OFF CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT, WASHINGTON
The long, uninterrupted swells of the north Pacific gather momentum as they surge eastward across thousands of miles of open water to break, finally, on the shoals and rocks of the northern coast of the American continent. On that rough and savage shoreline is the mouth of the Columbia, the great and mighty river that divides Oregon and Washington.
At the mouth of the Columbia, buttressed by the two small settlements of Astoria, Oregon, and Ilwaco, Washington, the river’s burden of silt and sand spreads out into the ocean, forming a massive “bar” at the entrance. The bulk of the bar catches the force of the open sea, and as a result the transition zone from ocean to river is a dangerous one that surprises unwary mariners—the area is a graveyard of ships drowned by the force of huge waves that surge over the bar’s shallows. More than two thousand vessels, from mighty square-riggers and freighters to hardworking fish boats, have been caught in the bar’s trap and lost, along with countless lives. And yet, because this bar is an obstacle that must be overcome to engage in trade on the Columbia, with its ports full of produce, wheat, lumber and fish, for more than two centuries seafarers have braved it and their chances to enter the great river of the west.
Efforts to make the passage safer commenced in the mid-nineteenth century with the installation of a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment and continued with the construction of breakwaters and the marking of a channel through the shoals. But the power of nature can never be tamed, and the government’s money has perhaps more effectively been spent upholding the century-old traditions of the United States Life-Saving Service and its successor, the U.S. Coast Guard. There is no rougher or more dangerous place to ply the trade of the lifesaver than here, at the mouth of the Columbia, a grim reality measured by the memorials to those who laid down their own lives so that others might survive, and by the fact that it is here that America’s lifesavers come to learn their trade at Cape Disappointment’s National Motor Lifeboat School. It is not for the faint of heart or the timid—the sea is a rough teacher, and the Columbia River bar, if you relax your guard, will kill you.
All of these thoughts, and the lessons of history evident in the lists of lost ships and images of crushed, broken and mangled hulls, fill my head as the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboat pitches and rolls on the bar. The lifeboat lifts high on a wave, into the bright blue sky, before dropping into the trough of the next wave, so that all I see is the dark gray-green water towering high above, blocking out the sun. Then, as the boat turns, the water crashes down, swirling and thundering as it sweeps over the deck. Then, suddenly, it is gone, as the plucky lifeboat sheds the sea and gives itself a shake, just like a dog, and climbs the next wave. It is both terrifying and exhilarating. The skill of the Coast Guard coxswain and the fact that I’m dressed in a survival suit with a crash helmet on my head and am tied down to the deck by a harness that tethers me tightly so that even if I fall I will not be swept away, add to my confidence. My fellow archeologists share a shaky grin with me, savoring the risk while not acknowledging the fear in our eyes.
The hours we spend in this lifeboat experiencing the waters of the bar are a lesson in the power of the sea and the danger of the Columbia’s entrance, courtesy of the Coast Guard and the commander of the “Cape D” station, Lieutenant Commander Mike Montieth. Our team, assembled by the National Park Service (NPS), has come here to the graveyard of the Pacific to dive on a recently discovered wreck that may just be the earliest one yet found on this coast, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) supply ship Isabella, lost on the Columbia bar in 1830. Montieth, who has already visited the wreck, has arranged this no-holds barred introduction to the Columbia so that we might better understand the dynamic and violent environment in which we are about to dive. As we ride the roller-coaster seas off Cape Disappointment, the team gains a new perspective on the predicament of Captain William Ryan and Isabella’s crew more than 150 years ago.
ISABELLA: COLUMBIA RIVER, MAY 3, 1830
The Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship Isabella had survived a long and hard six-month voyage from London’s docks to the “North West Coast,” marked by rough seas, a stormy passage around Cape Horn that had damaged the ship and a mutinous carpenter whom Captain William Ryan had clapped in irons for several weeks. Scanning his chart, Ryan squinted at the coast. For over a day, they had maneuvered off Columbia’s bar, searching for the channel and a safe entrance. Now, in the predawn darkness, Ryan saw a point of land that he was certain had to be Cape Disappointment. Turning to first mate William Eales, he gave the order to head into the channel.
