The story of Coffin Rock, which once was and no longer exists, is the story of a great tragedy. It was a 225-foot mound of black basalt on the north bank of the Columbia River, three miles downstream from the mouth of the Cowlitz River. This rock had long been a landmark to the Indians of the area, and was noticed by the American and British explorers who first traveled the river.
Five months after Yankee Captain Robert Gray discovered and named the Columbia in May 1792, Lt. William Broughton of the British Navy traveled up the river for 100 miles, naming geographical features along the way. He called the rock Mount Coffin.
Lewis and Clark noted the prominence of the great rock when they drifted past it on Nov. 8, 1805. They estimated its height as 225 feet and its circumference as about a mile.
Broughton apparently chose Mount Coffin as the name for the stone hill after observing that the rock was used as a burial ground by the local Indians. The top and slopes were nearly covered with canoe-caskets and blanketed remains of the deceased placed different levels on the rock according to their caste in life.
Other explorers for half a century were to note and report the unusual graveyard until, in 1841, a mapping party under Lt. Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy came to the Columbia River to draw river charts. The party camped one night on the bar not far from Coffin Rock.
As they were departing the next morning, a fire began burning rather briskly in the underbrush at the base of Coffin Rock. It quickly spread to the slopes and soon burned clean the cedar canoes and the skeletons of the dead. Probably, Wilkes had planned the fire as a means of improving the ecology of the site, but it became another oppressive action of the incoming tide of the new dominant society.
Coffin Rock was included in the homestead which was staked out by pioneer Noyes Stone soon after the donation land claim program was established in Oregon Territory in the early 1850s. Ten years later, D.W. Bush bought the Stone claim, including Coffin Rock, and retained possession for 48 years.
In 1908, Mr. Bush sold Coffin Rock to Star Sand and Gravel Company of Portland. The gravel company soon installed a rock-crusher and began a methodical conversion of the rock into rip-rap material for dikes and jetties, and into crushed rock for roadways and foundations.
By 1952, Coffin Rock had been reduced to the level of the surrounding land. At that time Weyerhaeuser bought the property on which the famous landmark once stood. The site became occupied by the company’s Longview Chemical Plant. Again, the land had been raped and robbed of one of its sacred places.
Next week: Cowlitz legends.
Roy I. Rochon Wilson was an elected leader of the Cowlitz Tribe for three decades and is the author of more than 30 books, including several histories of the Cowlitz Tribe. He is a retired ordained Methodist minister and current spiritual leader of the tribe. Wilson lives near Winlock.