Dismal Nitch, Columbia River

Dismal Nitch, Columbia River

by | Apr 25, 2022

Dismal Nitch is a cove on the north shore of the lower Columbia River, historically significant as the last campsite of the Lewis and Clark Expedition before they sighted the Pacific Ocean, about 9 miles (15 km) southeast of Ilwaco, Washington and 4.5 miles (7 km) north-northwest of Astoria, Oregon. The cove was named in 1805 by Captain William Clark when the Corp of Discovery was forced off the river for 6 days by a severe storm. The cove is an indentation in the bedrock at the mouth of present-day Megler Creek that descends from the Coast Range. The bedrock is sandstone formed during the Middle Eocene on the geological time scale when this part of western Oregon and Washington was submerged under a large inland sea and marine sediments were deposited to a thickness of over 10,000 feet (3,000 m) by turbidity currents that carried the sediments northward to accumulate and lithify. Between 50 and 20 million years ago, from the Eocene through the Miocene, tremendous volcanic eruptions frequently modified much of the landscape traversed by the Columbia. For example, Dismal Nitch is bounded to the west by Point Ellice where the sandstone is intruded by basalt. Between 17 million and 6 million years ago, huge outpourings of flood basalt lava covered the Columbia River Plateau and forced the lower Columbia into its present course. The modern Cascade Range began to uplift 5 to 4 million years ago, and the Columbia River cut through the uplifting mountains. There is no direct evidence of glaciation in the lower Columbia River, but the river experienced some of the greatest known catastrophic floods toward the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. The periodic rupturing of ice dams at Glacial Lake Missoula resulted in the Missoula Floods, which occurred dozens of times over thousands of years. The exact number of floods is unknown, but geologists have documented at least 40 and evidence suggests that they occurred between about 19,000 and 13,000 years ago and largely resulted in the present-day landscape of the lower Columbia River.

Humans have inhabited the Columbia watershed for more than 15,000 years, with a transition to a sedentary lifestyle based mainly on salmon starting about 3,500 years ago. The Chinook people inhabited the northern shore of the lower Columbia River from Grays Bay to the sea. The Chinook had sprawling waterfront villages of cedar plank longhouses at the mouths of many important salmon rivers. The southern shore of the Columbia was the traditional territory of the Clatsop who spoke a language closely related to their Chinook neighbors. About 5 miles (8 km) downstream of Dismal Nitch was a large Chinook village called Qiqaiaqilxam, meaning ‘middle town’, apparently referencing its central location among the many settlements of the north bank. The village had over 30 longhouses lining the waterfront with a commanding view of the river and ready access to salmon migrating upstream. This village served as a center of trading activity along the coast as well as to and from the interior. Dentalium shells were carried by canoe by Nuu-chah-nulth traders of northern Vancouver Island to the major Chinook and Clatsop villages.  Slaves that were acquired through raids as far away as British Columbia and northern California were sold by the Chinook and Clatsop to tribes visiting from elsewhere along the coast. In 1792, British Captain George Vancouver sailed past the mouth of the river. Later that year, American Captain Robert Gray crossed the Columbia Bar and became the first known explorer of European descent to enter the river. Gray spent nine days trading near the mouth of the Columbia, traveling upstream to Grays Bay about 8 miles (13 km) east of Dismal Nitch. Vancouver returned to the mouth of the river and sent Lieutenant William R. Broughton, to explore the lower Columbia as far as the Sandy River about 100 miles (160 km) upstream. Because the Columbia was at the same latitude as the headwaters of the Missouri River, there was some speculation that Gray and Vancouver had discovered the long-sought Northwest Passage. When the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charted the mostly unmapped lands of the American West in their overland expedition from 1803 to 1805, they found no passage between the rivers. After crossing the Rocky Mountains, Lewis and Clark built dugout canoes and paddled down the Snake River. By then the Corps of Discovery was low on supplies and traveled rapidly down the Columbia River. They planned to meet one of the last trading ships of the season to secure needed supplies and send journals documenting their travels and discoveries to President Thomas Jefferson. On November 10, a severe winter storm struck the area forcing them off the river for six days. This delay prevented them from meeting the supply ships. The group landed in a cove on the north bank of the river that Captain William Clark called in his journals ‘that dismal little nitch’. After the storm passed, the company moved to a better location and eventually relocated for the winter to what would become Fort Clatsop.

In 1811, only 5 years after Lewis and Clark returned east, some fur traders with John Jacob Astor‘s Pacific Fur Company established a trading post on the south bank where the city of Astoria now stands. The settlement secured a prime position at the river mouth and became the commercial center of the salmon canning industry. A fishing station was built on the north bank of the river just upstream of Point Ellice by Marshall Kenney of Astoria in 1880. Kenney called the station Hungry Harbor, so named from it being a thoroughly landlocked piece of deep water and the fishermen used to run in there out of the wind to cook their coffee and eat their lunch. The operation was taken over by Joseph G. Megler in 1883, and he started operating both a cannery and a fish buying station, and the place became known as Megler Cove. In 1888, the Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company laid the first 5 miles (8 km) of narrow-gauge track from Ilwaco east along the north bank. In 1906, the railroad was purchased by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, which also bought the deep-water site at Megler. In 1907, construction of a railroad between Ilwaco and Megler was underway, and a wharf at Megler was constructed that measured 900 feet long and 120 feet wide. Once the train began scheduled operations, the steamer Nahcotta was set up as a passenger-only ferry service between Astoria and Megler. By 1909, a train depot, maintenance shed, and a turntable were built at Megler. In 1921, increased automobile traffic in the region induced Fritz Elfving to establish a car ferry, the Tourist No. 1, between Astoria and the Megler dock. In 1924, this vessel was succeeded by Tourist No. 2. Gradually, as the number of automobiles increased, the need for the railroad declined. The Ilwaco Railroad discontinued service in September of 1930, and in 1931 the Washington State Highway Department acquired title to most of the railroad right-of-way for a road. In 1946, the Oregon Highway Department purchased the ferry service. In 1956, a road east of Megler was constructed. In 1962, construction of the Astoria-Megler Bridge began and the bridge was finished in 1966 with the last ferry run occurring in July of that year. In 1968 and 1969 the Washington Department of Highways demolished the ferry landing and constructed the Megler Rest Area which was renamed the Dismal Nitch Rest Area in 2005. Read more here and here. Explore more of Dismal Nitch here:

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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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