Now, the end of the voyage was in sight. Ryan’s orders were to slowly work Isabella up the Columbia River for no miles to Fort Vancouver, the Pacific coast headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company. There, he would discharge his cargo of trade goods and take on bundles of valuable fur, gathered by trappers and traders, for the return trip to England.
But as Isabella sailed across the bar, Ryan immediately realized that he had made a mistake. The sea surged and rolled over the shallows, picking up the ship and hurtling it towards a patch of broken water. They were not in the channel, but on the bar itself. Then Isabella hit hard at the stern. “She’s not answering the helm,” shouted the mate. Looking over the stern, Ryan saw broken pieces of the rudder swirling in the sea. Without her steering, the ship swung wildly. Waves crashed over the side and filled the deck with masses of water. As each wave rolled over the ship, Isabella pounded hard on the sand. Ryan had to act quickly, or the ship would be lost. Using the sails to catch the wind and steer off the bar was his only chance. But first, the crew had to lighten the ship. Pinned by her heavy cargo, Isabella was slowly sinking into the sand as the waves washed around the hull.
The men set to work, heaving overboard piles of lumber stacked on the deck. With axes, they smashed open the heavy water casks to empty them. Then, laboring in the surging surf, they dumped 30 tons of cargo and stores into the sea, but still Isabella would not budge. As the sun climbed into the sky, Ryan saw that they were stuck fast and pounding hard, and that water was flooding into the hold. He later explained to his superiors that as “there appeared little prospect of saving her and being surrounded by heavy breakers fearing she would drive on shore into them when it would be impossible to save ourselves,” he gave the order to abandon ship. Grabbing what they could, the crew piled into the ship’s two boats and dropped into the sea. “Pull! Pull for your lives!” the mate roared as the boats climbed one breaker, then another, and Isabella disappeared behind them in the towering waves.
The men strained at the oars until the boats at last pulled free of the breakers and flying surf. Wiping the stinging salt water from his eyes, Ryan scanned the horizon. Darkness had fallen, and along the shore, he saw fires blazing up. Some of the men saw them, too, and muttered among themselves. Ryan’s voice, loud and clear, reassured them: “We are strangers in this uncivilized country, and we shall not land, lest we be murdered by the natives.” Just the year before, the Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship William and Ann had wrecked on the Columbia bar, and none of the crew had survived. The headless body of her captain, identified by his blue uniform jacket, had borne mute witness to what the HBC was sure was the savagery of the neighboring Clatsop people. A search of the native village had turned up items from the wreck, and the HBC men had bombarded the Clatsop with cannon fire to punish them for pilfering the wreck.
Watching the fires on the beach, Ryan shivered at the thought of landing and falling into the hands of the Clatsop, having “heard such evil reports of the savage character” of the natives. So Isabella’s crew headed up the river to Fort Vancouver. It took them a full day to reach the fort.
At Fort Vancouver, Ryan and his men reported to Dr. John McLoughlin, the chief factor, or head of the fort, and the officer in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s activities on the Pacific coast. Tall, with a full head of flowing white hair, McLoughlin represented what was then the most powerful commercial interest on the continent. Chartered in 1670 by King Charles n as the “Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay,” the Hudson’s Bay Company had royal authority to exploit the resources of a vast area that stretched from the shores of Hudson Bay to encompass much of what eventually would become Canada and some of the United States.
The HBC’S first ship on the coast was the 161-ton, Bermuda-built brig William and Ann, which started operating in 1824. But the coastal trading effort, as well as the annual supply of Fort Vancouver, had been dealt a serious blow when William and Ann wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River on March 10, 1829, with the loss of the entire crew and most of the cargo. To replace her, the HBC bought Isabella, a four-year-old 194-ton brig, for the tidy sum of £2,900 in October 1829. Isabella was loaded with a diverse and expensive cargo that reflected the needs of Fort Vancouver’s growing agricultural and industrial community: tools, medicines, preserved foods, lead and pig iron, paint and stationery supplies. She was also loaded with the commodities of the fur trade: guns, ammunition, blankets, beads, copper cooking pots, candles, mirrors, tinware, buttons, combs, tobacco and tea.
