Classic ‘Pacific Graveyard’ shipwrecks reimagined for the digital era

Mar 17, 2021, 4:24 PM | Updated: Mar 18, 2021, 4:08 pm
columbia river, bar...
A 1969 nautical chart showing the Columbia Bar, or shoals at the mouth of the river; the area has been known as the 'Pacific Graveyard' for the ships and lives lost there, mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (NOAA Archives)
(NOAA Archives)

The entrance to the Columbia River is a notorious spot that claimed many a ship and quite a few lives, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, a classic book about those shipwrecks has been reimagined through a digital mapping project.

The book is called Pacific Graveyard, by Jim Gibbs. It was first published in 1950 by a Portland publisher and there were a few revised editions in the 1960s. It was a very popular book in Northwest rec rooms of the Cold War era, and there was even a large and colorful poster/chart, too, of the same title, showing the mouth of the Columbia River and the locations of hundreds of shipwrecks.

Author Jim Gibbs was the editor of the old trade publication Marine Digest; he was a founder of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and, as a young man, had been stationed at the lighthouse on Tillamook Rock. Gibbs retired to the Oregon Coast and passed away in 2010 at the age of 88.

More than 70 years after the book was first published – and about a decade after publisher Binford & Mort went out of business – Pacific Graveyard inspired a team at Portland newspaper The Oregonian to create and publish an online digital shipwreck map. A photographer and “data guy” for the paper named Mark Graves worked on the project, along with The Oregonian’s outdoors and travel reporter Jamie Hale.

The online map shows the locations of those hundreds of wrecks listed in Gibbs’ book – though there have been thousands of wrecks there, by some estimates – and a click on each point reveals basic details about the particular wreck, from the 1790s to well into the 20th century.

Hale says that all those old Columbia River shipwrecks are still modern clickbait to so many people, though he’s not exactly sure why.

“There’s something, I think, about the tragedy of it. I think maybe the same reason people are interested in haunted places or people are interested in murder cases,” Hale told KIRO Radio.

“There’s something about that, we’re so morbidly curious about these terrible events,” Hale continued. “And I think we’re so disconnected from that maritime history that having an opportunity to look back and to remember all of the things and all of the lives that were lost to building this world, this community, this area that we love and cherish so much — it’s an important thing to remember that people sacrificed themselves in order to make this life in these communities that we live in.”

Hale says it’s important to use the online shipwreck map as a starting point. Visit the Columbia River in person, he says, and don’t wait until summer; winter is a great time to see the water, and the danger, up close from the north or the south side.

“When you go out there at the mouth of the Columbia and you see it at that time of year, you can get an idea of how hard it was for ships to get through there and why so many wrecked,” Hale said. “And you get, I think, a deeper connection with that natural place, you really understand a sense of place and a sense of nature when you’re out there and you’re seeing it in all of its full force and glory.”

“So I hope people go out to places like Cape Disappointment, places like Fort Stevens, up and down the Oregon and Washington Coast and get a sense of that for themselves,” Hale said.

Conor Bennett has a very clear sense of the full force and glory of the Columbia. Bennett is Chief Bosun’s Mate and Chief of Operations at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the river, and has spent hundreds of hours training for and taking part in motor lifeboat rescue operations over the decade or so he’s been stationed there.

Chief Bennett told KIRO Radio that the dangerous area where the river meets the sea is known by most people (and referred to in weather and sea condition reports) as the “Columbia Bar.” Weather can be severe, tides and currents can create challenging conditions, and a dead motor or other gear failures can make for dangerous conditions for vessels of any size.

He says the Coast Guard has a specific area in mind when they use the term “Columbia Bar.”

“For the Coast Guard’s intents and purposes, the [Columbia] Bar essentially is what we call the area from Buoy Number Three, which is to the west of [Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment] to Buoy 14, which is well inside the entrance and after you turn a couple of times,” Chief Bennett said.

“That area right there is essentially why the station has been here, permanently manned, since 1878 – because that’s where the danger is most readily apparent,” Chief Bennett said.

Technically, the bar is also known as a shoal, or a geographic feature, typically hidden below the water, and built up from sand and silt that settles out of moving river water and/or tidal water. In the specific area of the Columbia Bar, that shoal is a result of tons of material coming down the river from the millions of acres of land the river drains in Washington, Oregon, and far up into British Columbia.

Why is a shoal dangerous? Mainly because it’s often invisible, and because it can change character and location over time. Throw in strong winds and vigorous tidal action, and maybe darkness, and that’s where vessels can run into trouble.

And that trouble is something the Coast Guard has to deal with anytime they respond to a call.

“There’s this place called Peacock Spit that’s around the North Jetty at the Columbia River, and it’s hands down the most difficult place I’ve ever had to operate a motor lifeboat,” Chief Bennet said, describing swift currents with hard to predict and rapidly changing movements, along with hidden obstacles lurking beneath the waves. “It’s remained that way, I mean, it’s been pretty much the same ever since the USS Peacock” – part of the 1841 Wilkes Expedition  – “sunk in the 1800s, and then [the spit] got its name that way.”

Though, Chief Bennett says, the construction of the North Jetty a hundred years ago changed the seascape somewhat.

Fortunately, while recreational craft and small fishing vessels do still often get into trouble crossing the Columbia Bar, it’s been a long time since there’s been a major incident there involving a large vessel or major loss of life. The most dangerous and deadly years were the 19th century and early 20th century, and the most recent major losses aren’t that recent — including the Rosecrans in 1913, with 33 lives lost; and the SS Iowa in 1936, where the entire crew of 34 was lost. Both of those vessels, incidentally, were large freighters headed out of the river toward the sea.

And since those dangerous years of the 1800s – even since 1936, for that matter – there have been numerous significant advances in radio, navigation and safety equipment, and the channels through the shoals are marked with buoys.

But the Coast Guard’s Conor Bennett says that while the technologies may have changed, the sea remains the same.

“The conditions here still exist,” Chief Bennett said. “We’ve been able to, through technology, through better organization, through better mechanics, been able to mitigate it somewhat, but it’s still the same.”

“I mean, the ocean has not changed at all,” Chief Bennett said. “The entrances changed a little bit [with the construction of jetties], but there are still ships out there on the bottom that were put on the bottom a hundred years ago.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Classic ‘Pacific Graveyard’ shipwrecks reimagined for the digital era