Fort Columbia, Chinook Point

Fort Columbia, Chinook Point

by | Jun 6, 2022

Fort Columbia is a historical military facility situated on Chinook Paint, that defended the entrance to the Columbia River from 1896 to 1947 and is now a state park, about 7 miles (11 km) southeast of Ilwaco and 6 miles (10 km) northwest of Astoria, Oregon. Chinook Point is on the right bank or northern shore of the Columbia River estuary between the communities of Megler to the east and Chinook to the northwest. The point was named in 1792 after a nearby Chinook Native village by Lieutenant William R. Broughton who commanded HMS Chatham as part of the Vancouver Expedition. The word ‘Chinook’ reputedly originates from ‘Tsinuk’, the Chehalis name for the Chinookan people. The fort is named after the river which was named in 1792 by Captain Robert Gray after his ship Columbia Rediviva. This area of southwestern Washington lies along the westernmost exposed edge of the Coast Range. The Coast Range consists of the exposed part of a forearc basin that formed during the Tertiary and extends offshore and lies within an active convergent margin where the Juan de Fuca Plate is subducting beneath the northerly portion of the western side of the North American Plate at the Cascadia subduction zone. The oldest rocks of the Coast Range are referred to as the Crescent Formation, which is considered to be of early and middle Eocene age. The Crescent Formation is exposed at Chinook Point and consists primarily of middle Eocene sub­marine-pillowed basalt, basalt lapilli tuff, columnar-jointed basalt breccia, and massive basalt sandstone and conglomerate. Since 1878, an ongoing effort has been made to maintain a suitable navigation channel through the constantly shifting sands of the lower Columbia River, by a series of modifications to the river mouth and channel. These modifications include the construction of jetties near the mouth of the river, dredging of the navigation channel, and the installation of 233 pile dikes by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promote scouring and to direct the river along the desired path. A series of pile dikes at Chinook Point including one called the Chinook Jetty direct river water away from the north shore.

The Lower Chinookan people inhabited a traditional territory along the north shore of the lower Columbia River estuary. Their social and economic influence stemmed from a strategic geographic position at the mouth of the Columbia, which offered them a role as middlemen in aboriginal trade networks of the coast and interior as well as the later maritime and overland fur trades. Like many Northwest Coast Native groups, the Lower Chinookan people lived communally in large rectangular wooden dwellings. As riverine people, they relied on a salmon-based diet supplemented by wild game and fowl, local roots, and plants. At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Lower Chinookan peoples consisted of at least 28 local groups occupying villages along the shores of the Lower Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean upstream about 195 river miles (314 km) to the vicinity of The Dalles. The mouth of the Columbia River was missed by several early European explorers. In 1775, the Spanish explorer Bruno de Heceta discovered a large bay penetrating far inland and is credited with being the first European to sight the mouth of the Columbia. He tried to sail upriver but strong currents prevented any progress. In 1778, British Captain James Cook explored the coastline but missed the river mouth entirely due to bad weather. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver also sailed the area but did not see the river mouth. That same year, Captain Gray made note of the strong offshore currents but was unable to enter the river mouth. He later returned and succeeded in sailing up the river and is officially credited for discovering the Columbia. This formally established an American claim to the region that withstood later challenges since international law held that the discovery and entrance of a river mouth gave the discovering nation sovereignty not only over the water but also over its valley, watershed, and all the adjacent coast. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition was organized in the early 19th century, the Columbia River was one of its objectives, and the overland expedition reached Chinook Point in November 1805. Comcomly was a leading figure among the Chinook people during the initial period of contact with Euro-American fur traders and was credited with helping maintain peaceful relations during the early 1800s. The Chinookan peoples were devastated by waves of epidemic diseases beginning with smallpox in the 1770s. More than 90 percent of the Chinookan population was wiped out by these epidemics, the worst of which was a malaria outbreak in the 1830s. Beginning in the 1850s, many surviving members of Chinookan groups were removed to the Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, and Quinault Reservations.

In the 1800s, the Oregon Country was a disputed region that had been occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders since before 1810, as well as American settlers from the mid-1830s, and the coastal areas north of the Columbia River were frequented by ships from all nations engaged in the maritime fur trade. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended disputed joint occupancy and established the British-American boundary mostly along the 49th parallel, and U.S. Army engineers were sent to the Pacific coast to determine suitable sites for fortifications. In 1864, the United States established a military reservation at Chinook Point for the purpose of completing a system of coastal defenses but the reservation remained neglected. Between 1896 and 1904, an intensive construction program was carried out at Fort Stevens and Fort Canby at the mouth of the Columbia, and Fort Columbia was built on Chinook Point to complete the triangle of artillery fire. In 1942, a reinforced concrete gun emplacement called Battery 246 was built at Fort Columbia but was never completed. Fort Columbia was declared surplus at the end of World War II and was transferred to the custody of the State of Washington in 1950. The surviving historic structures include three gun batteries and 13 frame buildings that were built in 1902. The two-story barrack was converted into a museum in 1954 and contains exhibits telling the story of Pacific explorations, regional history, and also the military history of the fort. Still present are the remnants of the long dock that served the fort in earlier days when all supplies were brought in by water. Chinook Point is now part of Fort Columbia State Park with 618 acres (250 ha), which is in turn part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, a series of parks preserving and commemorating sites related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. U.S. Route 101 passes underneath the park through a tunnel. Read more here and here. Explore more of Fort Columbia 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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