Following right after the wreck of William and Ann, the loss of Isabella was a serious blow. But McLoughlin’s consternation turned to rage the day after Ryan and his shipwrecked crew arrived at Fort Vancouver. Messengers from Fort George, a small Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at the Columbia’s mouth, reported they had seen Isabella enter the wrong channel and become stranded on the bar. They had raced to the brig’s assistance and lit a fire to signal Ryan, but the captain had mistaken it for marauding and murderous natives and had fled up the river with his crew. In the morning, the Fort George men had boarded Isabella and found that the ship and her cargo were aground but reasonably safe, then sent word to McLoughlin.
Furious, McLoughlin sent the hapless Ryan and his crew back down the river to their ship to save what they could. In a letter to his superiors, he reported: “When Capt. Ryan arrived here he could not distinctly ascertain where he had left his vessel… it was only when I received Mr. Mansons [report] I actually learnt where she was and if Capt. Ryan had remained on board with his crew it is certain the vessel would have been saved as on the turn of the tide they had only to slip her cable and she would have drifted into smooth water.”
When Ryan and his crew arrived back at the wreck, they found Isabella on her side on a small island just inside the river’s mouth. She was full of water and, as the incoming tide washed away the sand that swirled around the hull, was slowly being swallowed up. The first task was to save the valuable cargo still inside the brig.
The next few days were spent stripping the wreck. The masts and rigging were chopped free and stacked on the island, and the crew began to unload the cargo from the dark, wet confines of the hold. Work stopped each day at high tide, when the heavy surf that broke over the capsized hulk made it dangerous to even approach the wreck. The hold flooded each day, making each day a repetition of pumping. After two weeks of back-breaking work, Isabella was at last emptied and the task of trying to save the dismasted hull began.
But the sand and the sea would not relinquish the wreck. A survey on May 24 found the brig settled into a deep hole, the hold full of water, beams cracked, decks and bulwarks washed away, and the hull beginning to crack in half. It was hopeless, and the surveyors wrote to McLoughlin that any attempts to save Isabella “would be an unnecessary sacrifice of labour… as we consider her a total wreck.” With that, the ship was abandoned to the water and the sands of the Columbia bar.
ON THE WRECK OF ISABELLA
Although the sands of the bar had swallowed Isabella, occasionally they washed away to expose some broken timbers. Charts from 1880 to 1921 mark a wreck at the site where, in September 1986, Daryl Hughes, a commercial fisherman, snagged his nets. Other fishermen had snagged nets there, but Hughes was the first to send down a diver, who reported that Hughes’s net was wrapped around the hull of a wooden ship. Hughes, who knew the river’s history, thought that he might have found Isabella and reported the discovery to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, just across the river from the wreck site.
The museum’s curator, Larry Gilmore, enlisted the support of a number of people, notably Mike Montieth, the Coast Guard commander of the “Cape D” station. An avid wreck diver himself, Montieth led a group of volunteers on a series of explorations of the wreck. In the murky darkness, Montieth began to sketch out the sloping sides of a wooden ship with a series of what looked like gun ports, a discovery that puzzled the investigators. Perhaps the hulk emerging from the sand wasn’t Isabella after all, but USSPeacock or USS Shark, two warships lost on the deadly Columbia River bar in 1841 and 1846. A sand-encrusted cutlass from Shark and a rock with a message carved into it by the survivors of that wreck are among the prize exhibits at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, relics of one of the hundreds of ships lost at this graveyard of the Pacific.
To help resolve the questions, our National Park Service team was called in. The team leader, Daniel J. “Dan” Lenihan, who is an intensely focused, hardworking archeologist with a quiet demeanor, created the U.S. government’s first field team of underwater archeologists. The work of Dan and his team has also revolutionized underwater archeology in the United States, both in the way that work is done in the water and how archeologists think about shipwreck sites.
