You have the disabled boat Mermaid in tow. To reach shore, you must cross the bar, but your boat is leaking at the seams in 20 to 30-foot seas with winds of 75 knots. You must decide whether to risk crossing the Columbia Bar, or with luck, you might reach the Columbia Lightship (WLV604) further out to sea, and take shelter there. What would you do?
These are the types of weighty decisions you must make if you pay a visit to the Columbia River Maritime Museum located in Astoria, Oregon. There is drama and excitement to be found in many of the museum’s first-class exhibits that focus on the perilous nature of seafarer life at the mouth of the Columbia River. Just the imposing 30-degree pitch and roll positioning of the 44-foot Coast Guard motor lifeboat, clearly visible through the panoramic front windows of the museum, give you an immediate sense of awe and appreciation for why the Columbia River bar is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
Upon entering the museum, you first encounter a map showing many of the 2000-plus wrecks that have occurred here since 1792. There are two exhibits immediately following in the main galleries that fittingly focus on the necessity of Coast Guard rescues in this maelstrom of river meeting ocean, all due to its endlessly shifting bar. Weather patterns can abruptly change in a matter of minutes, causing extreme and hazardous conditions that require intervention for survival.
One of these exhibits, showcasing the decommissioned Coast Guard 36-foot Motor Lifeboat 36474, tells of the tragic tale of the attempted rescue of the fishing vessel Mermaid by crews from the Point Adams and Cape Disappointment lifeboat stations. Before the night was through, the Mermaid, three Coast Guard rescue craft, two fishermen, and five Coast Guard personnel all had perished in the stormy seas. For their valor, the coxswains of the vessels were awarded medals of commendation, including the highest award for an enlisted man during peacetime: the Gold Life Saving Medal.
Farther in the galleries, there are also large screens showing video footage of the tremendous wave action that the Columbia River Boat Pilots and U.S. Coast Guard boats encounter while crossing the treacherous bar during intense winter storms.
A brand new exhibit as of March of this year, entitled “Science of Storms: Extraordinary Weather of the Pacific Northwest,” has some great interactive components. It features a TV weather station where you can be filmed doing a weather forecast, an area where you can see yourself as rescuers would at night in a storm using FLIR infrared night-vision technology, and a space where you can view storms over the Pacific while experiencing hurricane force winds in a simulator. If that is not enough excitement for you, you can add to it by viewing the 3-D film showing in the museum’s auditorium: “Hurricane 3D.” This is one exhibit where you will truly be “blown away” by all the technology employed for your education and entertainment.
But all is not action-oriented. The museum also unfolds the more benign life and history of the Columbia River region in its displays on salmon fishing, canneries, ship-building, and general boating, including a towboat’s wheelhouse for kids to enjoy, and a gallery displaying the bridge of the destroyer USS Knapp. There are also displays on naval ship weapons including two 19th century cannons from the USS Shark.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum is also the permanent home of the Columbia Lightship, which is moored alongside the museum in the Columbia River. WLV-604, commissioned in 1951, was the last of the lightships to be stationed at the mouth of the Columbia, so it is only right that she be resting there. Decommissioned in 1979, it is a time capsule of lightship life, and you can get a real feel for what it would have been like to have served aboard her back in the day. There are self-guided and group tours available on a daily basis, and for the lighthouse enthusiast, this is certainly a must-see experience.
Inside the museum, lighthouse-related artifacts include the lens and lantern room from Hawaii’s Barbers Point Lighthouse and the 4th order Fresnel lens from Washington’s North Head Lighthouse. There is also the fog bell from the former Desdemona Sands Lighthouse that stood at the entrance to the Columbia River but was deactivated in 193. The lighthouse was demolished in 1942.
The museum’s research library also offers a fantastic selection of books, photos, and papers for the serious researcher on lighthouse related topics. One of the museum’s prized lighthouse possessions is the last logbook for Tillamook Rock from 1957, wherein former keeper and historian Jim Gibbs composed the closing entry that head keeper Ozzie Allik penned.
It is easy to see why the Columbia River Maritime Museum has been recognized as the official maritime museum of Oregon. The breadth and depth of their holdings and exhibits make a visit here a priority for anyone coming to the northern region of the Oregon Coast.
As for the Coxwain’s Dilemma question posed at the beginning of this article of what you would do in similar circumstances, a lift of the lid of the interactive display in the museum gives the facts of the historical decision made:
In the case of the Mermaid, Coxswain Larry Edwards’ decision was to try to reach the Columbia Lightship to ride out the storm, rather than attempt to cross the bar again. Just after he got his crew and the rescued crew of the 40-footer safely onto the lightship, waves and wind overcame the sturdy 36-footer. She sank right next to the Columbia Lightship, becoming the only 36-foot motor lifeboat to sink in the line of duty.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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