, preferred to wait until dawn before crossing the perilous bar. Navigation was challenging due to the dense fog, and he believed the ship to be 50 miles offshore. It was already too late for Lawrence to understand that he was dangerously near to the coast. The Iredale became caught and ran aground on a sandbar off Clatsop Beach. No one passed away. The wreck was immediately recognized as a landmark and local attraction.
1929: In June, the heavily loaded S.S. Laurel was forced off course and onto Peacock Spit by gale-force winds. When the storm grew worse, the ship’s forward third was destroyed by enormous waves. Fuel, ship parts, and timber were all over the water. The team dove into the icy water out of fear for their life and swam towards waiting for Coast Guard surf boats. Surprisingly, just one individual passed away.
Admiral Benson in 1930 A few hundred yards west of the tip of the North Jetty, on Peacock Spit, the steamship Admiral Benson struck an obstruction. Some claim that the watch officers steered towards the shipwreck after mistaking Laurel’s wreckage for navigational aid. For many years, Benson’s bow was clearly visible. Benson Beach is the stretch of sand between the jetty and North Head.
Bettie M., 1976 Between the intersection of Jetty A and Cape Disappointment, the Betty M is still clearly visible during low tide. The fishing vessel ran aground immediately below the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse while hauling 900 tonnes of tuna. Storms pounded the stricken yacht, snapped tow lines, and thwarted numerous attempts at salvage. Months after the catastrophe, the smell from the ship is still fresh in the minds of the locals.
Millicoma, 2005 In the midst of a violent storm, a tug was pulling the 350-foot barge Millicoma across the bar when the steel tow line holding them together snapped, allowing the barge to drift away into the night. The barge was discovered in a rocky inlet by the North Head Lighthouse the following morning. Four days later, it was rescued with little harm to the environment or the ship.