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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

historic site Cape Disappointment
Fort Canby State Park

Location: Pacific County, in Cape Disappointment (formerly Fort Canby) State Park, about 2 miles south west of Ilwaco, accessible via U.S. 101 and Wash. 12.

Although some of the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in November 1805 were the first men of record to stand on this bold northern headland at the mouth of the Columbia River, it had been seen and named by explorers of other nations, as were many other landmarks along the Lower Columbia.

Three decades before Lewis and Clark, on August 17, 1775, the Spanish navigator Bruno Heceta had sighted the cape, which he called "Cape San Roque." He named the large, sheltered bay behind it, which he did not enter, as "Assumption Bay" (present Baker Bay). Noting the strong current, he conjectured that he was at the mouth of a great river. More than a decade later, on June 6, 1788, a British sea captain and fur trader, John Meares, tried to confirm Heceta's suspicion. But, fooled by the big breakers that closed off the bay, Meares called it "Deception" and its northern headland Cape Disappointment.

Four years later, in the period May 11-20, Capt. Robert Gray, an American trader out of Boston in the Columbia Rediviva, was the first white man to cross the bar and explore the mouth of the river, which he named the "Columbia" after his ship. Five months hence, Capt. George Vancouver of the British Navy, seeking the Northwest Passage, appeared off the Columbia's mouth to investigate a report he had received from the Spanish commandant at Nootka that Gray had discovered a major river near "Deception Bay." Deeming it unsafe to cross the bar with his ship, the Discovery, he sent the brig Chatham, commanded by Lt. William R. Broughton, into the mouth of the river. Broughton anchored his vessel in Gray's Bay, along the northern side of the estuary, and penetrated with some of his men in small boats some 100 miles upstream, almost to the impassable Cascades. This was the state of knowledge and exploration of the Lower Columbia when the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived there in November 1805.

Fort Stevens, Oreg.
Looking northwest from Fort Stevens, Oreg., on Point Adams along the south bank of the Columbia, across its mouth to Cape Disappointment, which is visible in the right middle. Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta discovered the cape in 1775, but Lewis and members of his party were the first nonnatives to stand on it, on November 14, 1805. (National Park Service (1960).)

On the 14th Lewis and four men, after being carried around Point Ellice west of their campsite by some of their comrades in a canoe, set out overland to visit the ocean; en route, one man from an advance party of three joined them. On November 17, having probed as far as Cape Disappointment and a few miles to the north, the party returned to the Chinook Point camp, which Clark and the main body had established 2 days earlier. From that base, between November 18 and 20, Clark and 11 men traveled overland to Cape Disappointment and explored some 9 miles to its north.

Cape Disappointment
View from Cape Disappointment. (Charles L. Peter (National Historic Landmarks collection).)

In 1852 the War Department created a military reservation at the cape for the purpose of accommodating a coastal fortification to protect the mouth of the Columbia, but construction did not begin until August 1863. The post, named Fort Cape Disappointment, was completed and occupied by troops the following April. For their permanent shelter, that year and the next several frame garrison buildings were erected. The fortifications, at the southernmost tip of the cape, consisted of three earthwork batteries. In 1875 the base was redesignated as Fort Canby.

Between 1896 and 1908, after a long period of neglect during which the fort and its armament had become obsolete, the Army completely renovated them. New barracks and other buildings were constructed, and two batteries with a total of five rifled guns in concrete emplacements were installed. In 1911 a new mortar battery of four guns was added. Further modernization occurred during World War II. In 1947 the fort was deactivated. Present surviving structures date from the World War II period.

Subsequently, the State of Washington acquired 791 acres of the military reservation, which are now included in Cape Disappointment State Park. The U.S. Coast Guard retains Cape Disappointment Light House and other facilities at the cape. Further changes in its appearance have been caused by the accumulation of considerable masses of sand by the jetties the Corps of Engineers has constructed to stabilize the mouth of the Columbia.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004