Capt. Gray’s Ship Columbia Crossing the Bar – May 11, 1792

by Steve Mayo in Columbia

Capt. Grays Ship Columbia Crossing the Bar 

– May 11, 1792


   On May 11, 1792, Captain Robert Gray sailed his ship Columbia Rediviva into the mouth of the “Great River of the West”. Since the Columbia was the first large vessel to enter the river, Gray named the river Columbia after his ship.


   My painting shows the notable promontory named Cape Disappointment visible to the left of Columbia’s stern while out ahead, a pinnace is sounding for depth and leading the way in.


   The spring freshet was running with plenty of water as the ship was eased across the dangerous and uncharted bar. With a westerly breeze, the ship is under topsails to permit a careful approach through the rolling swells of the shallow entrance. A lookout is stationed high in the foremast and a seaman is sounding from the fore chains. It was a tense passage between the breaking seas in the shallows on either side of the channel, as the ship made its way into the river.


   From the log: “At eight, A.M., being a little to windward of the entrance of the Harbor, bore away, and run in east-north-east between the breakers, having from five to seven fathoms of water.”


   Fifth Mate John Boit writes, “This day saw an appearance of a spacious harbour abrest the Ship, haul’d our wind for itt, observ’d two sand bars making off, with a passage between them to a fine river. Out pinnace and sent her in ahead and followed with the Ship under short sail, carried in from ½ three to 7 fathom, and when over the bar had 10 fathom Water quite fresh.”


   Once past the bar, the ship was brought to anchor in deeper water within the more protected waters of what is now Baker’s Bay behind Cape Disappointment. Over the next nine days, Captain Gray anchored the ship in several different locations as they moved farther up the river. The crew traded for furs and carried out an initial survey of this important discovery. The farthest east the ship got was the anchorage noted on Gray’s chart in Gray’s Bay about 15 miles from the mouth.


   After a good number of furs were collected, the Columbia sailed out across the bar, departing the river on May 20.


   Just twelve days earlier, while coming south from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Columbia had met Captain Vancouver’s HMS Discovery and Chatham sailing north along the coast. Several days before, Vancouver had come past what he thought might be a small river’s mouth but it had not looked safe to explore. Gray told Vancouver; he too, had observed the possibility of a river in that vicinity and was returning south to further examine the area in search of furs.


   Gray took Columbia first into Gray’s Harbor thereby naming it such and then went on to discover the “Great River of the West”.


   The Columbia was originally built on the North River at Scituate, Massachusetts. The old vessel was purchased in 1787 for the fur trading expedition to the Pacific Northwest and completely refurbished at Plymouth. The rebuilding was so extensive, she was renamed “Columbia Rediviva”, Latin for “reborn”. She measured 83 feet, 6 inches on the lower deck which would have given her a length of 90 feet on the upper deck. She was 24 feet, 2 inches wide and when fully loaded, drew 11.5 feet of water. Her measured volumetric tonnage was 212 gross tons.


   The three-masted ship-rig with square sails was the standard for ocean-going ships of her day. For boats she carried a longboat, a pinnace, a cutter and earlier, a whaleboat. The rotten whaleboat had been replaced with a new yawl built at Clayoquot Sound during the winter ’91-’92. The Columbia was the first American-flagged vessel to circumnavigate the world flying the “stars and stripes.”

Steve Mayo – 1989

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