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Word Nerd: Desdemona

By Ryan Hume

For Coast Weekend

Published on January 4, 2018 12:34AM

An early salmon can label, circa 1880-90s, shows the Columbia River estuary and Desdemona Sands, named for an infamous shipwreck. The sands later became a prime site for commercial salmon fishing. Nowadays, the sands can be seen to the west when crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge, becoming a haven to birds at low tide.

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An early salmon can label, circa 1880-90s, shows the Columbia River estuary and Desdemona Sands, named for an infamous shipwreck. The sands later became a prime site for commercial salmon fishing. Nowadays, the sands can be seen to the west when crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge, becoming a haven to birds at low tide.

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A painting of the doomed mid-19th century sailing vessel Desdemona adorns a wall of an Astoria tavern of the same name.

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A painting of the doomed mid-19th century sailing vessel Desdemona adorns a wall of an Astoria tavern of the same name.

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DESDEMONA [dez•də•mō•nə]


Proper noun


1. The adulterous, slain wife of Othello

2. Desdemona: a three-sail bark ship that ran aground at the mouth of the Columbia River in December 1856 while en route to Astoria.

3. Desdemona Sands: a large shoal sands off Point Adams in the middle of the Columbia River Bar. It was named in 1857 after the destroyed bark that ran aground there a year before.

4. Desdemona Sands Light: a lighthouse built in 1902 upon pilings above the shoal area in the middle of the river that was used to help navigate the treacherous passage of the Columbia Bar.


Origin


Desdemona is a Shakespearean name that first appeared in The Bard’s play “Othello: The Moor of Venice” in November 1604, though no written record of the name exists prior to 1616. Shakespeare derived the name from the Greek δυσδαιμων, or dysdaimon, meaning “ill-starred” or “ill-fated.” The name proved unlucky for both the tragic female character and the bark ship that attempted to cross the Bar.

“A wreck which left a lasting monument to mark the spot on which it occurred was that of the bark Desdemona, which went ashore just inside the Columbia bar [January 1, 1857], on the sands which now bear her name. The Desdemona, one of the pioneer coasters in the Northern trade, first crossed into the Columbia in 1851 for Abernethy & Clark, in command of Abel Richardson. She was built at Jonesboro, Me., in 1847, and was 104 feet long, 25 feet beam, and 12 feet 7 inches hold. Abernethy sold her in August, 1851, to Thomas Smith, but she continued making regular trips, most of the time in command of Henry Farley. At the time of the disaster she was in charge of Capt. Francis Williams, who was attempting to sail in without a pilot.”

—​E.W. Wright (editor), Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1895

“Captain Calkins reports that everything is in readiness for inaugurating the new light station at Desdemona Sands on December 24. The station will be provided with two gas engines for running the fog signal, which will be a great benefit to navigation in the lower harbor, as there is no fog signal at present near the mouth of the river. Two lightkeepers will be on duty there. The quarters, however, are so small that they will not permit of men with families.”

—“New Desdemona Light: Station will be established next Wednesday,” The Morning Oregonian, Saturday, Dec. 20, 1902



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