WA DNR Logo Washington Department of Natural Resources
Geology and Earth Resources Division Bulletin No. 66

Geology of the Washington Coast between Point Grenville and the Hoh River

ship on coast

Although largely unaware of the geologic processes involved in the forming of the northwest coast of America, or "New Albion" as it was first called, the early coastal explorers nevertheless often were confronted with the results of these processes. The Spanish were the first to venture northward along this rugged coast, mainly in an attempt to protect their holdings in California from the possible southward migration of the Russian fur traders. Also, there was concern that a northwest passage might be discovered and thus bring more travel and settlement from the north.

Juan Perez, in command of the frigate Santiago in 1774, was probably the first European to record sight of any part of the Washington coast. While in these latitudes, he observed the high snow-covered mountains of the Olympics and referred to the highest peak as "El Cero de la Santa Rosalia."

The following year the Santiago, this time under the command of Bruno Heceta and with Juan Perez as second pilot, was accompanied to the northwest coast of America by the small schooner Sonora under the command of Bodega y Cuadra. During this expedition, observations of the tablelike Destruction Island were first made by Bodega and referred to as "Isla de Dolores." On July 13, 1775, the Sonora, eagerly seeking shelter, crossed over the dangerously shallow sandstone and conglomerate "Sonora Reef" between Point Grenville and Cape Elizabeth to anchor behind the conglomerate headland of Cape Elizabeth. The following day, seven men went ashore for wood and water, but met with ill fate and never returned to the Sonora. On the morning of July 14, 1775, from their anchorage south of the volcanic rocks of Point Grenville, Heceta and 23 additional men from the frigate Santiago made the first known safe landing of Europeans on this coast and claimed the land for Spain. They named the "roadstead" in which they anchored "rada de Bucareli," now Grenville Bay; and Bodega referred to Point Grenville to the north as "Punta de los Martires."

In the following years, exploration was conducted largely in the search of fur trading. Among these was the voyage of the "Imperial Eagle" (1786-87) commanded by Captain Charles William Barkley. His wife accompanied him on this voyage, and it is believed that she was the first European woman to visit the northwest coast. During this expedition, while anchored off Destruction Island, a small boat's crew of men were sent to investigate the river that is now called the Hoh, but they never returned. This prompted Barkley to name it Destruction River.

John Meares, during the summer of 1788, while on a trading expedition in the "Adventurer" from China, made a number of close-in observations of the Washington coast. He gave a rather graphic description of Destruction Island and was the first to record that name for the island. In addition, he applied the name "Queenhithe" to the large but indistinct indentation in the coastline inside Destruction Island. Although this name is no longer used, he was referring largely to the area covered by this report.

The first American expeditions to the "Northwest Coast" were in the ship "Columbia" under the command of Captain Robert Gray, in the years 1787-90 and again in 1790-93. During these voyages particular mention was made of the many offshore rocks along the north coast of Washington. Furthermore, they unmistakably noted Destruction Island, and referred to it as "Green Island."

Captain George Vancouver, in the sloop "Discovery" on a voyage of exploration and discovery for England, also sailed close in to the Washington coast during the spring of 1792. He accurately located and gave the present-day name to Point Grenville, and also accurately located Destruction Island. In addition, he vividly described many of the offshore rocks along the Washington coast. During the latter part of April, 1792, he met with Gray aboard the "Columbia" somewhere in the vicinity of Destruction Island, during which time Vancouver gained additional knowledge from Gray, particularly of the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

And so it was with these early visitors to the northwest coast of America—largely a challenge to discover and yet to survive the treacherous environment created to a great extent by geologic processes, some of which began many millions of years prior to their arrival. The following report discusses those geologic processes and events that are responsible for forming the rugged but picturesque present-day Washington Coast.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006