Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Deep is My River—Part 2

Starting in the mid 1820s it had been Hudson’s Bay Company  (HBC) policy to create “fur deserts” in areas they didn’t want American trappers to venture. Since the lower Columbia River area was one of those “deserts” any poor critter with a pelt was hunted to near or total extinction. By the 1840s the HBC in Fort Vancouver, under the leadership of Dr. John McLoughlin, had gone into the provisioning business supplying outposts as far flung as the Russians in Alaska to the missionaries in Hawaii with articles grown on its farms. Dr. McLoughlin had a perfect solution for the transition from fur trapping to farming. Some miles south of the Willamette falls there was an area of meadowland the natives kept free from brush by seasonal burning. This was to make it easier to hunt game. By this time the native population had sadly declined, leaving this land ready to be turned into wheat fields.
Lt. George F. Emmons

Dr. McLoughlin used HBC resources to set up a group of his French Canadian trappers with their native wives and burgeoning families as wheat farmers. Dr. McLoughlin’s son set up a farm for his family as well. The land was ideal for any sort of crop, but wheat was especially useful. It was simple to grow and harvest, it traveled well, and was in demand wherever Europeans had settled. This was the beginning of a system that remains in place today, with wheat having been the number one export from Oregon from that time until recently. (Wheat was replaced by computer products in recent years, due mostly to the establishment of new, large, state-of-the-art export grain elevators on the Washington side of the Columbia River, which drew the business away from Portland.) The farms of the HBC also provided their far-flung customers with fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, as well as flour ground at the Fort Vancouver mill. The arrangement was very efficient, and the returns were bountiful enough to give Dr. McLoughlin many opportunities for generosity to the scraggly groups of new settlers arriving from the east.

In late May and early June of 1841 Fort Vancouver was visited by section of the U.S. Navy  Exploring Expedition,(Wilkes Expedition) under the command of Lt. George F. Emmons. The expedition team traveled upriver from Fort George (Astoria) to Fort Vancouver with two vessels: the USS Porpoise (230 tons, 10 guns, draft 14’) and a merchant vessel they christened the Oregon (250 ton, draft 11’ 2”, formerly the Thomas H. Perkins) which was purchased at Fort George.
USS Porpoise Wikimedia Commons

The expedition had planned to start exploring the Willamette River on the 3rd of June, but the weather was so stormy they delayed until the next day. (As any Oregonian knows, the first part of June, when Portland celebrates the Rose Festival, is inevitably a time of pouring rain.) The next day members of the expedition left Fort Vancouver and headed up the Willamette river in a large rowboat; even though this was the time of the spring freshet when the waters were at their highest the Willamette was too shallow for even the smaller of the two expedition vessels. Here is the account given of the start of that journey:

Dr. M'Laughlin had kindly furnished us with a large boat, and, although we had provided ourselves with provisions, we found in her a large basket filled with everything that travelers could need, or kindness suggest.

The barge in which we embarked was one that usually carried freight; but it had been fitted up with seats for our use, so that we found ourselves extremely comfortable, and our jaunt was much more pleasant than if we had been confined to a small canoe. These flat-bottom boats are capable of carrying three hundred bushels of wheat, and have but a small draft of water; when well manned, they are as fast as the canoes, and are exceedingly well adapted to the navigation of the river: they are also provided with large tarpawlings to protect their cargo from the weather.
These shallow draft boats were ideal for the Willamette. They were capable of carrying 18,000 lbs of wheat (about what a small farm truck is able to haul to the grain elevator), as swift as a canoe and outfitted with a tarpaulin to keep off the incessant Oregon rain. Exactly the sort of boat needed for moving large quantities of grain from the falls below French Prairie to the HBC fort on the Columbia.

Part of the expedition’s mission was to take measurements for the U.S. Geodetic Survey, including the task of sounding and charting the rivers and bays. Today many of those charts are available in large image format to be examined online, or downloaded from the NOAA Historical Map Collection These charts are a tremendously valuable reference point. Anyone who wants to discover the depth and widths of these rivers at normal high water level (as opposed to flood stage), in their pristine condition prior to any artificial “improvements,” such as, dams, dykes, or levees, they need go no further than the 1841 U.S. Geodetic Survey charts compiled by this expedition.

On the charts you will notice the soundings are marked in numbers, some of which have the letters “ft” and some without. After researching this matter way longer than I should have, it appears that the obvious conclusion is the correct one. The chart is in fathoms (1 fathom = 6 feet) unless it is marked in feet. Keep in mind that Captain Ainsworth would, in the years following, develop a double-decked system of docks: the low deck for low water, the high deck for the spring freshet—such as the Wilkes expedition was experiencing. The difference between the two was dramatic, and the soundings on these charts are taken in the season when, in later years, the higher docks in Portland would be in use.

