Lewis and Clark Sites and More Recent History Along the Columbia River
From Ilwaco, U.S. Route 101 heads east, traversing the lush landscape that fringes the north shore of the Columbia River. The town of Chinook sprawls along the river, here more than 4 miles wide.
The settlement was the site of Pacific County’s first seat in the early 1850s, but this honor soon passed to the Long Beach Peninsula town of Oysterville. Chinook’s prosperity came to depend on salmon fishing. By the turn of the 20th century, residents boasted the country’s highest per capita income for a town of its size. The boom faded after 1934 when the federal government enacted a fish conservation act banning the use of fish traps and other fixed gear.
Fort Columbia Historical State Park
East of Chinook, Highway 101 follows the Columbia at the base of steep hills. This section of road follows a railroad right-of-way dating back to 1900. The highway tunnels beneath Chinook Point, the site of Fort Columbia Historical State Park.
The 600-acre park preserves a fortification dating from the Spanish-American War, one of three military installations built to guard the entrance to the Columbia (the others being Fort Canby and Oregon’s Fort Stevens). The park features 30 old structures, bunkers, batteries, lookouts and an interpretive center. A self-guided trail links many of the historic sites. The Army deactivated Fort Columbia after World War II and it became a state park in 1951.
One mile east of the fort, the St. Mary’s Catholic Church building marks the site of the ferry port and cannery town of McGowan. Nearby Middle Village-Station Camp, a unit of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, features a quarter-mile walkway with interpretive markers. This was an important Chinook trading village and the Corps of Discovery camped here Nov. 15-25, 1804.
Point Ellice and Megler
Just down the road is Point Ellice, site of the former ferry port of Megler. A car ferry service carried U.S. 101 traffic across the broad Columbia until the Astoria-Megler Bridge opened in 1966. Look out across the river — Astoria lines the Oregon shore. The distinctive profile of Saddle Mountain, the highest point in the northern Oregon Coast Range, rises behind the city. East of the bridge the Columbia broadens; wooded hills frame its shore and in clear weather the cone of Mount St. Helens, truncated by its 1980 eruption, looms on the eastern horizon.
Beyond Megler, Washington State Route 401 hugs the Washington shore. A rest area and welcome center occupy the site of Dismal Nitch, named by the Lewis and Clark Expedition for the dreary weather prevalent during their stay in November 1805.
Several miles upstream, pilings are all that remain of the former logging town of Knappton. First called Cementville, the town sprang up around a cement plant established in 1857. The cement works failed, but a sawmill prospered. The name was changed in 1871 to honor town founder Jabez B. Knapp. The Knappton Cove Heritage Center interprets the federal quarantine station that screened immigrants from 1900 to 1938. Knappton’s fate was sealed when a fire destroyed the riverside mill in 1942.
Highway 401 swings north away from the river, crossing a low divide amid logged-over hills before descending into the dairying valley of the Naselle River.
Settlement in the valley dates back to the 1850s. Many pioneers came from Finland in the 19th century’s final two decades and you’ll note many Finnish place names in the area, such as Wirkkala Airport and Parpala Road. Naselle, the chief trading center of the district, takes its name from the local Nisal tribe.
The Ocean Beach Highway
Here we join Washington State Route 4 (the Ocean Beach Highway), which links Interstate 5 at Kelso with U.S. 101 paralleling the Washington shore of the Columbia. The highway runs east through hills covered in second- and third-growth forest. The Grays River Valley, another district homesteaded largely by Finns, is a picturesque dairy region of lush green pastures, moss-cloaked trees and weather-worn barns.
At the village of Rosburg, settled in the 1880s, a road branches south following the Grays River to the Columbia. It continues along the great river’s shore, skirting beaches strewn with giant riverborne driftwood to the settlement of Altoona. Like most Lower Columbia communities, access in the pioneer period depended solely on the river; a road link was not opened until 1935. This stretch of river boasted six canneries a century ago and was an important port for steamers plying between Astoria and Portland. The town languished after the canneries closed in the 1940s.
The road continues along the Columbia 4 miles to the largely abandoned hamlet of Pillar Rock, so-called for the landmark stone sentinel just offshore. The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped here in 1804. Gazing downstream from this site they believed they could finally see the Pacific after their arduous transcontinental trek. However, it was only the wide river estuary, and they were soon to discover the ocean laid a further 10 days downstream. The Hudson’s Bay Co. established a fish salting works here in the 1830s and a cannery processed fish from 1877 into the 1950s. Retrace the route back to State Route 4.
From Rosburg, the Ocean Beach Highway runs east to the farming village of Grays River. Turn down Loop Road (which will return to Highway 4) and look for the single-lane Grays River Covered Bridge. Built in 1905, it stands as the Northwest’s oldest existing covered bridge. East of here, S.R. 4 swings over a series of heavily logged hills in long, easy grades, reaching a 760-foot summit at KM Mountain.
Bridge on-Washington SR 4 between Cathlamet and Skamokawa. Photo by JMabel/Flicker.
Highway 4 descends to the Columbia again at the village of Skamokawa (Skah-MOCK-uh-way). A trading post was set up here in the 1860s. Scandinavians established dairy farms in the nearby valleys in the 1870s and Skamokawa was soon renowned for its rich butter and cream. Timber and fishing also brought wealth to the community.
The Redmen Hall Building, built in 1894 as a school, features River Life Interpretive Center historical displays and photographs. Nearby Vista Park features picnic and camping sites, a sandy beach and great views of giant oceangoing freighters navigating the river. The town is also home to the pint-sized Wahkiakum County Fairgrounds, where the community gathers each August.
East of Skamokawa, the highway skirts the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian White-tailed Deer. Named for late U.S. Rep. Julia Butler Hansen, the 4,400-acre preserve includes several islands in the Columbia and is home to a subspecies of white-tailed deer once thought to be extinct.
Cathlamet, seat of Wahkiakum County, perches on a rocky bluff overlooking the Columbia. Chinook people lived in the area prior to 1846, when Astorian James Birnie established a trading post. The town later prospered, like others along the lower Columbia, as canneries and lumbering concerns set up shop and homesteaders tended dairy herds in the hinterland.
The Wahkiakum Historical Society Museum has a large collection of logging paraphernalia among its eclectic exhibits. Several old Victorian buildings grace Cathlamet, including the Pioneer Church building (1895) and Julia Butler Hansen Heritage Center, which was the congresswoman’s home. Built by Birnie in 1857, it’s the oldest house in town.
From central Cathlamet, S.R. 409 bridges an arm of the Columbia to Puget Island, named for a lieutenant who sailed on George Vancouver’s landmark expedition of 1792. The island’s rich alluvial soil attracted Scandinavian settlers in the 1880s. They drained and diked the soggy bottom land establishing lush pastures for dairy and beef cattle. From the island’s south shore, the last remaining car ferry on the Lower Columbia operates to Westport, Oregon.
East of Cathlamet, the Ocean Beach Highway hugs the Columbia’s shore for many miles. In places it runs along the base of steep bluffs; in others it climbs above the Columbia affording sweeping vistas. Little remains of the town of Stella, where homesteading began in the 1870s. By the mid-1890s Stella was a bustling lumber port shipping huge rafts of logs to California.
– Written by John King. Updated by Updated by Jim Hammerand in December 2020
– Top Image of Skamokawa by JMoor 17/Getty Images.