Remarkable Rock

"The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top."1

Beacon Rock

tall, cylindrical rock jutting up above the river

Photo by Eldon Chuinard, courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation Inc.

View of Beacon Rock from the Oregon side of the Columbia River. In the background at right is 2,445-foot Hamilton Mountain.

On October 31, 1805, a "cloudy rainey disagreeable morning," Clark took Joe Field and Peter Cruzatte, the Corps' principal waterman, and walked several miles down the north bank of the Columbia "to view with more attention the rapids we had to pass. "Below the "Great Shute" he could see "a long distance down the river, which from the last rapids widened and had every appearance of being effected by the tide." Moreover, he noted "a remarkable high detached rock Stands in a bottom on the Stard [starboard, the navigator's right] Side & about 800 feet high and 400 paces around." He called it "the Beaten rock," underlining it for emphasis.

Two days later, camped about five miles downstream from this rock, Clark observed, "the ebb tide rose here about 9 Inches, the flood tide must rise here much higher." He misspoke, of course; by definition, an ebb tide doesn't rise, it falls. Lewis added on April 6, 1806, that "it is only in the fall of the year when the river is low that the tides are persceptable as high as the beacon rock." That is still true today, although the tide there, nearly 140 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, is considered too small to be worth measuring. Even at Portland, a hundred miles from the sea, it does not rise or fall enough to be factored into docking procedures.2 Back east, before leaving Washington City, Lewis had made a tracing of the map by the British explorer George Vancouver, whose lieutenant, William Broughton, had explored the Columbia River in 1792 to within sight of Vancouver Point, about opposite Rooster Rock, where the Corps of Discovery camped on November 1, 1805. It was perhaps that map, as sketchy as it was, plus the knowledge that they had just gone through the last rapid, which produced the expectation they would see tidal fluctuations.

As to its height, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, its summit is 845 feet above sea level, its base 40 to 45 feet above sea level, so Clark's estimate was closer to the mark than Lewis's, which was only 700 feet. Lewis noted, on their way back up the river in 1806, that it had "some pine or reather fir timber on it's nothern side, the southern is a precipice of it's whole hight." His estimate that the rock could be seen "for 20 miles below on the river" was long by at least 5 miles. The Columbia flows more or less directly west-by-south for 13-14 miles, but then turns due west before reaching Corbett, Oregon opposite Reed Island, where it is obscured by trees on the north side of the river.

The name "Beacon Rock" was partly celebratory and symbolic. From the time of Homer, who told of the beacon fires that were kindled on seaside hilltops to guide Odysseus home, beacons had been waypoints to landfall, warning mariners away from hazardous rocks and shoals. To Lewis and Clark this place signified the approaching end of the Expedition's cross-continental odyssey, and upon their return would mark the beginning of the long stretch of rocky river that had seriously challenged their passage to their long-sought port of call. "Beacon Rock" might also fall into the category termed "shift names," which commemorate places back home, and of which Donald Jackson claimed there were none in the Lewis and Clark journals.3

However, Lewis would have known that one of the ongoing issues Congress had to deal with during the early years of the federation was the maintainance of the new country's coastline, and it may be that he thought of the towering promontory as the kind of place that would be ideal for a lighthouse—if only it weren't so far from the ocean. At the end of the eighteenth century, technology and construction materials limited the heights of lighthouses. The Cape Henry Light at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, and the Cape Fear Light in North Carolina, built in 1782 and 1795, respectively, were just under 100 feet tall. Similarly, the Cape Hatteras light, completed in 1803, stood only 95 feet high.4 Thus they had to be built on the highest rock, or "stump," in proximity to the marine hazard, though that was not always high enough to make much difference. Even the third successive, improved and celebrated Eddystone Light of 1759, standing only seventy-two feet high to mark the ship-eating cluster of rocks forty miles off Plymouth, England, rested on a stump that reached only thirty feet above low tide.5 Those beacons could be seen about 13.5 statute miles (12 nautical miles) at sea, but a light built atop an 800-foot rock could be seen about 38 statute miles (33 nautical miles) away.

1. In the four lines from his Rime of the Ancient Mariner quoted in this epigraph, Coleridge illustrates the effect of the earth's curvature on a sailor's view of landmarks as his departing ship heads out to sea. It obscures first the church, then the hill where the church rests, and finally the beacon atop the lighthouse.

2. Information of David Pearson, Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, Oregon. June 5, 2003.

3. "Lewis and Clark Place-Names in Montana," in Donald Jackson, Among the Sleeping Giants: Occasional Pieces on Lewis and Clark (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 82-83.

4. Francis Ross Holland, Jr., America's Lighthouses: Their Illustrated History Since 1716 (New York: Dover, 1988), p. 43. James Dearborn, Jefferson's Secretary of War, held the contract for the building of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

5. "The Eddystone Lighthouse," at (accessed 07/03).