My husband Chris and I spent two weeks on the West Coast this fall, on a road trip between San Francisco and Seattle. After visiting with Chris’s brother Jeffrey in Mendocino County, we took the inland route north via Oregon’s Crater Lake and Portland. Seattle was next, and then we followed the rugged Pacific coastline back to San Francisco, visiting several seaside towns and redwood forests along the way.

In any given part of the world, there is always more to see than time and resources will allow. It seemed silly that we would fly all the way across the country and not visit the Olympic Peninsula or Mt. Rainier, or take a ferry across Puget Sound. But we couldn’t miss the Experience Music Project, nor the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, nor Mt. St. Helens (In fact, we were there just two days before the mountain started rumbling and they began closing hiking trails).

One destination I insisted upon was the scenic Columbia River Gorge, east of Portland. Our vacations often have rivers as their centerpieces, and this trip was no exception. The guidebooks all touted the gorge as a “Best Bet,” and our local connection to the Columbia River sealed the deal. Another “must-do” was the mouth of the Columbia, on the Pacific coast between the towns of Astoria, Oregon and Ilwaco, Washington.

It’s surprising that most of us make it all the way through twelve grades of public school on the South Shore without learning our local link with Oregon’s Columbia River. The Columbia is one of our nation’s largest rivers, flowing for 1,200+ miles and draining a 259,000 square mile basin that includes portions of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and British Columbia. (Compare this to the 12-town, 16-mile long, 80 square mile drainage area of our own North River.)

Although the Columbia had been inhabited by native cultures for at least 10,000 years, it was “discovered” by Europeans in the late 1700s. Here’s where the South Shore connection comes in. Between 1878 and 1793, Captain Robert Gray became the first man to pilot an American ship around the globe. Along the way he sailed into the wide mouth of a river in the Pacific Northwest, and explored its lower reaches. He named the river after his ship, “The Columbia.” Can you guess where the square rigger Columbia was built? Would you believe it was in Scituate, at one of the North River’s many shipyards?

When I was in college, I began researching the North and South Rivers – their anthropology, ecology, and communities. My studies led me to the late Aaron A. Loomis, a longtime Marshfield resident with a passion for maritime history. It was Mr. Loomis who explained to me how in 1773, James Briggs of Hobart’s Landing in Scituate built the vessel that would make the North River shipyards famous around the world. This ship, just over 82 feet long, and weighing 212 tons, was constructed primarily of native white oak and pine. With a crew of 20, plus 10 cannon, The Columbia would become, for a time, the most famous American ship, the first from our country to circumnavigate the globe. Nearly two hundred years later, NASA would honor this pioneering vessel by bestowing its name upon America’s first space shuttle.

The Columbia River valley is rich with historic sites marking the progress of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers who were charged by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to find a route across the United States to the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. The main exhibit at the museum at the river mouth follows Lewis and Clark, their guide Sacagawea, and the rest of their team through a three-year series of trials and tribulations. It’s a fascinating story, filled with ever-changing scenery, scientific discoveries, and thrilling encounters – some pleasant, some not — with Native American tribes.

Not once in the museum is the North River mentioned. Captain Robert Gray and his ship after which The Columbia River was named are mentioned only in passing. Certainly, the European “discovery” of a river that had already existed tens of thousands of years pales in comparison to the rich native history of the region, but you’d think it would merit at least a sidebar! After all, it was Gray’s “discovery” that prompted Jefferson to send Lewis and Clark to explore the west.

The guides at the museum seemed nonplussed – even skeptical – when we told them that Gray’s Columbia was built just a couple miles from our home. Regardless, we enjoyed the historical connection — to know that two hundred plus years ago, a North River ship had sailed around Cape Horn, up the Pacific Coast, and into the mouth of the Columbia River, commencing an important – and exciting — era of exploration in the United States.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
October 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.