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Across our State

Dismal Nitch

Three weeks ago I wrote about Cape Disappointment and the lighthouse there. There are two interesting and historic places on Highway 401 going toward the Cape. One of them, Dismal Nitch, got its name from the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. It is now a rest area.

"Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose sets the scene. It is November of 1805. The two generals, Meriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark, Clark's slave York, bequeathed to him by his father and with him all his life, the guide Sacajawea and the enlisted men, many of whom had come across the country through many difficult situations, have almost reached their goal, the Pacific Ocean. They are traveling by boat along the north side of the Columbia River. They are rushing to meet one of the last trading ships of the season at the mouth of the Columbia.

It is so important to get to that ship. President Jefferson had requested they send their journals and some of the collections home. This expedition would not be a success unless these got back to civilization. Even more important to the crew was the unlimited letter of credit to "charge" all the goods they needed. Their clothes were rotting on their backs. Their supply of trade goods was almost gone. They were also hoping for fresh food and a little rum to drink.

As the group paddles past Gray's Point on Nov. 10, they know they are close. They can actually hear the ocean (which may have been the breakers at the mouth of the Columbia). They see the coastline is a series of coves or "nitches" as Clark calls them in his journal. The weather is cold and rainy so the party retreats to a small cove. Then the wind comes, then thunder, lightning and hail. The water tries to sweep them off the rocks where they are trying to survive. They are in serious danger.

Taking advantage of a low tide, on Nov. 12 they move their camp back to a cove they had seen on the 10th. Here there was fresh water from a small creek and flatter ground by the creek bed. The rain continues for two more days, but on Nov. 15 they awake to calmer weather. Clark describes their escape in these words, "About 3 oClock the wind lulled and the river became calm, I had the canoes loaded in great haste and Set Out, from this dismal nitch where we have been confined for 6 days..."

The next stop was Station Camp and that is next week's story. That they had missed the trading ship was going to make the coming winter more dismal indeed.

What happened to Dismal Nitch? In the 1880's Joseph Megler operated a receiving station for fish that would go across the river to Astoria for canning. The buildings on the pier remained until the 1950's.

In 1906 the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company bought the deep-water cove at Megler's, which they named Cook's Station and built a large wharf to transfer goods from the river to the railroad lines which were being built to Ilwaco.

In 1921 Fritz Elfving established the Tourist I, a car ferry for the increasing auto traffic going to Astoria. This ferry service was purchased by the Oregon Highway Department in 1946, who operated it until the 4.1 mile Astoria bridge was completed 20 years later. The last ferry run was in July of 1966.

The ferry landing was torn down in 1968-69 by the Washington Department of Highways. In its place they put a rest area for weary travelers. The name of the rest area was changed to Dismal Nitch in 2005 on the 200th anniversary of the stay there by the Corps of Discovery. If only Lewis and Clark could have seen this facility in their time of need!

I continue to be amazed at the stories of the places so close to us here in Olympia and all across the state.

- Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), is currently in Olympia for the 2011 legislative session. She provides this column for readers of the Daily Sun News.

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