For 12,000 years, Native American tribes enjoyed permanent settlements along the Oregon coast — until European explorers changed everything. Inland, the forests and grasslands teemed with wildlife, while rivers and lakes were alive with fish.
Winds and towering waves from north Pacific storms created one of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful shorelines.
Sea otters cruise the kelp beds while seals and sea lions bask on rocks and pristine beaches, and tirelessly chase the annual salmon swarms leaving the sea to return to their spawning grounds in waterways far inland.
Whales and orcas patrol the seas.
The dark, cold ocean waters offshore are also home to 16 species of sharks — including the big and dangerous Great White and Tiger. Inland are elk, moose, deer, bear, cougar, beaver, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and many other animals — even the tiny Pocket Mouse. Birds include eagles, ospreys, owls and waterfowl.
Lurking below all of the Oregon coastline is the Juan de Fuca Plate that slowly in geologic time is grinding its way under the North American Plate and could trigger massive earthquakes any time — as it did in 1700, which scientists believe was 8.7 to 9.2 magnitude.
The waters from Tillamook Bay to the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island are called the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” where unpredictable weather, high seas, fog, treacherous currents and rocky shores present a nightmare to mariners.
Thousands of ships have been wrecked there since the 1500s, when Europeans first arrived. According to writer and documentarian Russell Sadler, more than 2,000 ships and 700 lives have been lost near the mouth of the Columbia River alone. Another source says there are 484 wrecks south and west of Vancouver Island.
In 1738 Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye (1732-1739) led the first known Euro-American expedition into Oregon, but over the next century or so, maritime explorers sailed the coastline while mountain men filtered in looking for beaver and other fur animals to trap and hunt.
The first European to sail as far north as Oregon was probably Bartolomé Ferrer in 1543, who took over command of two ships sailing the Pacific Coast under the leadership of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who died on San Miguel Island near Santa Barbara after an accident.
Ferrer was followed by Juan de Fuca (1536-1602) a Greek navigator who sailed for Spain using a Spanish name. His real name was Apostolos Valerianos. He sailed as far north as Vancouver Island in 1592, looking for the fabled “Northwest Passage.” The channel between Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympia Peninsula was named after him.
Then came English sea captain Sir Francis Drake sailing the “Golden Hind” under orders from Queen Elizabeth I, looking for Spanish ports to plunder and treasure ships to capture.
How far north up the West Coast he sailed is still unclear. From Drake’s sketchy descriptions of coastal landmarks and freezing weather conditions, some scholars theorize that Drake may have reached 57 degrees north, around Prince of Wales Island in the Alaskan chain of islands.
We do know that in 1778, British seafaring Captain James Cook on his third and final voyage of exploration, mapped the West Coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait.
The Royal Navy’s George Vancouver and American merchant sea captain Robert Gray who served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution both arrived off the Northwest Coast about the same time in 1792.
Vancouver’s mission was exploring the Pacific Ocean, while Gray was looking for trading opportunities for merchants back East.
The two captains met at sea, off the coast of Oregon just prior to Gray’s sailing up the Columbia River — the first to do so.
Europeans coming to the Pacific Northwest caused huge cultural changes to the Indians, bringing new ideas, customs, religions, weapons, the wheel, horses, livestock — and sadly, diseases.
“Ever since the first arrival of European trappers and traders, the native peoples of the Columbia basin were swept by epidemics of newly introduced diseases that annihilated a vast percentage of the population…” said Hubert Howe Bancroft in his History of Oregon, reducing the population “to less than 375 people.”
The big turning point was the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition that arrived at what is now Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Ore., where they wintered in 1805-06.
It was a miserable winter but Sacagawea, their Lemhi Shoshone Indian guide and interpreter from Idaho, was happy to see her first whale. It was dead and washed up on the beach.
Five years after President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New York tycoon John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company, Pacific Fur Company, and Southwest Fur Company. Planning to trade American furs to China and import Chinese goods in exchange, he built Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River.
It was the first American settlement on the Pacific coast, and would later play an important role in the Pacific Northwest becoming part of the United States.
In building the trading post, he sent one expedition by sea; the other overland. The land group discovered South Pass over the Rockies, which turned out to be a floodgate for settlers from the East to rush into the new territories.
It was the start of the Oregon, Mormon and California trails.
The massive emigrant movement west would fuel the Manifest Destiny plan to expand the nation from east to west coast.
America would never be the same.
