Friday, August 5, 2011

When the Columbia River Froze

"COLUMBIA RIVER IS FROZEN.” So proclaimed the headline of the Vancouver Columbian on January 17, 1930. Bitter cold had accompanied the arrival of the new year, and local temperatures had fallen to as low as 6°. Soon the bitter cold, accompanied by strong easterly winds, began to paralyze the region. Drift ice began building up in the Columbia and riverfront industries in Vancouver began shutting down. By mid month the river ice had become so thick that the Steamer N.R. Lang, carrying paper from the mill at Camas, became stranded in mid river. The cold continued to hold sway, and even the Coast Guard cutter sent to clear the ice was forced to wait downstream for moderating temperatures.

On January 18 the frozen Columbia proved too irresistible for an unidentified pair of men. Bridge tender E. T. Maten watched as the two approached the river from the end of Vancouver’s Main Street and walked across to the Oregon side of the river, becoming the first to walk across the Columbia since 1918. Theirs turned out to be a one way trek, as Maten never saw them return.

Not to be outdone by a pair of pedestrians, two intrepid autoists decided to test the frozen river. Oscar Wood and Thad Thomlinson set out across the river on January 24 in a 1923 touring car equipped with tire chains. Starting near the dump at the Quartermaster section of the Vancouver Barracks, the pair picked their way across the river to the Oregon shore and then returned the same way. Midstream on their return they stopped to have their photograph taken by a photographer from the Vancouver Columbian.

The abnormally frigid weather also failed to deter Pearson Field pilot Clarence Murray. On January 25 Murray took off in his OX-5 powered American Eagle biplane and headed for the nearby Interstate bridge. After making three passes under the lifting span of the bridge, Murray settled his plane down on the ice just upstream of the bridge. Leaving his motor running, Murray lingered only long enough for some photographs to be taken before again lifting off and retuning to Pearson Field. This would be the last of the Columbia River ice escapades. As January drew to a close the harsh temperatures abated and conditions soon returned to normal.

Sometime after Murray’s river landing his American Eagle came out on the losing end of a collision with a barn. Records of the event are scant, but the photographs of the aftermath clearly show the aircraft’s fate.

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