Thrilling visitors for 60 years, the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria defies preconceived notions of “old, stuffy history.”
“It’s real, tangible, huge, and interactive,” says Caroline Wuebben, the marketing manager at Columbia River Maritime Museum. “It’s not simply a bunch of pictures on the wall.”
The pride and joy of the museum is a 128-foot lightship recently refurbished to bring aspects of its operation into public view for the first time since 1979. Stationed for nearly 30 years at the mouth of the Columbia River, the lightship— essentially a floating lighthouse —is now a beloved museum fixture and a stand-alone attraction, beckoning visitors interested exclusively in the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel.
“Some people come to the museum just for the lightship,” says Wuebben. “It is our largest exhibit.”
The museum’s massive restoration project entailed towing the lightship to Portland, where it reposed in drydock for cleaning, sandblasting, repairing, and repainting explains Wuebben. The ship’s engine and radio rooms also received a facelift in preparation for welcoming visitors inside. Other renovations include a new gangway fabricated specifically for the lightship and its berth at the city docks to replace one that was unsafe and required closure during high tides or inclement weather. “The addition of spudwells,” she adds, “ensures the lightship is better stabilized while visitors are aboard.”
Reunited with a restored navigation buoy that also guided mariners at the river’s mouth, the lightship is expected to make its triumphant return to the museum by June. The duo long presided over the treacherous entrance to the Columbia River Bar, nicknamed the “graveyard of the Pacific” for its many shipwrecks.
“It’s the most dangerous bar crossing on the planet,” says Wuebben.
“Crossing the Bar: Perilous Passage” is among the exhibits that both captivate and educate museum-goers. The interactive “Science of Storms” exhibit illustrates the challenges of predicting the weather as visitors use infrared technology and try their hands at giving a weather forecast, an exercise Wuebben describes as “really fun to watch.” Also interactive, a large map in the museum lobby lights up locations of the area’s historical shipwrecks — approximately 2,000 since 1792, including 200 large ships.
Moving beyond historical accounts, the upcoming exhibit “Shipwrecks” assigns modern-day context to the topic. “They aren’t something that only happened hundreds of years ago,” says Wuebben. “They’re still happening today.”
“It affects the supply chain as well as the environment,” she says. “Ships are made of metal and steel, and there’s chemicals — fuel and oil.”
Environmental consequences are among the lessons learned from shipwrecks, arising from numerous causes explored in the exhibit. Visitors will learn about new methods that maritime archaeologists use to probe these remote sites and uncover more about the maritime past. Shipwreck artifacts will help to anchor the exhibit, anticipated in June.
Hundreds of years of mapping history are chronicled in one of Wuebben’s favorite exhibits, “Mapping the Pacific Coast: Coronado to Lewis and Clark.” The exhibit merges fact and fantasy, imagines California as an island, reveals Russian secrets, and charts the voyages of Captain Cook, as well as overland expeditions across North America. “It is fasciniating!” says Wuebben.
Containing authentic, original documents — some nearly 500 years old — the physical and digital displays are available both at the museum and on its website. After eight years of traveling the country’s circuit of maritime, art, and history museums, the exhibit is now permanently in Astoria, a gift from private collectors Henry and Holly Wendt.
The museum’s Miniboat Program provides global, multidisciplinary STEAM learning for fifth to eighth-graders in the Pacific Northwest and Japan. Students cooperatively design, build, launch and track seaworthy GPS-equipped boats, 31 vessels to date, and over a total of 75,000 nautical miles and counting. Classes, lectures, clubs, and virtual learning opportunities also abound at and through the museum.
The museum relies on admission fees, donations, planned giving, and memberships — from $45 to $1,000 annually — help steer their finances. Most members hail from Oregon’s Clatsop and Washington’s Pacific counties, or within a 100-mile radius, says Wuebben. But more than 100,000 annual museum visitors from around the world, she says, find “something for everybody” — indoors and outdoors — whether it’s plaques for patient readers or hands-on activities for kids.
“The main hall has full-size boats in it — it’s the real thing.”
“Visitors are impressed; they’re surprised,” says Wuebben. “People are just super appreciative.”
Appreciate all the Columbia River Maritime Museum offers by navigating to its website, crmm.org, and planning your trip.