But before they came, mountain men roamed the rivers and lakes mainly to trap beavers — their fur highly prized in making top hats. Then the missionaries arrived to teach Christianity to the Indians, followed by farmers seeking free land and a new life. Discovery of gold and silver attracted miners. Civilization was taming the West and also forever destroying the Native American way of life.
For the rest of the 1800s, Oregon was plagued with growth pains, along with relentless battles between Indians and the settlers taking over their ancestral lands.
World War II brought its conflict right to mainland America in 1942, when the Japanese attacked Oregon twice.
On the night of June 21, 1942, Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-25 surfaced offshore and shelled Fort Stevens, a coastal defense base in northwest Oregon.
During that bombardment, I-25 fired 17 rounds, most of which exploded harmlessly on the land — leaving only craters — but the attack did shock the American public.
On board the sub was Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita, an experienced pilot who since before Pearl Harbor had an idea: He suggested that a floatplane launched from a submarine could attack Allied shipping and land targets.
The Japanese naval high command liked the idea.
On Sept. 9, 1942, Fujita was aboard the I-25 that returned to the Oregon coast. The sub’s Captain Tagami called him to the conning tower to look through the periscope and check out the weather conditions.
“Captain, it looks good,” Fujita said. “I think we can do it today.”
“Fine,” the captain replied, “In just a few more minutes you’ll make history. You will be the first person ever to bomb the United States of America! If all goes well, Fujita, you will not be the last!”
Along with Petty Officer Shoji Okuda, Fujita boarded the single-engine Yokosuka E14Y floatplane that had been assembled on deck, and then catapulted into the air.
Called the “Glen” by the Americans, the plane carried two 170-pound thermite incendiary bombs that could scatter 520 firing elements that would burn at 2500 degrees and start a monster forest fire. That was the plan.
The seaplane headed northeast toward the Cape Blanco lighthouse on the Oregon coast, and then inland about 50 miles and dropped the bombs.
They watched the fires below, and then skimming the treetops quickly flew back to sea for “a successful rendezvous and recovery with the I-25.”
Most of the Oregon coast is protected from development and remains intact with all its majesty and beauty — appreciated even by Japan’s navy pilot Nobuo Fujita who sought to destroy it.
In 1962, he visited the site of the bombing and gave his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword to the town he’d bombed as a token of friendship.
The treasure is now on display at the City of Brookings Library on the Oregon Coast.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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In 1970, a dead sperm whale washed up on the beach near Florence, Ore. A State Highway engineer planned to remove the carcass by blowing it up with a half-ton of dynamite and let the birds scavenge the pieces — though he was advised that 20 sticks would be enough.
The massive explosion rained chunks of blubber all over buildings and parking lots in the area, with one large piece flattening a car recently advertised as “A Whale of a Deal.”
After that, whale carcasses were burned and buried.
Japanese attacks on U.S. Mainland…
On Feb. 23, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Ellwood Oil Field and storage facility near Santa Barbara. The sub fired sixteen shells from its lone deck gun, and then quickly disappeared into the sea. The shelling destroyed a pump house and one oil derrick.
June 21, 1942, was when the Japanese submarine I-25 fired 17 shells from its 140-millimeter deck gun at Fort Stevens, pounding a nearby baseball field before submerging and leaving.
Then on Sept. 9, Nobuo Fujita catapulted into the air off the same I-25 sub and dropped incendiary bombs from a Glen floatplane on a forest inland from Cape Blanco.
Starting in 1944, the Japanese military launched over 9,000 high-altitude hydrogen-filled “Fungo” balloons from Japan, each loaded with nearly 50 pounds of anti-personnel and incendiary explosives to drift with the wind at 30,000 feet to the U.S. Mainland. They were timed to release the bombs in three days.
Nearly 350 bombs made it — some all the way to Iowa and Michigan.
The only fatalities were in Oregon, where a pregnant woman and five children were killed in an explosion while handling one of the downed balloons. They were the only combat casualties to occur on U.S. Mainland soil during World War II.
Mob rule on Oregon coast…
The only lynching ever to take place in Oregon was in the city of Coos Bay on the coast. In 1902, a black man named Alonzo Tucker accused of rape and escaping from jail was caught by a mob of 200 to 300 people, shot twice and hanged from the 7th Street Bridge, which spanned today’s Golden Field, where high school soccer is played.
The newspaper reported that the mob “was quiet and orderly.”