The team that assembles at Astoria in August 1987 includes Dan Lenihan, myself and another adjunct member of his team, Larry Nordby, who looks like a Viking and whose skill in the science of archeology is enhanced by the ability to measure and draw the remains of ships on the bottom in the worst possible conditions. We three are joined by volunteers—Mike Montieth, local shipwreck historian and wreck diver James Seeley White, and other local divers who have already been exploring the wreck of Isabella.
As we gear up on the boats that are tied off the line that Mike has rigged to the wreck, he and Dan brief us. The wreck lies in only 48 feet of water on a hard sand bottom. That’s the easy part. The tough part is that the current rips through at such a fast pace that a diver can’t hold on when the tide ebbs and flows, so we can only go in the water at slack tide, when the current dies down to a dull roar. It’s also dark down there. Mud in the water near the surface blocks the light, so we have to feel our way over the broken wooden hulk, guided by a flashlight that illuminates just a few yards ahead. Then there are the fishing nets and crab pots caught on the ship’s protruding timbers, along with fishing line drifting in the current, to snag dive gear and unwary divers.
This is not going to be easy. In fact, I’m scared, but not enough to stay out of the water. We all jump in and make our way to the buoy that marks the wreck. The current tugs and pulls at us. Dan looks carefully at each one of us, checking to see if we’re ready. With a series of nods, we vent the air from our buoyancy compensating vests and start down the line, into the dark water.
The green water becomes gray and then black. Then, suddenly, I land on a thick wooden beam, encrusted with barnacles and wrapped with the buoy line. I’m on the wreck. Mike and the other divers have done an excellent job of sketching the basic outline of the wreck—the curving side of the hull, with ports open in what may be two rows. I turn and put my face close to the hull to examine it better, then switch on my light and follow Larry and Dan as we make a quick inspection of the hull. It is clearly half of a ship, with broken beams and timbers indicating where the decks were. From the weather deck to the bottom of the hull, this half is nearly complete, though we don’t yet know which side of the ship it is. Later dives will confirm that it is the starboard, or right-hand side, of the wreck.
A site map of Isabella as the wreck looked in 1987. National Park Service
Dan has asked me to take a careful look at the ports to see if they are for guns. Six of them, in a row, line the hull below the level of the deck. They are small square ports—they seem too small to be for guns, I think—and I run my gloved hand along the top of one to check for hardware or the hole for a lanyard to pull open a gun port. The wood is solid, and there is no evidence of hinges or other hardware. They look to be cargo ports—square holes cut to load bulk cargo like coal or grain, then plugged with wood and caulked for the voyage. To make sure, I inspect each one. My reward for this meticulous work is a sudden encounter with the rotting head of a salmon, stuck in a wad of net inside one of the ports, its empty eye sockets staring at me as I stick my head into the port. It gives me a start, and I hit my head on the top of the narrow aperture and curse.
Dropping further down, I look for the second row of ports. I find only one opening, and after examining it closely, I decide that this is not a port. It is a roughly square hole that has been cut into the side of the ship. The rounded corners indicate that an auger was used to drill through the thick planks. The preservation of the wood, buried in sand and kept intact by the brackish water of the river where wood-eating organisms cannot survive, is remarkable; taking off my glove, I can feel the edges where a saw has bitten into the wood to cut out the hole. Some of the edges of the planks are splintered, as if an axe was used to help open up the hole. I smile, for this, I am sure, proves the wreck is Isabella.
How do I know? The Hudson’s Bay Company kept Isabella’s logbook, which Captain Ryan had saved from the wreck and in which he made entries each day as they labored to save the brig and her cargo, ending only when it was apparent she was doomed. While reading a copy of the ship’s log in preparation for the expedition, I learned that the ship’s carpenter had cut a hole in the side. As my fingers trace his crude but effective handiwork in the gloom at the bottom of the Columbia, I think back to that journal entry: “Cut a hole in the side to let the water out, so that we could better get at the cargo.”
