Umpqua River, Winchester Bay

Umpqua River, Winchester Bay

by | Mar 21, 2022

Umpqua River flows generally west-northwest for 111 miles (179 km), draining a watershed of 2.4 million acres (1 million ha), from the Cascade Mountains through the Coast Range to Winchester Bay in the Oregon Dunes, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Coos Bay and 5.5 miles (9 km) southwest of Reedsport, Oregon. The river was reputedly named in 1825 by David Douglas, a British botanist who traveled through the area, for the Umpqua tribe who lived along the lower river. However, the Umpqua tribe called the river ‘koh′ eetch′’ which referred to a feature of the landscape rather than to a settlement. Winchester Bay was named after Winchester, Paine, and Company an early land development company from San Francisco. The name of the bay in the Lower Umpqua language was ‘kow-ah′ lich’. The Coast Range in the Umpqua River valley mostly consists of Middle Eocene rocks of the Tyee Formation, a very thick sequence of fine-grained marine sandstone and siltstone formed as depositional sediments by north-flowing turbidity currents. The provenance of these sandstones are granites that formed in Late Jurassic time most likely from the Idaho batholith suggesting that the Oregon Coast Range depositional basin lay much farther east, closer to present-day Idaho, and subsequently moved westward. The Tyee Formation extends to the coast and the lower reaches of the river were deeply entrenched when sea level was lower during the Pleistocene and are now filled with deposits of fine-grained fluvial and estuarine sediment more than 130 feet (40 m) thick. The coastal fringe of the Lower Umpqua is overlain by Quaternary windblown dune sand composed mostly of feldspar and small amounts of quartz. The Oregon Dunes extend for 54 miles (87 km) from Heceta Head in the north to Cape Arago in the south covering roughly 40,000 acres (16,187 ha) and penetrating inland for more than 3 miles (5 km). The youngest dunes were formed over the last 7,000 years and are closest to the ocean. The higher dunes to the east were formed more than 20,000 years ago, and the tops of some of the highest dunes were last active more than 100,000 years ago. Analyses of the mineral composition of individual sand grains indicate that the Umpqua River is the primary source of the dunes, with smaller contributions from the Siuslaw and Coos Rivers.

The archaeological record indicates that settlement by indigenous peoples in the Umpqua region began at least 9,000 years ago. The Umpqua River watershed has been inhabited by several tribes including the Yoncalla Kalapuyans, the Southern Molala, the Upper Umpqua, the Cow Creek Umpqua, and the Lower Umpqua people who were also known as the Kuitsh and are closely related to the Siuslaw. The Kuitsh had their winter villages around Winchester Bay, at the mouth of the Umpqua River. They followed a seasonal round of hunting and gathering, moving each season to harvest salmon, berries, elk and deer, camas bulbs, fern roots, and shellfish. Occasionally, they hunted seals and sea lions, and any stranded whale was butchered for blubber and oil, but they probably did not engage in open-ocean whaling or sealing. The population of the Umpqua people prior to European contact is uncertain but estimates from early fur trappers were 3,000 to 4,000 in the Umpqua Valley and 500 along the coast. The first known contact with whites was with fur trappers aboard the Columbia Redidiva at the Umpqua estuary in the late 1700s, although Spanish galleons had sailed up the Oregon coast at least a century before. The introduction of infectious diseases led to an early and rapid decline in the Lower Umpqua population. In the 1820s, the Hudson’s Bay Company began intensive trapping of beavers and regular trade in the Umpqua watershed. In 1836, they built Fort Umpqua about 36 miles (58 km) east of the river mouth. Trade with fur trappers provided the Umpqua people with brass kettles, needles and thread, beads, clothing, and blankets. In 1848, the Territory of Oregon was formed by the United States, and the Hudson’s Bay Company vacated the fort in 1853. In order to promote settlement of the Oregon Territory, congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which granted 640 acres (259 ha) to each married couple from 1850 to 1855. In 1852, gold was discovered and within months several thousand miners came into the Rogue, Illinois, and Umpqua River watersheds. The gold rush brought in a rough lawless element, and conflicts with the tribes increased, prompting Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer to begin negotiation of a treaty. The Umpqua River estuary was an early focus of settlement by Euro-Americans, displacing the Lower Umpqua from their traditional villages along the river. In 1856, the Lower Umpqua were among the tribes of southwest Oregon forcibly removed to the Coast Indian Reservation at a new Fort Umpqua established by the U.S. Army on the north spit of the river mouth. In 1859, the southwestern portion of the Oregon territory was admitted to the United States as the State of Oregon.

Winchester Bay in the Umpqua River estuary was intended to become a major shipping port based on the land development and timber industry and was soon selected as one of six sites for a lighthouse. Shifting sand bars and turbulent currents at the river mouth created a hazard for ships and a navigational aid marking the river entrance was greatly needed. The first lighthouse was built along the river channel and completed in 1857. But seasonal river flooding and an unstable sand embankment caused severe erosion under the foundation and in October 1863, the lighthouse collapsed. Construction on a new light started in 1892 and was completed in 1894. The new light was built at an elevation of 100 feet (30 m) and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from the river and ocean. The new light used a clockwork mechanism to rotate a unique 1st order Fresnel lens with red and white beams of light. In 1916, the Secretary of War issued a permit to construct a jetty at the river mouth to reduce the hazards for marine transportation across the bar. In 1923, jetty construction was started on the north side of the river and completed in 1927. In 1935, a jetty on the south side of the river was constructed. In 1966, the light was automated and in 1983, the wheels in the rotation mechanism for the lens wore out after 89 years of continuous operation. In 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard restored the original mechanism and the lens went back into operation. In 2010, Douglas County took ownership of the lighthouse and leased the Fresnel lens from the Coast Guard. The light continues to operate as an aid to navigation and the 1st order lens is one of the few remaining in service. Between 1930 and 1951, lands for Umpqua Lighthouse State Park were acquired. Much of the original park was given to the state by Douglas County. Additional lands were purchased from the U. S. Government and private owners. In 1951, Menasha Wooden Ware Company donated just over 100 acres (40 ha). In 1972, with the creation of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area on the surrounding Siuslaw National Forest, an exchange of land was made with the U.S. Forest Service to complete the park. The purpose of Umpqua Lighthouse Park was to preserve the forested basin of Lake Marie plus a large ocean frontage with adjoining sand dunes. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Umpqua River here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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