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Coast Guard Lightship Columbia
Coast Guard Lightship Columbia

Oregon museum recounts sea disasters, daring rescues

Where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, there is a high potential for destruction.Winter storms, high seas, a mighty river, fog, massive waves, shallow, shifting sandbars hold the formula for groundings, sinkings, breakups, and even throwing a large boat far up on the shore. Coast Guard rescue boats have rolled a full 360 or flipped end to end during rescue operations.

Portrayed as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” the site of more than 2,000 lost boats including more than 200 large ships and 700 lost lives at the confluence of the great Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean is the focus of the Columbia River Maritime Museum on the waterfront in downtown Astoria, Ore.  A display showing the locations of many of the sinkings is one of the first exhibits upon entering the hall.

For the more than 200 years since Robert Gray first sailed his ship, the Columbia, through the sand bars and up the large river which he named Columbia, ships have been lost and men have died in the turbulent waters of this deadly intersection.  Be it small salmon fishing boats, or large steamers carrying 1,000 passengers or more, the water has been the winner too many times.

(photo courtesy of Columbia River Maritime Museum)
(photo courtesy of Columbia River Maritime Museum)

At the museum, a short, but informative, film describes the 1,000-mile river and the changes that transformed it from a once wild and uncontrollable drainage system to a comparatively placid waterway with many large lock and dam systems and more than 500 dams spread across the entire drainage.  In spite of this control, the river remains a strong force as it flows into the often roiling ocean, producing waves as high as 40 feet, dangerous and shifting sandbars and death for those who do not heed the warnings.

An estimated 5 to 6 million cubic yards of sand are dredged annually from the river mouth to clear the shipping channel.

The U.S. Coast Guard trains rescuers under these most trying conditions and performs from 300 to 400 rescues per year. Information about the roles and duties of the river pilots and the sand bar pilots is also portrayed in the film.  In the six galleries of the museum there are many full-size boats that were dedicated to use by the Coast Guard, for salmon fishing and seining, along with examples of the tools and equipment used in those pursuits.  There are also several model sailing ships built by skilled craftsman.  Scrimshaw carvings are featured, as well.

Separate galleries are dedicated to the U.S. Coast Guard, salmon fishing, the U.S. Navy, sextants and octants and a variety of similar tools.

The retired lighthouse ship, Columbia, which was anchored off shore for many years, is on display at the dock and self-guided tours are available.  The Maritime Museum is one of the elite museums of its type along the west coast and is well worth a visit.

Ample parking is available for cars and RVs, although it requires a drive through the downtown area to arrive at the museum.

For more information, visit www.crmm.org.

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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