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Mouth of the Columbia River
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Mouth of the Columbia River
This area of the Columbia River is infamous for its treacherous waters that have caused countless shipwrecks, as well as for the sightings of ghost ships and even reported sea monsters from the 1930s to the 1950s. The Columbia River stretches from the province of British Columbia in Canada through the state of Washington and along its border with the state of Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean just west of the city of Astoria, Oregon. It is the largest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean from North America and fourth largest by volume in the United States.
The Graveyard of the Pacific
An area of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from Tillamook Bay to the south to the tip of Vancouver Island in the north is commonly known under the menacing name of the "
Graveyard of the Pacific
" for the amount of ships and lives lost inside of it. In particular, the mouth of the Columbia River has taken more than its fair share. At the mouth, the river discharges at an average flow of 265,000 cubic feet per second. Combined with the shifting sandbar of the Columbia Bar at the mouth and seemingly unpredictable weather conditions of the Pacific Northwest, this area is considered one of the most treacherous stretches of water to navigate in the world and has amassed countless shipwrecks over the years.
Due to the dangerous conditions and the amount of shipwrecks in the area, specialized navigators that understood the shifting sediment of the Columbia River have always been in great demand. The men are known as the Columbia River bar pilots and would come to a ship's aid and help navigate them through the Columbia Bar so that they could continue up the river. One of the more well known bar pilots of the area in the early history of the area was Captain George Flavel who built the
in Astoria and managed to amass a fortune through the trade, as well as other business dealings. Today, even with advances in navigational technology, bar pilots are still commonly used. It is estimated that the pilots in the area today can earn as much as an estimated $180,000 a year to guide ships across the Columbia Bar. While they have managed to cut-down on the shipwrecks in the area, there are still occasional accidents reported.
It is estimated that over 2,000 vessels and 700 lives have been lost near the mouth of the Columbia River alone. The dangerous maritime industry has taken its toll on the families of the area over the years, which have erected a Maritime Memorial in Astoria to pay tribute to those that dare the rough seas. While the list is seemingly never-ending of the ships that went down near the Columbia Bar, the following are some of the better-known cases.
The area got off to an infamous start when eight-to-ten men drowned on March 22, 1811 after being deployed from the 10-gun brig Tonquin in a defective whaleboat to explore the mouth of the Columbia River. The other passengers of the Tonquin would later make it to shore and would officially found what it is today Astoria, Oregon.
On January 28, 1852, the side-wheel steamboat by the name of General Warren ran aground off Clatsop Spit on the mouth. Some of the crew was dispatched to Astoria to gain assistance, but by the time they made it back, the ship had broken up and 42 lives were lost. Among those that died was a young couple that had recently had been married and were found on the beach with their hands still clasped together.
Countless fishing vessels had occupied the mouth of the Columbia River on May 4, 1880, hoping to haul in salmon during a shortened season. Without much warning, the skies suddenly darkened and a gale hit from the southwest, immediately capsizing the small boats. Newspaper accounts placed the casualties from as low as 60 to as high as 350, though it is believed today that the actual numbers were much lower. The incident was also famous for the tales of a ghost ship that was reportedly seen by several of the survivors (see Ghost Ships below).
The tanker Rosencrans crashed into Peacock Spit at the Washington-side on January 7, 1913 after the captain mistook the nearby lighthouse for a lightship. Rescuers struggled to arrive at the wreckage to find only four men left clinging to the rigging. Of them, only three were saved before the rescue ship had to move on for its own safety. 32 or 33 lives went down with the Rosencrans.
The freighter Iowa attempted a dangerous crossing of the bar on January 12, 1936 that resulted in disaster. Despite the 76-mile-an-hour gale, the captain attempted to navigate the ship through the bar, but was slammed onto Peacock Spit and quickly sunk. By the time the Coast Guard could arrive, only the tops of the ship's masts were visible. The 34 lives on board were gone.
A fire on the Danish cargo-liner Erria took several lives on December 20, 1951. The ship had been at anchor when the fire erupted and members of the Coast Guard and citizens of Astoria alike came to their rescue in boats. Through their efforts, 103 lives were saved but they were unable to reach three crewmembers and eight passengers who had become trapped inside the burning vessel.
