CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT - OR IS IT?
By Tim Wintermute
For the past several years I have spent a good deal of time on a rugged headland that juts into the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Washington side with the incongruous name Cape Disappointment. So how did such a dramatic and beautiful setting get such a discouraging name? Captain John Meares gave it that name on July 6, 1788 as an expression of his unhappiness after his ship, ironically named “Felice”, turned back when it encountered terrifying waves crashing against the headland. He concluded that the Spanish explorer Bruno Hezeta was mistaken when he claimed it was the entrance to a great river stating, “We can now with safety assert, that there is no such river as that of Saint roc, exists as laid down in the Spanish charts.” Meares called the area “Deception Bay’ instead. Hezeta had named the river the San Roque after the patron saint for invalids, falsely accused people, dogs and bachelors, which might describe the crew of his ship the Santiago. On May 12, 1792 Captain Robert Gray sailed past Cape Disappointment and into the supposedly nonexistent river that he then named the Columbia after his ship the Columbia Rediviva. Lewis and Clark and the members of the Northwest Expedition were not disappointed in November of 1805 to reach the Cape and see the Pacific Ocean, which was the end of their journey. Especially after a miserable week hunkering down on a postage stamp piece of land above the Columbia River a few miles East from Cape Disappointment that Clark aptly named Dismal Nitch.
Despite Meare’s mistake the name Cape Disappointment stuck instead of reverting to the two prior names given it, Hezeta’s “uplifting” name Bahia de La Asuncion (Bay of Ascension) or the melodius Kah’eese, which is what it was called by the Chinook Indians who were the original inhabitants of the lower Columbia River (note: I couldn’t find a reference as to what “Kah’eese” means. However, I did discover that “Kah” means “where” in Chinook and since “eese” sounds a lot like the word “easy” I like to think of it meaning “where it is easy”). One thing can be said for the name Cape Disappointment is that when it is displayed on a hat or on a hoodie where it is usually followed by the words “disappointment awaits” it certainly attracts a surprised look often followed by the question “is that a real place?”
Cape Disappointment is not only real, some two centuries after acquiring that name it is a beautiful State Park with two historic light houses only a mile apart. The first one, Cape Disappointment light, constructed in 1856, is the oldest lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest, and its sister lighthouse North Head was built in 1898 on the northern spur of the headland to warn ships sailing south toward the mouth of the Columbia who could not see the Cape Disappointment light until it was too late (not for nothing is the entrance to the Columbia River is called the “graveyard of the Pacific”). In addition to the lighthouses there are campgrounds fronting on the ocean and trails winding through forests of towering Sitka Spruce, Hemlock and Douglas Fir with dramatic views of the Pacific. Concrete bunkers imbedded in the cliffs overlooking the ocean, often surrounded by the ubiquitous “sword ferns”, are all that remain of Fort Canby. Originally named Post Cape Disappointment it was built in 1862 during the Civil War to guard the mouth of the Columbia from a Confederate invasion that never happened. The Fort was decommissioned after the Second World War and the land was given to the State of Washington to establish the Cape Disappointment State Park that draws thousands of campers and daily visitors despite the name. Or, maybe, the name Cape Disappointment isn't a deterrence. After all everyone loves a happy surprise.
Cape Disappointment with 1856 lighthouse
North Head with 1898 Lighthouse