Hoquiam River, Grays Harbor

Hoquiam River, Grays Harbor

by | Mar 29, 2022

Hoquiam River drains a watershed of 62,720 acres (25,382 ha) with three principal tributaries that merge into a single channel that trends generally south for 2.5 miles (4 km) to the confluence with the Chehalis River at the head of Grays Harbor between the communities of Hoquiam to the west and Aberdeen to the east, about 47 miles (76 km) west of Olympia and 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Westport, Washington. The river name reputedly comes from a Native American word meaning ‘hungry for wood’, which may refer to the large amount of driftwood at the river mouth. The three main tributaries are the East Fork, Middle Fork, and West Fork. The East Fork Hoquiam River is 22 miles (35 km) long. The Middle Fork is a tributary of the West Fork and both are about 9 miles (14 km) long. Grays Harbor is an estuary named after Captain Robert Gray who discovered the entrance and sailed into the harbor on May 7, 1792, during a fur-trading voyage along the North Pacific coast. The present-day Grays Harbor basin occupies the lower 16 miles (26 km) of the Chehalis River, which originates in the Cascade Range and is joined by several major tributaries including the Satsop, Wynoochee, Wishkah, Ho­quiam, and Humptulips Rivers. These high gradient tributaries flow from the southern boundary of the Olympic Coast Range which is an uplifted accretionary complex. The Grays Harbor estuary is underlain by Eocene flood basalts, pillow basalts, and sedimentary rock derived from submarine accumulation. The regional geomorphology of the area was largely shaped by Pleistocene and early Holocene glaciations. During the Pleistocene, glacial melt and stream water overflowed through the lower Chehalis River, depositing outwash sands and gravels across the landscape. Additional alluvial deposition occurred as meltwater from glacial lakes, that formed at the southern margin of the ice sheet near present-day Olympia and Tacoma, drained through the lower Chehalis River and deposited in Grays Harbor. At the end of the Pleistocene, sea levels began to rise, causing the lower Chehalis River to become inundated and eventually form an estuary. Sea levels are estimated to have risen nearly 360 feet (110 m) in the Grays Harbor area over a period of 13,000 years and contemporary sea levels have been relatively stable for the last 3,000 years.

Native American people have inhabited the Grays Harbor area for thousands of years. The Quinault, Humptulips and Wynoochee band of the Chehalis people all thrived where hunting, fishing, and gathering provided easy and abundant food sources. Most tribes had ample leisure time to craft rich cultural traditions, including the potlatch, an elaborate ceremony hosted by a tribal elite to demonstrate prosperity by spreading the excess wealth among invited guests. Contact with Europeans quickly spread pathogens since there was no natural immunity, and combined with internecine tribal conflicts, coastal indigenous populations rapidly declined during the 19th century. In 1856, after months of intimidation by Isaac Stevens who was the Washington Territorial governor and Indian agent, several coastal tribes signed treaties that led to the establishment of reservations, including the Quinault reservation situated about 24 miles (39 km) north of Grays Harbor. The first white man to settle in what is now Hoquiam was James Karr, who moved north from Oregon in 1859. By the early 1870s, large numbers of settlers arrived to work in the fledgling lumber industry. As the forests of the eastern and mid-western United States were depleted, many unemployed loggers from the east, as well as Scandinavian immigrants, arrived in the Grays Harbor area. The first logging operation in Hoquiam was established in 1872 and from 1880 onward, Hoquiam’s growth depended primarily on the lumber industry. The first of Hoquiam’s early mills was financed by Asa M. Simpson, a San Francisco lumber baron, who sent his manager, George H. Emerson, to Hoquiam to establish a mill. Emerson purchased 300 acres (121 ha) for the new mill and lumber operation. By September 1882, the Simpson mill was producing its first lumber products under the name of Northwestern Lumber Company with Emerson as its first president. The mill was later renamed the Simpson Lumber Company and retained that name until 1906. In 1927, a pulp mill was established under the name of Grays Harbor Pulp Company and a year later Hammermill Paper bought stock in the company and built a paper mill that later became the Grays Harbor Pulp & Paper Company. In 1936, this merged with Rayonier Incorporated, a company that used wood pulp to produce rayon, a fiber used to make different fabrics. The Hoquiam River watershed lies mostly within the Weyerhaeuser Twin Harbors Tree Farm, and most of the original and second-growth forests have been cut and replaced with Douglas fir plantations.

The sea level is expected to rise by as much as 3 feet (1 m) along the Washington coast by the year 2100. Grays Harbor is a shallow low-gradient estuary and the ecosystems and associated economies are particularly threatened by rising water. Higher tides are expected to inundate 97% of estuarine forests. These changes will dramatically alter the habitat of many fish including juvenile salmon. Sea level rise will also compound the existing flooding of settlements along Grays Harbor where flood insurance premiums are presently one of the highest in Washington. Sea level rise adaptation strategies are being considered based on the physical impacts of inundation of developed areas, habitat loss and change, morphological changes such as erosion and deposition, and saltwater intrusion. Inundation or coastal flooding occurs when extremely high tides, onshore winds, and waves push the estuary’s waters over the banks of local streams and shorelines. Habitat loss will affect the estuary in different ways, with the primary agent of change being increased periods of immersion. This will affect the rearing habitat for out-migrating juvenile salmon and other sensitive species of the flood plain, and shorebirds and benthic flora and fauna of the outer estuary’s mudflats will also experience significant habitat change. Sea level rise will cause morphological changes to landforms and substrates largely through erosion. Although the shoreline of Grays Harbor is relatively protected from high-energy waves, erosional processes in tidal channels will be compounded by sea level rise as well as human efforts to stem the effects of erosion by building jetties and shoreline armoring. Salinity intrusion will affect groundwater and the upstream extent of a salt wedge in the river channel. The degree of these impacts will vary based on local relative sea level rise, extreme water levels influenced by storm frequency, and site-specific topographic conditions. Read more here and here. Explore more of Hoquiam and Grays Harbor here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (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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