A channel system that would reshape the mouth of the Columbia River took 55 years to complete. It was a daunting and perilous job for those who took on the task, according to self-described history buff Gary Kobes, who led a presentation on “Rails in the Surf: Reshaping the Mouth of the Columbia River” as his topic for the opening season of History and Hops held in September.
Kobes explained that the massive engineering system consisted of three rubble-mound jetties: North Jetty, South Jetty and Jetty A. The purpose was to make passage safer for ships transiting between the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River since Portland was a major embarkation point for many of the regions’ products such as lumber, wheat and livestock — politically and economically.
The South Jetty project was conceived in the early 1880s, 15-years after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and 18-years after the end of the Civil War.
In 1839, the mouth of the river was 6.5-miles wide, creating difficult circumstances to transit ships in and out of the river. “It was trial and error from a navigation standpoint,” Kobes said.
A solution was proposed for an 8,000-foot0long pile dike, eight miles wide. This concept was soon abandoned in favor of a rubble-mound training jetty. A rubble-mound is a tramway trestle along the desired line of the jetty. Fascine mats are placed on the ocean’s floor to prevent erosion then covered with rock until piled to the correct height, Kobes explained.
By the 1840s, an influx of people began arriving from the Oregon Trail, he said.
In 1850, the Oregon territory population was 11,500. It had grown to 750,000 people by 1890, and by the time the jetty project was completed in 1940, the population had increased to more than three million people.
“That was less than a period of 60 to 70 years where the population increased, making it a pretty phenomenal growth spurt,” Kobes said. “There was tremendous growth going on in the northwest at that time and it manifested itself as the people who populated the area started to use timber, which was used locally and also exported.”
With both the influx of settlers and an increase in shipping, pressure mounted on congress to act.
The jetty project spanned a period from 1885 to 1940, and though the best turn-of-the-century technology of the era was used, Kobes said, it was not enough for construction to continue during the winter.
Due to extreme storms of high wind velocity, the work was hazardous. Men regularly experienced heavy wave action; pounded by ocean waves rising up to 20-feet high, and in excess of 30-feet high in winter.
Derricks to lift the rock onto the rail cars and trestles to move the rail cars were built.
Stones were quarried out of Fischer’s Quarry in Vancouver and barged to Astoria. The ultra-hardness of Columbia basalt made it the perfect stone for this type of construction as it can withstand violent storms and turbulent waves. Overall, 2.2 million tons of stone was used to build the South Jetty, while nearly 3 million tons of stone was used to build the North Jetty.
Since completion, the jetties have caused build-out and accumulation of new beach in both directions, while other parts have shown signs of erosion. Years of violent wave action have caused damage to each jetty. Increased activity and the loss of shoaling sand underneath have also taken a toll on their structural integrity.
While no one could imagine the significant effect the jetties would have on the landscape of the mouth of the Columbia River, no one can disprove that the jetty project was an ongoing engineering experiment that ultimately succeeded.
During construction of the South Jetty, an incredible rescue was made involving a schooner, its crew and a train.
The schooner Admiral met with foul weather and ran into the westward most portion of the South Jetty extension Jan. 13, 1912. Another ship crossing the bar saw the wreck and sent a message to the U.S. Lifesaving Service at Point Adams where a man from the station ran to notify the jetty construction office.
“As luck would have it, locomotive No. 4 had been fired up for yard work and was ready to go,” Connie Kobes said. Four men took the train out on the trestle and saw the First Mate clutching a small boy. Three more survivors were spotted: Capt. Bender, his wife and the cook. The rest of the ship’s crew was on the far side of the 200-foot breach.
With more personnel and equipment, the train returned and fired a rescue line over to the survivors and one by one rescued the remaining seven people. The Admiral had been washed ashore on Peacock Split and all rescue attempts were thwarted by heavy waves. “This was perhaps the only time in history where a locomotive went to sea to come to the aid of a ship in distress,” Connie said.