Letter from Elk City: The guns at McKenzie Hill
ELK CITY, Ore. – The crashing surf and crying gulls are constant at Cape Disappointment. This is the place where Lewis and Clark fulfilled a thousand-year quest by Europeans – to journey overland to the Pacific.
What they found though once they crossed the Continental Divide far to the east was a great disappointment that a quick and immediate water route to the Pacific did not suddenly appear. So they crossed the remainder of the vast continent, fighting their way inch by inch through the Bitterroots, where they came out more dead than alive but finally found the streams and rivers that would take them to the end of their journey.
“Oh joy! Ocian in view!” Captain Clark wrote in his characteristically horrible English when he first sighted the Pacific from the shore of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark explored what is now called Cape Disappointment on the south end of Long Beach Peninsula in Washington but then decided to make their winter camp at Fort Clatsop across the Columbia in Oregon.
Before they left the area of Cape Disappointment, though, they explored McKenzie Head, a high hill that offers a commanding view of the cape and the Pacific far beyond.
If you want to see the view from McKenzie Head, get ready for a good workout. It’s a steep climb and if you weren’t in good shape before you will be afterward.
McKenzie Head has played a key role for the nation’s defense ever since Lewis and Clark explored the area. During World War II, two huge guns were placed on the hill. While the guns are gone, the turrets remain, as well as a concrete bunker where the gunner’s mates bunked.
As you enter the unlit concrete bunker, an eerie feeling comes over you. Moisture leeches through the hallway and inside the catacomb-like concrete cells where the gunner’s mates bunked.
From the top of McKenzie Head, the flat land spreads below, once ocean, now reclaimed by a jetty on the south Columbia shore.
The role that McKenzie Head plays in the nation’s defense continues today. Coast Guard choppers do continuous flyovers above the Columbia bar and adjacent waters, a great comfort for the freighters and fishing boats exploring the vast waters of the Pacific.