Record windspeeds of Washington’s windiest storms

Nov 3, 2023, 9:50 AM | Updated: 10:43 am

Historical Topographic Map Collection...

Historical Topographic Map Collection

The highest wind speeds ever recorded in Washington state were clocked near a small city in Pacific County more than 60 years ago, and it happened twice during two separate storms.

Windstorm season is well underway in the Pacific Northwest, and for many, it’s their favorite time of the meteorological year. It’s also something of a tradition to share the old stories of record gusts and fallen trees, and it’s a rare Oct. 12 that passes without some mention of the 1962 Columbus Day Storm.

In those Columbus Day musings, it’s often mentioned that the highest windspeed recorded in Washington occurred at a Cold War-era Air Force radar station across the Columbia River from Astoria.

That highest windspeed was a gust of an incredible 161 miles per hour. The specific location where it happened is known as Radar Ridge, which is not far from the small town of Naselle. Four radar domes – or “radomes” – with radar antennas inside were located on the ridge, with support facilities located at the base of the ridge, not far from the highway. As many as 200 people, a combination of active duty Air Force and civilians, worked there in the 1950s and 1960s.

What’s unusual and often unmentioned is that this 161-mile-per-hour reading didn’t only happen in 1962 on Columbus Day. It also happened 65 years ago on November 3, 1958, when another mostly forgotten big storm blew through the Northwest. This storm wasn’t as destructive – and it wasn’t given a name – but it did result in at least two deaths in Washington.

Both deadly incidents took place in Pierce County. Downed powerlines electrocuted a farmer south of Roy, and a college student was killed in Parkland by the same kind of hazard when a tree fell on powerlines in front of the student union building at what was then called Pacific Lutheran College (now Pacific Lutheran University).

Naselle Air Force Radar Station was the name of the military installation that recorded the two identical windspeeds four years apart. It was only in operation for about 15 years, from 1950 to 1965, which explains why weather reports and windspeed readings don’t come from there anymore and haven’t for 58 years.

The wind instrument located there, an anemometer made by Bendix-Friez, a once-respected American instrument manufacturer, was connected electronically to the compressors that kept the big radomes around the radar antennas inflated. With data from the anemometer, the compressors responded to wind speed changes automatically.

Radar Ridge is about 2,200 feet above sea level, and it’s just a few miles north of the Columbia River and upriver from the river’s mouth, so it’s an exposed spot. More than 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark camped along the Columbia south of there and got pinned down by a windstorm on November 22, 1805.

“O, how horriable (sic) is the day,” wrote William Clark, who was never much of a speller.

And while the pronunciation of “horriable” may not be too hard to guess at, the correct pronunciation of Naselle apparently presents some challenges. The popular pronunciation guide prepared for broadcasters by Hugh Rundell and originally published by WSU in the 1960s emphasizes the second syllable: “nay-SELL.” However, an informal survey of businesses in the Naselle area this week seemed to indicate that this may have changed.

Naselle Coffee Company owner/operator Hannah Footh told KIRO Newsradio that the name of the town where she’s lived all her life is pronounced “NAY-sell,” with the emphasis on the first syllable. Similar assertions were made by those who answered the phone at a hardware store, an asphalt company, and a motel.

In a voicemail late Thursday, Annika Kay, director of the Appelo Archives Center in Naselle offered a nuanced yet opposing view.

“As far as the pronunciation goes, I have heard it both ways,” Kay said. “Most people tend to say ‘nay-SELL,’ with emphasis on the last half.”

In listening carefully to the audio of Hannah Footh and Annika Kay, the difference between how these Nasellians say “Naselle” is pretty subtle but definitely not identical.

Regarding the linguistic origins of the name Naselle, most of the old place-name books for Washington point to the Indigenous Chinook people who have inhabited the area for millennia.

Tony Johnson is chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation. He was born in the Willapa Bay area and has studied Chinook language most of his life.

“It does come from a Chinook word: ‘Nisal,’” Johnson confirmed to KIRO Newsradio on Thursday, emphasizing the second syllable. The spelling was changed by the Post Office Department in 1920, according to historian Edmond Meany.

The specific meaning of the word “Nisal” has been lost in time, Chairman Johnson added, but it was long considered the place name for the valley where modern-day Naselle is situated.

Chairman Johnson also told KIRO Newsradio that the fast-moving air atop Radar Ridge is, of course, nothing new. Chinook people, for time immemorial, would seasonally move into the Nisal area in the winter for shelter from the winds coming off the nearby river.

“It runs up over Bear River Ridge” – a highpoint southwest of Naselle – “straight off the Columbia,” Chairman Johnson said of those stiff winter breezes. Then, the wind “skips right over that really beautiful protected valley that we’re speaking about, and then hits an even higher piece of land right behind it, which is the site that you’re talking about.”

No matter how it’s pronounced, a visit to Naselle offers an opportunity to see many of the old Air Force buildings that still stand not far from the highway. They were converted in the mid-1960s to Naselle Youth Camp, a facility run by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families until it was shuttered sometime in the past year.

Higher up the mountain, Radar Ridge is no longer home to radomes, but there is camping nearby and incredible views of Willapa Bay from the top. Accessibility is by foot or by sturdy car and competent driver via an unpaved road.

That doesn’t sound horriable at all.

Special thanks to Lee Corbin for his invaluable research assistance with this story.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, 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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Record windspeeds of Washington’s windiest storms