William: A Very Remarkable Point

Tongue Point, in the Columbia's Estuary

Pilings from an old pier dominate the view

© 1999 Greg MacGregor

Beyond the aged, weatherbeaten pilings that supported one of the Columbia River's many large salmon canneries a century or more ago, looms the profile of Tongue Point, 7 km (4.5 mi) distant. To its left (north), two ocean freighters follow the deep, narrow shipping channel toward distant inland seaports. The small city of Astoria, Oregon, which in 1847 boasted the first post office west of the Rocky Mountains, is out of the photo to the right.

On November 25, 1805, the Corps canoed up the north side of the Columbia to the vicinity of Pillar Rock, which is about a half mile southwest of today's village of Altoona, Washington. The rock is now marked by a beacon as a guide to river traffic. The following day they crossed to the south side among the "low marshey Islands" that now comprise the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. On the 27th they continued to thread their way among the many small islands and around "a verry remarkable point" which extended out into the estuary for a mile and a half. It was about four miles around, said Clark, and was joined to the mainland by an isthmus no more than fifty yards wide. He named it Point William.

Actually, it already had two names. Local Indians called it Secomeetsiuc, but in October of 1792, 13 years before Lewis and Clark arrived, explorer George Vancouver, captain of the British sloop Discovery, sent Lieutenant William Broughton across the bar in a small boat to explore the lower Columbia. Broughton gave it the name by which it is still known today, Tongue Point.

During World War II a naval air station was established there; after the base was decomissioned the facilities were occupied by a federal Job Corps center.

Dredging and rip-rapping (bank reinforcement) have widened the isthmus to a quarter of a mile at its narrowest. The deepest part of the Columbia River estuary, called the Tongue Point Channel, is near the north shore at Pillar Rock, and near the south shore from Tongue Point to the Columbia Bar. That channel is narrow, but periodic dredging keeps it open so that ocean-going vessels can dock as far inland as Portland, 100 miles from the river's mouth. At mean tide the channel is more than 14 fathoms (84 feet) deep near Tongue Point. The rest of the lower estuary, which is about six miles wide where the Corps crossed it, is only from two to six fathoms (12 to 36 feet) in depth.