Probably one of the most famous cases of shipwrecks on the Columbia Bar came on the night of January 14, 1961. At the time, the crab boat Mermaid had lost its rudder in turbulent weather and radioed in for help. Three Coast Guards units responded and a towline was secured from the motor lifeboat Triumph to the Mermaid. However, the line snapped and as the Triumph attempted to come about, it suddenly flipped over. During the rescue attempt, two other Coast Guard vessels either flipped or foundered and the Mermaid also went under. In total, the two-member crew of the Mermaid was lost, as was five of the Coast Guard crewmen from the Triumph.
The mouth of the Columbia River has been home to strange accounts of ghost ships and seemingly similar paranormal activity over the years. However, sightings of phantom ships or ghostly sailors are reportedly deemed as bad omens to those in the industry and, as such, are rarely discussed. Despite this, a few tales have managed to trickle out to the general population by way of newspaper accounts and second-hand storytellers over the years.
The most popular tale concerns the storm of May 4, 1880 that caught countless local fishermen by surprise when its strong winds capsized several vessels. Those that survived the incident and clung for their lives for up to eight hours reported seeing a lone ship that managed to navigate through the wreckage of the various craft in the area and was apparently unaffected by the strong gale that had capsized them. Survivors reported seeing the phantom vessel smoothly sail right past them as they clung to the wreckage. The ship reportedly was not recognized by any of the men nor was it ever seen again.
Another account that occurred only one year later was passed along to the local newspaper,
The Daily Morning Astorian
in 1881. According to the report, Captain E.D. Brock of the steamer Westport observed what he believed to be lights on another ship on the Columbia River east of Astoria. As his came side-to-side with the object, Brock was about to blow the ship's whistle when the lights suddenly vanished. Despite the captain's description of a bright light being hung from the mast head, a red light on the mizzen mast, and lights seen moving around on what was believed to be the deck, he soon found out that no other ships had been in that area at the time of the sighting and no ships ever arrived at ports in either direction.
Aside from maritime superstitions and whispers of ill-fated omens surrounding the sightings of phantom vessels, it is often said that the locals are hesitant to discuss such stories as it is not uncommon for them to have known a relative or friend that was lost in some wreck along the Columbia River. However, the same cannot be said for the sightings of a reported sea monster that has amused and intrigued the local residents for the past century.
Colossal Claude/Marvin the Monster
Reports of a sea monster in the Columbia River date back to the 1930s with several sightings reportedly being centered at or near the mouth of the river as it meets the Pacific Ocean. The origin of the name of the creature depends on the source. Some accounts attribute the name to the crew of the first ship to sight the monster in the Columbia River, while others credit the local newspaper accounts. Regardless, the creature quickly became known as Colossal Claude to the local mariners and became an instant legend in the city of Astoria, Oregon and surrounding area.
The crew of the Columbia River Lightship is typically credited as the first reported sighting of the creature. In 1934, the ship encountered a large animal swimming near the mouth of the Columbia River. First mate, L.A. Larson described the creature as "
...about 40 feet long. It had a neck some eight feet long, a big round body, a mean looking tail and an evil, snaky look to its head.
" According to news reports at the time, the crew studied the animal for sometime with binoculars, but wanted to investigate further by taking out a lifeboat and pursuing it. However, the officers of the ship turned down their request out of fear that the animal might swamp the boat on them.
Three years later, the crew of the commercial fishing trawler Viv also reported seeing a similar creature in the same vicinity. Skipper Charles E. Graham offered up the description of the sea monster as a "
...long, hairy, tan colored creature, with the head of an overgrown horse, about 40 feet long, and with a 4-foot waist measure.
" The report was very similar to another sighting reported in 1937, but around 150 miles down the Oregon coastline. In that sighting, a couple just south of Yachats, near a rocky outcrop known as the Devil's Churn and the Heceta Head Lighthouse, reported seeing an animal estimated at 35-feet long swimming in the Pacific Ocean. According to their accounts, the creature had a head similar to that of a giraffe's, complete with "
" ears and eight-to-10-inch-long horns. The sighting resulted in the locals dubbing the animal the Yachats Serpent.
Reports of a sea monster in the Columbia River and up-and-down the Oregon coastline continued to pour in for several more years. On April 13, 1939, the crew of the halibut fishing ship, Argo (sometimes incorrectly labeled as Arpo), got a face-to-face encounter near the mouth of the river when a large creature reared up over 10-feet above the water and looked directly at the men. The men stood amazed watching the large serpent that was a little over 10-feet from the ship's hull, while it reportedly nodded in their direction and then continued eating a fish. Argo Captain Chris Andersen reportedly had to step in when the men grabbed a large boat hook with plans to punch the monster. According to Andersen, "
He could have sunk us with a nudge.