Dan is signaling that it’s time to surface. As we climb out, there are grins all around. This wreck, dark and dangerous as it is, is fascinating. The next few days quickly fall into a routine of early morning breakfasts at a small fishermen’s restaurant and two dives a day, which is all we can manage because of the currents and tides.
On one of these dives, I nearly become part of the wreck. Working in the darkness to map the wreck, Larry and I are signaled by Dan to get back to the line. The current has picked up slightly ahead of schedule, and we’ve got to surface. As we slowly work our way up the line, the current hits hard, and we have to hold on with both hands to fight the current to reach the boats. I’m the last one up. Exhausted, I stand on the ladder at the stern of Jim White’s boat. Forgetting my training, I pull off my mask and spit out my regulator. Instead of climbing up or handing up my weight belt or tank, I reach down and pull off my fins, one at a time. I fumble the last fin. As I reach out to catch it, the weight of my gear pulls me off the ladder and back into the water.
A side-scan sonar image showing Isabella. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Columbia River Maritime Museum.
I fall fast and hit the bottom. Without my mask, I can’t see very well, but it looks like I’ve landed next to the wreck. The strong current is rolling me along the bottom, and I can’t reach my regulator, which has twisted and is now behind me. With the desperate strength people sometimes find in these situations, I push off the bottom with my legs and kick for the surface, my lungs burning. My outstretched hands hit the bottom of the boat, and I claw and scratch my way along the fiberglass hull to get out from under it. But the weight of my tank and belt drags me back down into the water. I hit the bottom again and start rolling. My mouth opens convulsively, and I take in a breath of cold water and gag. I’m going to die, I realize, and I’m really angry. Like most accidents, this one is a combination of a foolish move and a deceptively dangerous dive site. My eyes are wide open, but my vision is narrowing, and I know that I’m about to black out.
Finally, my dive training kicks in. I reach down and tug at the clasp of my weight belt. It falls free. Then I reach up to my buoyancy compensator to pull the lanyard that activates a co2 cartridge. I start to float off the river bed and remember not to hold my breath or I’ll burst my lungs as I rocket to the surface. When my head rises out of the water, I reach up and try to draw in a breath, choking with the water I’ve inhaled. Hands grab me and pull me into a Zodiac—I’ve rolled and drifted a few hundred yards away from where I fell in. I lie on the bottom of the inflatable, coughing up the muddy water from my lungs. Shaky, dripping and miserable, I climb onto the deck of Jim White’s boat, wipe my face, and ask, “Well, did I die like a man?” Dan makes sure I’m okay and debriefs me to ensure I learned from my mistake, and then we’re back at work at the next slack tide.
When everything is all done, we have a beautiful plan of the wreck, drawn by Larry, that confirms this is indeed Isabella. The size and construction closely match the known characteristics of the ill-fated brig. The location is exactly where the ship’s log placed the efforts to save the stranded vessel, off what is still known as San Island inside the Columbia’s mouth. And the remains on the bottom show a determined salvage effort, from the open cargo ports to the hacked-off rigging fittings. But the real indicator, in the end, is that single, crudely hacked hole in the side.
On return dives to Isabella in 1994, Mike Montieth and Jerry Ostermiller, the director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, discovered that more of the wreck had been exposed by shifting sand. So ten years after the first dives, I returned to Astoria with a team of divers from the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia. With more of the hull exposed, we could see that the brig had literally unzipped along its keel, splitting in two as the bow and stern broke apart in the flying surf that battered Isabella. I also found the ship’s rudder post, torn free and broken, the thick fastenings for the rudder shattered by the force of the ship’s stern hitting the bar. We had hoped to find some of the brig’s fur-trade cargo, as the Hudson’s Bay Company archives showed that not everything had been recovered from the wreck in 1830. But the hull was empty of artifacts, and the only tale this shattered wreck could tell was the sad one of just how she had died.
James Delgado examines the exposed bow of the British four-masted bark Peter Iredale, wrecked near the entrance to the Columbia River in October 1906. Unlike Isabella, whose wreck is shrouded in underwater darkness in the nearby river, Iredale is a visible victim of the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” © Dartyl Leniuk Photography