Tena Bar is a long sandbar on the Washington side of the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, where part of DB Cooper’s ransom was found in 1980. (Courtesy Eric Ulis)
A new search is being carried out at the place on the Columbia River called “Tena Bar”, where money from kidnapper DB Cooper was found 41 years ago. But as with the notorious air criminal, the origin of the name “Tena Bar” remains a mystery.
November 24, 2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous hijacking of a Boeing 727 from Portland-to-Seattle Northwest Airlines on Thanksgiving. In the run-up to the anniversary, KIRO Radio has planned a series of stories that explore various aspects of the now legendary event in the history of the Pacific Northwest. As in 1971, Thanksgiving falls on November 24th this year.
The crime was never solved, and DB Cooper – or whoever it was who boarded Flight 305 at Portland and then claimed to have a bomb in his briefcase – was never identified. On the ground in Seattle, Cooper traded the 36 passengers for $ 200,000 and four parachutes, then left the same jetliner heading south, with only the flight crew and a flight attendant on board.
Cooper then opened the back stairs – a unique feature of the 727 model – and parachuted 10,000 feet into the dark, windy, and stormy November night somewhere over southwest Washington. Authorities searched where they believed Cooper might have ended up, but nothing was found. For decades, DB Cooper has occupied the realm of UFOs and Sasquatch as an iconic, albeit criminal, piece of Northwest mythology.
In February 1980, a child named Brian Ingram was digging in the sand at a location called Tena Bar on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington. There, along the bank, he found about $ 6,000 in $ 20 bills, or just a fraction of the cash Cooper had gotten in Seattle.
Still, almost nine years after the kidnapping, the cash discovery was a front page buzzword, renewing hopes of solving the crime, or at least identifying a suspect. But since none of the other Cooper dollars had ever been found in circulation, the FBI and others had long speculated that Cooper didn’t survive the plunge. The FBI believed that at some point after the kidnapping, the money likely floated to Tena Bar, washed up on the shore, and then gradually and naturally covered in sand.
The discovery also forced a rethink of where Cooper, dead or alive, and the money should have ended up.
It was originally believed that he likely landed in an area drained by the Lewis River – and that is where the search for the days following the kidnapping focused in and around the small town of Ariel, east of I-5 and not far from Woodland. However, since the money was found in the Columbia River at a point upstream from the confluence of the Lewis River with the Columbia, it meant Cooper likely ended up in an area drained by the Washougal River – which is further east than originally thought and further east of the place on which the original search was focused. That’s a pretty important point.
The February 1980 cash discovery at Tena Bar is again news as a DB Cooper historian named Eric Ulis began a multi-week excavation of this site along the Columbia River to find Cooper’s parachute and briefcase.
When KIRO Radio spoke to Ulis earlier this week, he described his 13 years researching the Cooper case and the conclusions he had drawn from the events at Tena Bar nearly 50 years ago.
“The evidence is absolutely clear that the money was buried by human intervention,” Ulis told KIRO Radio. “And if it was someone who buried the money, in all likelihood it was DB Cooper.”
Ulis believes Cooper landed nearby and then deliberately burying the parachute, briefcase, and cash – and that Cooper intended to come back later to get the money.
Since Ulis lives in Phoenix, he will travel back and forth from Arizona to Tena Bar for one or two day visits to do a thorough excavation in search of the artifacts. he doesn’t think there’s any cash left there. Ulis estimates that by October he will spend a total of about eight days by the river.
Tena Bar is a long sand bar that has been a popular local fishing spot for decades. It’s not a public park, and the landowner – the adjoining business, Fazio Bros Sand, Inc. – has been quite permissive about fishing there in the past. The area is now officially closed, but Ulis has permission from the Fazio family to conduct his search.
The origin of the name “Tena Bar” – pronounced like “Tina Bar” – is difficult to narrow down. Eric Ulis says the name comes from a previous owner of the land. Earlier newspaper articles and books about DB Cooper named the spot “Tena’s Bar” with a possessive apostrophe and an “s”. In Chinook jargon, the language of trade used in the Northwest by various indigenous groups and European traders since the 19th “small.” An online search shows that there are many places in the northwest called Tenas Creek or Tenas Lake, so Tenas Bar may not be that far-fetched.
Perhaps the right name for the place Ulis searches is actually Tenas Bar – although we never know for sure, or even DB Cooper.
You can hear Feliks on Seattle’s Morning News every Wednesday and Friday morning, read more about him here, and subscribe to the Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please send an email to Feliks here.