Photo by Kiser Bros. from Olin Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804—1904.1
View from the Top
View east, across Ives and Hamilton Islands
Photo by J. Agee © 1997 VIAs Inc.
Six years after Parker, the United States Exploring Expedition to the Northwest led by Charles Wilkes, passed through this area late in June of 1841. In the map of the lower Columbia River that accompanied his published report, the landmark was labeled "Castle Rock." It may be that he had heard about the rock from oral reports of Alexander Ross's name for it, or he may have considered it his own, for Wilkes wrote, "The country bordering on the river is low until the Cascades are approached, with the exception of several high basaltic bluffs. Some of them are . . . pointed like turreted castles."2
When Olin Wheeler passed by it a few years before the centennial anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it was still known as Castle Rock.
The rock and the property surrounding it were privately owned from the 1850s, for a time by Jay Cooke, the Philadelphia financier. The first climbers ascended the rock in 1901, leaving anchors and ropes that encouraged more climbers. In 1915 Henry J. Biddle, a descendant of Nicholas Biddle, the first editor of the Lewis and Clark journals, purchased the rock, and to preserve it from further defacement, built a 4,500-foot-long, four-foot wide trail to the top. He also persuaded the Board of Geographic Names to restore Lewis and Clark's name.3
In 1916 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially restored Lewis and Clark's name, Beacon Rock. In 1935 the heirs to the Biddle estate deeded to the State of Washington 260 acres of land on which the landmark stands as the centerpiece to a state park.
1. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1904 (2 vols, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), 2:77.
2. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 (5 vols. and atlas, Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1845), 4:379.
3. Henry J. Biddle, "Beacon Rock on the Columbia: Legends and Traditions of a Famous Landmark," Reprint, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc., WPO Publication No. 3, July 1978, p. 5.
The Wilkes Expedition
Authorized by Meriwether Lewis's friend, the Hon. Mahlon Dickerson, Secretary of the Navy from 1834 to 1838, it was the first naval expedition "fitted out by national munificence for scientific objects, that has ever left our shores." Lieutenant Charles Wilkes was the commander of the naval squadron that embarked from Norfolk, Virginia, in August of 1838, on a voyage of exploration to Antarctica, the South and Central Pacific Ocean, and the Oregon coast. The contentious Wilkes promoted himself to the rank of captain as soon as he was at sea. The journey of the "Everlasting Expedition," as its detractors dubbed it, ended with its return to New York in 1842.
In the spring of 1841 one contingent of "Captain" Wilkes's expedition explored the Columbia River to the mouth of the Snake River, while another went up the Willamette River and thence cross-country to San Francisco Bay and vicinity. After one of his vessels ran aground on the Columbia Bar, Wilkes proposed that the U.S.-Canada boundary be set at 50 degrees, 40 minutes north. That would ensure U.S. control over better ports in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, together with San Francisco, dominance over North American trade with the Pacific Rim.
This expedition's most important achievements were to confirm that Antarctica is a continent, and to chart islands in the South and Central Pacific that were to be used by naval and marine units in World War II. The team of scientists included Titian Ramsay Peale and James Dwight Dana. Three artists—Joseph Drayton, Raphael Hoyle, and Alfred Agate—provided the American public with some of the first widely circulated pictures of the remote and exotic Northwest. Congress authorized the publication of only one hundred copies of the six-volume Narrative, but Wilkes acquired publication rights and reprinted them himself thirteen times between 1845 and 1858.