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Feb. 27, 2021

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Clark County History: Columbia River freezes over

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Clarence Murray made the iced-over river a landing strip for an American Eagle, 90 horsepower biplane on Jan. 31, 1930. Celebrating their landing, a photographer captured Murray, right, and his son, Glenn, standing on the frozen Columbia River. This was the last time the river froze over.
Clarence Murray made the iced-over river a landing strip for an American Eagle, 90 horsepower biplane on Jan. 31, 1930. Celebrating their landing, a photographer captured Murray, right, and his son, Glenn, standing on the frozen Columbia River. This was the last time the river froze over. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

The Columbia River froze at Vancouver on Jan. 26, 1847, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. That winter was among the coldest and corralled the HBMS Modeste in ice. Taking advantage of the time to play, the ship’s and Hudson’s Bay officers crafted makeshift curling stones and turned to a friendly game. The ship’s officers won.

Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for the Columbia to freeze over. Indigenous peoples likely saw it frozen over many times before. An unknown clerk at Canemah (now part of Oregon City) reported in January 1854 the Columbia River was frozen for 30 miles from the Willamette’s mouth.

Six more times before the big freeze of 1909, the river solidified again, stranding steamers, ferries and halting mail. Charles Troup and Frank Goldhue left Vancouver rowing across the Columbia in 1879 to fetch the mail. After crossing, they left their boat, but returning, found the skiff iced in. They ended up delivering the mail on foot.

January 1909 thermometers slid to the mid-teens, the sky dropped snow and the Columbia iced over. Supposedly four couples trod on the ice between Stevenson and Cascade Locks for a dance and then returned home on the slippery surface.

Upriver shelf-ice breakups floated down and clogged the Interstate Bridge during the winter of 1927-1928. With ice piling up around the bridge, the river slowed until it froze. The ice wasn’t smooth. According to an oral history given by Harold Kern (1914-2011), when a Coast Guard icebreaker came to clear the ice jam and open the river, ice froze the ship in place.

January 1930 froze the river for the last time. Below-freezing temperatures lasted 19 days. The temperature fell below zero at times, and 23 inches of snow piled up. Kern, born in Vancouver and a 33-year veteran of Clark Public Utilities, recalled that as a high schooler he walked on the river, rode a bicycle across it and drove an old Dodge to the Oregon shore during the cold stretch.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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