So just how deep were the virgin waters of the Willamette River in those days? Let’s examine the mouth of the Willamette, which was then comprised of three islands. A cursory glance of the chart shows that it would have been unwise to try to take a vessel with a 12 foot draft into the river. Medium-sized sailing vessels of the day had drafts from 11 to 14 feet. The larger vessels, the size preferred in maritime commerce, required at 17 foot channel for navigation.

In the river’s mouth the deeper channel was in places a mere 2 fathoms—excluding the USS Porpoise and making it unwise to attempt to use the USS Oregon without considerable risk.
Mouth of the Willamette 1841

Slightly further upstream, below where the Multnomah Channel (called the “Wapato Branch” on the chart) enters the river, at the south end of Sauvie Island, is the shoal that would later be named “Post Office Bar,” and become a major project for the U.S. Army engineers. This section of the Willamette is shown to be only 5 feet deep in places. If this was the wet season, then what was it like in the dry?

Post Office Bar

Moving further upstream, past the place marked “Clay Bluff” or what would come to be called Mock’s Crest, sits the huge shoal surrounding Swan Island (called “Willow Island” on the chart). In 1869 this would be the major impediment to navigation and of great concern to the city fathers of Portland. Especially concerned would be H.W. Corbett, the United States Senator from Oregon, and a grain merchant interested in shipping directly to Great Britain. The situation was such that Portland needed to become a port with a U.S Customs house, or else all its merchandise would need to go through the Customs House in San Francisco. Portland merchants had been shipping grain through Astoria and San Francisco for some years. When vessels were unable to load, or take a full load in Portland the grain was “lightered” down river to Astoria. Grain lightered to Astoria was put on customs records as having been shipped from Portland. In 1869 the City of Portland purchased an expensive, top-of-the-line dredge, and Portland supporter, grain merchant, Senator H.W. Corbett arranged for the U.S. Army to operate the dredge. So began the deepening of these shallow waters, and a process that has never seen a conclusion.

Swan Island Bar

Near the south part of the “Willow Island” (Swan Island) the shallow sandbar is obvious in the charts. Once again one is left wondering: what was this like in the dry season? Beyond this point is a deeper area of the river that will be called the “lower harbor,” where, in later years, sailing vessels will sit at anchor waiting for a berth at one of the grain docks. Above the lower harbor comes the river’s pronounced bend where the Steel Bridge will cross, and where Captain John Couch will place a land claim of forest and swamp land. From here to the famous “clearing,” where a city will soon begin to grow, the river is consistently deep—a healthy 5 fathoms next to the clearing.

The Clearing

The one single legend that has made it into all the history books is the story of how Captain Couch declared this area to be the “head of navigation,” or as far upstream as was navigable. This story is undoubtedly true. Captain Couch says as much in an 1849 letter to the Oregon City newspaper, the Spectator. At that time there was a faction, headed by the builder of the steamboat, Lot Whitcomb, supporting the idea that Milwaukie was the head of ship navigation. In his letter Capt. John Couch ridicules the idea by telling of times he has seen people wading across the Willamette in the waters above Portland.

I have a strong inclination that Captain Couch was thinking of flat-bottomed steamboats when he argued that Portland was the head of navigation—and he was most certainly doing so in his letter to the Spectator. My reasoning is thus: When he came here the first time in 1840 aboard the Maryland the Willamette was extraordinarily high, enough so that he was able to take the vessel all the way to the Willamette Falls. He returned in April of 1844, aboard the Chenamus, with a shipload of merchandise to open a store in Oregon City, he was unable to enter the Willamette, but needed to transfer the goods by small boats. This is according to a report by an eyewitness recorded in the 1875 Oregon Pioneers Association Journal.

Captain Avery Sylvester, who would take command of the Chenamus, had been in the river the previous September with his ship the Pallas. Here is his description of the conditions on the Willamette at that time.

On the 18th  [September] we arrived safe into the Willamette, this being the river on which the Settlers reside, being much more advantageous for farming purposes than the Columbia. This river comes into the Columbia about 90 miles from Cape Disappointment, and is navigable for vessels drawing 9 feet water about 30 miles at any season of the year, when you come to rapids passable only for boats drawing 2 ft. for about 4 miles when you come to what is called the Willamette Falls. And a beautiful fall it is extending nearly I/4 of a mile, intercepted with 3 rocky islands; and when the water is low it has a dead fall about 40 feet. At this place on my arrival, there were about 20 houses, two saw mills, and one flour-mill nearly finished, all having been built within a year. This is the place to where we have got to get our cargo, and a tedious job we had of it; for the residents thought it was unsafe to go nearer than 12 miles of this place on ac't of a shoal bar which extended across the river. From here we take our cargo in boats to the Falls; and what made it much worse, it rained much of the time, making it difficult to keep the goods dry.

