After millennia of indigenous peoples living on the land, two centuries of European exploration and inhabitancy, and scores of shipwrecks off the coast, the Columbia-Pacific has a treasure trove of historical artifacts waiting to be uncovered.
Locals and visitors search for these relics as active hobbies, as ways to tidy up the environment, and as part of living and playing in a region where mountains, river and sea converge. The methods they use vary, from diving and beachcombing to metal detecting along riverbanks and in parks (aka mudlarking).
Robin Montero, of Seaside, makes picking up trash the primary focus of her beachcombing. When she first moved into her house near the Seaside Cove in 2011, she would be on the beach, notice the marine debris washed ashore and frequently think, “I should have brought a bag,” she said.
“That’s when it dawned on me: ‘I’m doing this the wrong way,’” she said.
Now, each time she prepares for a daily hunt, she wears the essentials: gloves, boots, garbage bags and a soundtrack to listen to. Because of the Oregon Beach Bill passed in 1967, the land along the Oregon Coast is publicly owned, though managed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
“We are really lucky, in that way, to have (the beach) as a public park,” Montero said. “With that comes responsibility as far as I’m concerned.”
When she gets rewarded by finding exquisite shells, seal teeth and sea glass for jewelry-making, “I’m tickled pink,” she said. “What more could you ask for?”
Always on the hunt
With an arsenal of metal detectors, Astoria native Don Kelly has combed the Astoria region, hunting for interesting artifacts, which he frequently shares in the Northwest Artifact Recovery community on Facebook.
He calls it “dirt fishing.”
His interest was sparked at age 14 when he was given a metal detector. Scouring his backyard, he had dug down about a foot when he felt a World War II ammunition case. Inside the box, wrapped in a beige naval blanket, were the preserved remains of a Siamese cat.
“When I reached in that hole, and I found that metal handle on the box, I was hooked,” Kelly said. “Even though it was a dead cat, it could have been something else.”
There have been occasions over the last five decades when he would go dirt fishing for hours without realizing time had passed. “That’s how you know you love it,” he said.
Since the Siamese cat, he’s discovered a plethora of items, including vintage jewelry, military paraphernalia and foreign coins roughly three centuries old.
Kelly’s most treasured find was a 19th-century 6-pound cannon ball, discovered in June 2018 on private property (he promised the landowner he would not disclose the location). Through research and with the knowledge of a local historian, he learned the British brought that style of cannon ball to the area around the time Fort Astoria was acquired by the North West Company and renamed Fort George. The cannons were removed from the Astoria area in the 1860s, giving him a good idea of when the cannon ball could have been fired from a ship or stored on land with other ammunition and become trapped underground.
At times, Kelly’s finds are less than intriguing: old railroad spikes, rusted tin cans, scraps of metal. He still removes such items to dispose of them, which is better than having them in the ground, he figures.
“That’s one great thing about the hobby, if you do it right,” he said. “I think we’re doing a service.”
Mind the law
The best times for finding treasures (and trash) on the beach are at the beginning of summer or after a storm. In Seaside, the Cove is the place to go: West swells cause driftwood, floats and other items to wash up, and they often get funneled there.
Jeff Jarrett, who works for Seaside Surf Shop, doesn’t consider himself a beachcomber by hobby. But, living near the ocean, he often walks the tideline with his dog and looks around. Sometimes he photographs interesting finds rather than remove them, except for the occasional aluminum float, glass bottle or piece of driftwood to incorporate into his home décor.
“I’m pretty critical of what I want to drag home,” Jarrett said.
Whether scavengers are prone to come across their treasure through beachcombing, diving or metal detecting, they should be aware of both maritime salvage laws and laws that govern the finding of antiquities on public lands.
Anything of cultural origin, including human remains, belongs to the state, even if found by individuals, according to Jeff Smith, a curator at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.
“If you find something that may be of historical interest, you contact the authorities,” he said.
Divers and others can get in trouble if they don’t go out with "a group that knows the rules,” Chris Dewey, president and founder of the Maritime Archaeological Society, said.
Exploring the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’
People who happen upon interesting artifacts will frequently contact the Maritime Museum — they have more pieces of the Peter Iredale than they can use, for example, Smith said.
The institution is currently displaying two carronades from the USS Shark, which was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia in 1846. Short cast-iron naval cannons, the carronades were discovered by visitors along the beach in Arch Cape and nearby in 2008 and, after several years of conservation, placed in the museum in 2014.
The Maritime Archaeological Society, comprising 60 to 70 volunteers, finds and documents the remains of such shipwrecks in the Pacific Northwest and beyond using sonar data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Along the Oregon Coast, the histories of several countries and cultures collide. One of the society’s main foci is the mysterious Beeswax Wreck Project. Over time, a wreck site located off Nehalem Beach in Tillamook County has been identified as belonging to a Spanish galleon used in the Manila Trade in the late 1600s. The Spanish used a route that involved China, Southeast Asia and Acapulco. Ships would leave from Asia, go north across the Pacific, then head south when they neared shore.
Only two Spanish galleons were unaccounted for in the north Pacific, according to Smith. One of them, believed to be the Santo Cristo de Burgos, drifted too far north and wrecked near Nehalem. The site is still buried, but “evidence is coming to shore all the time — ceramics and beeswax,” Smith said, adding, “If we ever find the ship, that will be exciting.”
Montero, who is fascinated by the Graveyard of the Pacific — the stretch from Tillamook Bay to Cape Scott Provincial Park on Vancouver Island that’s responsible for more than 2,000 shipwrecks — finds the Santo Cristo de Burgos wreck enticing. She went beachcombing for beeswax during the last extreme low tide of 2018 in August. Unfortunately, she said, when she got to the beach in Nehalem, the fog was so thick she couldn’t see 10 feet in front of her.
The society remains dedicated to discovering the site of the shipwreck. In the meantime, Dewey said, they take on other projects in Youngs Bay and elsewhere, reporting on “isolated finds” (areas with less than 10 historical artifacts) and archaeological sites (areas with 10 or more artifacts and/or one feature).
While Kelly searches for historical artifacts and Montero cleans up trash and finds jewelry-making material, the fruit of the Maritime Archaeological Society’s labor, according to Smith, is for accurate, detailed information to find its way into Oregon and Washington archives to guide further research and investigation.