Two hundred years to the day after the estuary of Grays Harbor was first entered by an American ship, the brig Lady Washington pointed her bowsprit inland.
With a creak of tackle and hiss of spray, she swept across the green swells of the bar.
The technology was quieter then, more beautiful, simpler, and far slower, yet utterly decisive in changing the face of the world.
The year 1792 was arguably the most momentous in Northwest history in the span of just a few months. Americans and Europeans who had been skirting the coast for nearly two decades finally found the Columbia River, Puget Sound, and Vancouver Island's inside passage.
It was money that brought 30 trade ships that summer to this Northwest coast, the most distant and last explored from Europe. Explorer James Cook had reported that the Chinese would pay dearly for sea-otter pelts, and the rush for empire was on.
By summer's end, the landscape had a new set of names. Chance discovery had set Western Washingon on its way to becoming American territory instead of Canadian. It also set in motion development that would transform the Northwest more in the next 200 years than in the previous 10,000.
Thanks to the $2 million reconstruction of Boston sea Captain Robert Gray's first ship by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, the past can be re-experienced.
The 70-ft Lady Washington spryly rode a 20-knot wind and incoming tide while crew member David Levine sang out sea chanteys and the crew hauled a web of working lines. Gray whales surfaced to blow a hello.
"Fire in the hole!" the gunners cried. Then with a bang and plume of gun smoke, the brig announced its fateful arrival.
The Lady was, and is, a technical marvel, the self-contained spaceship of her age. Pushed by storms almost to Antarctica when she first rounded Cape Horn, she pluckily went on to the Northwest Coast with her companion ship, COLUMBIA REDIVIVA.
It was actually in the latter ship that Gray discovered this harbor and the Columbia River became the first American captain to circle the globe. But the smaller, more maneuverable Lady Washington gives a sense of both.
"It was an incredibly tough boat," said Sandy Brown, the new captain. Since the vessel was built without wire, shackles or other metal doodads, 'when something came apart, they could just tie it back together."
Called almost recklessly bold by his lieutenants, Gray poked this ship and the Columbia across rough bars and into anchorages other captains had not tried.
"Gray is probably the most underrated of all American explorers, said J. Richard Nokes, author of a new book called "Columbia's River," who was on board for this bicentennial observance.
On 11 May 1992, the Lady Washington marked the 200th birthday of the discovery of the West's biggest river by tying up to the Maritime Museum at Astoria.
"The state of the Columbia River is the state of our society," Richard White, a U of WA history professor and author, told a recent conference gathering in Vancouver, WA. Because of dams and irrigation, "it has become part plumbing, half machine. The Columbia has become a Robo-river, a cyborg of sorts."
Such a future could scarcely have been imagined 200 years ago when the Columbia's stormy entrance had defeated or evaded Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta and British captains Vancouver, James Cook, and John Meares.
Yet the Northwest's geographic remoteness was swiftly coming to an end. Ships were coming from America, Britain, Spain, and Russia.
And the newcomers were not just white. A crew of hired Chinese carpenters, working on the west coast of Vancouver Island, had already built for the British the first ship constructed in the Northwest.
On an earlier voyage, Gray had taken a Hawaiian prince named Attoo back to Boston, where h created a sensation in his magnificent feathered cloak. Attoo returned with Gray in 1792, eventually becoming the first Hawaiian to circle the globe. The sailors on varied ships included black, Filipinos, and Hispanics.
The potential for fortune seemed enormous. A single sea otter pelt sold for an average of $22. in China and could bring as much as $100, a huge amount at the time. Native Americans would trade up to four otter pelts for a sheet of copper. A nail would buy two salmon.
It was commerce that drove the Americans. Gray was sent by a consortium of Boston investors as a trader, not an explorer.
The people he found here had developed the richest, most densely populated native culture north of Mexico. The predictable food surplus from annual salmon runs had produced one of the few places in the world with permanent settlements, a complex society and sophisticated artwork without agriculture.
When Northwest tribes eagerly embraced the trade, it proved a deadly bargain.
Eugene Humm, an anthropologist at the U of WA, said historians estimate that by the time Gray entered the river, up to 30 percent of lower Columbia River Indians had been killed by smallpox contracted in 1775 from Spanish coastal explorers. It was a toll equivalent to that of bubonic plague in Europe. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805, as many as 45 percent may have died after a second epidemic. About 90 percent of the survivors were carried away by epidemics in the 1830s.
Gray was an aggressive sailor. At one point in the Queen Charlotte Islands, the aggressive Gray he sailed so close his ship got caught in a cliff cleft and faced being threatened to be battered to pieces by incoming surf; he had to winch it out with an anchor line.
Thus, it is not surprising it was Gray who, on 11 May 1792, first breasted the breakers and entered the long-sought, "Great River of the West."
He sailed fewer than 30 miles up the Columbia, spending most of his brief time trading for 150 otter pelts and 300-beaver. The British went more than 100 miles to the Washougal River later that year.
But the entry was enough to give America a claim to the Columbia River country. With the Lewis and Clark expedition and subsequent American settlement, the British gave up their original claim to Western Washington, the land "north, and west of" the Columbia River...
Bill Dietrich. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 1992.
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