Captain Sylvester must not have had a good map, or was writing from memory. He estimates 30 miles to the Clackamas River rapids, which is actually about 23 miles from the mouth. The 9 foot depth would exclude all but the smallest sailing vessels of the period. I wonder what the good captains, Sylvester and Couch, would have said if you told them that one day Portland would be a major seaport handling vessels with a 40 foot draft? They would, of course, wonder how such a thing was possible. It would take a miracle. But then, someone once said that “faith as a grain of mustard seed” could move a mountain into the sea—or in this case—the sea into the mountains.

The little known epic of the ditch from Portland to the sea was decades in the making and seems now to be headed towards a catharsis. Senator Corbett and his fellow merchants wanted a channel with a depth of 17 feet. Work commenced on this project in 1869, and “river improvements” most importantly included a jetty at the mouth of the Columbia to force a deep channel through the bar. Dykes were constructed along the water’s edge. Dredging, snag pulling, and sluicing (a method of using riverboat sternwheels to stir up the sandy river bottom so the current would take the silt away) efforts were put into place from Swan Island to Young’s Bay.

In 1879 the U.S. Congress enacted one of the biggest pork barrel frenzies in American history, the Rivers and Harbors Act. Suddenly any little hamlet on a creek within a day’s canoe trip of the sea started having visions of becoming a great seaport. Senator Corbett (no longer a senator, but well respected in Washington D.C.) saw to it that the Columbia/Willamette Rivers area was well placed in the line for appropriations. Congress approved a plan to create a channel with a depth of 20 feet from Portland to the sea. It took nearly until the end of the century to accomplish this, and by that time the required depth had grown to 25 feet. To accommodate the vessels that would be arriving when the Panama Canal opened in 1914 the requirement grew to 30 feet depth. By 1935 the required depth had grown to 35 feet. Following World War II a depth of 40 feet was sought, a goal which was met in 1960.

The Present and the Future

The Columbia River channel is currently maintained at a depth of 43 feet and a width of 600 feet. The Willamette River channel is 43 feet deep up to the area of Terminal 4 at Saint Johns, from there the controlling depth is 40 feet. Larger vessels are usually moved from one deeper anchorage to the next using the rise of the tide in the river.

At several places along the Willamette river industrial waste has created EPA Superfund sites where further dredging would stir up a noxious soup of heavy metals and other poisons. Further dredging in these areas would require that the waters be completely sealed off from the river and all the sludge and other materials from the river bottom, as well as the polluted waters in the sealed off area would need to be disposed of as hazardous waste. At this point in time it seem unlikely that the river will be dredged deeper, even though the requirements have continued to grow. In 2014 the new channel of the Panama Canal will allow vessels with a draft in excess of 50 feet to pass through. The canal has been a template for ship construction, using the word “Panamax” to indicate a vessel that is at the maximum size to fit through the locks of the canal. With a “new Panamax” coming into play it will be interesting to see how that affects the Port of Portland. Already, in recent years, a large part of the grain export business has gone across the Columbia to export elevators in Vancouver, Kalama, and Longview. Swan Island’s new dry dock will bring some business, and a ship headed for dry dock is normally in ballast, and  not loaded to the load line. Medium sized bulk carriers will continue to visit the Portland inner city grain elevators, LDC and Tempco. Columbia Grain at T5 is in the 43 foot zone, and further dredging may even be allowed to take place in that area in the future.

The centralized notion of Portland as the Columbia River seaport is no longer important to business interests. The port of the Columbia River basin runs from The Dalles to Astoria with a sideways jaunt up the Willamette as far as the Steel Bridge. Many a long day and night I worked at “Globe” as the elevator next to the Steel Bridge is familiarly known. Some nights I worked in the scale room, up above the tanks, with a stunning view of the lights of downtown. The work I did then is now done remotely from computers on the dock level. During the early 1980s the elevator worked day and night without stopping—except for Christmas, New Years Day, and the Bloody 5th when the longshoremen commemorate their union members killed in the strike of 1936 when police and National Guardsmen were used against them. The life of the port was unique, interesting, and lively. By the time I retired a sort of ennui had settled on the waterfront that made it easy to leave.

It’s interesting to me, reading lots of old newspapers and such, how passionate Portlanders once were to make sure the city was assured a place among the great seaports. It was incredibly difficult to dig the ditch from Portland to the sea, but now, find me someone who cares if we remain a seaport. For the present we are the hipster capital of the world, but that never lasts either.