" In another newspaper interview about the account, Andersen reportedly stated, "
His head was like a camel's. His fur was coarse and gray. He had glassy eyes and a bent snout that he used to push a 20-pound halibut off our lines and into his mouth.
" Apparently, it was just one of many sightings by the crew of the Argo. Captain Chris Andersen is one of the many names honored on the nearby
Sightings continued to filter in at a reportedly regular occurrence until the 1950s when they appear to have abruptly ceased. While the majority of reports came from the Columbia River, many believe the creature was the same monster being reported as far south as San Francisco, California and as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia. There seems to be a general consensus that Colossal Claude is the same sea serpent that is also known as the Cadborosaurus (or Caddy for short) that was often sighted in Cadboro Bay in Victoria, British Columbia. Other reports have surfaced from the San Francisco Bay, Pugent Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington. While the lack of sightings after the 1950s led some to believe that the creature had either died or moved along, another incident in the next decade would again be cause for speculation.
In 1963, the Shell Oil Company was off the Oregon coastline searching for a place to drill when their underwater cameras picked up a strange sight. The video shows an approximately 15-foot long creature with barnacled ridges along its body swimming in a corkscrew fashion at a depth around 180-feet deep. The odd footage caused something of a sensation when it was screened on television and the creature was dubbed with the moniker, Marvin the Monster. There have been various theories put forth by scientists that have viewed the footage that range from species of jellyfish to an animal that was leftover from the prehistoric era. Yet others still claim that it was simply Colossal Claude.
While reports of Colossal Claude, or even Marvin the Monster, have dwindled in recent decades, there are some that believe the creature is still out there. In the book,
, author Jefferson Davis recounts one tale of a local fisherman who had taken his boat up the Columbia River east of Astoria in 1989. The men were dragging a net that several hundred feet long and around 30-feet deep, which they let sit for a while. When they decided to haul in their catch for the day, they encountered a snag that halted the ship's motion and started to pull the bow of the boat down into the water. Captain Donald Riswick throttled the boat forward and freed the ship from whatever had snagged it, but was shocked to discover a large hole in the net that measured several feet across when they reeled the net in. While it was never clear what the net had grabbed, the story only added to the tales of a giant sea serpent seen swimming in the Columbia River.
The Location Today
Because of the swift current, unpredictable shifting sands, and weather of the Columbia Bar, the area is still regarded as hazardous to navigate. The best vantage point to safely view the mouth of the Columbia River and watch ships cross the Columbia Bar is a lookout on the Clatsop Spit at nearby Fort Stevens State Park. The lookout is perched alongside the mouth and directly next to the Pacific Ocean, offering a fantastic view of both for those eager to keep an eye out for either sea monsters or ghost ships.
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The Shadowlands: Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters
A page dedicated to sightings of sea serpents and lake monsters put together by The Shadowlands Web site.
Mysterious World: Mysterious Sea Serpents
A four-part article on sea serpents and lake monsters from the Mysterious World Web site.
Oregon Mysteries of the Sea
An article on various sea serpent sightings alongside the Oregon coastline from Northwest Travel Tips.
Idle Isle Cafe and Candy Company
The Farrar Schoolhouse
See Also on TheCabinet.com
Blog: Anniversary of Two Monster Sightings (04/13/09)
Blog: They Went Out, but They Didn't Come Back (08/14/09)
Blog: The Graveyard of the Pacific (01/11/10)
Available from Amazon.com
Monster Spotter's Guide to North America
America's Loch Ness Monsters
Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, 2 Volume Set
Oregon's Ghosts and Monsters (Oregon Country Library)
The Lightkeepers' Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses
Afloat and Awash in the Old Northwest
Pacific Graveyard: A Narrative of Shipwrecks where the Columbia River Meets the Pacific Ocean
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The mouth of the Columbia River as viewed from a lookout on Clatsop Spit, Oregon - May 2008.
A view of the Pacific Ocean from a lookout at Clatsop Spit on Fort Stevens, Oregon - May 2008.
Overlooking Astoria, Oregon and the Columbia River from the Astor Column - May 2008.
Columbia River as seen from an Astoria dock with the Astoria-Megler Bridge in distance - May 2008.
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