Seaside Stories

The Columbia River Maritime Museum: On the Water’s Edge

April 14, 2013 | by Nate Burke

At the mouth of the Columbia River, millions of gallons of fresh water collide with the Pacific Ocean and can result in waves that reach a colossal 40 feet in height. Waves this size boggle the mind but it is unique conditions like this that make the history on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum so compelling. Since the late 18th century, some 2,000 vessels have sunk at the Columbia River Bar. These dangers have earned this area the title “Graveyard of the Pacific”.  The combination of high seas, a massive river, and shallow, shifting sand bars make this the one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world.

A quote from Commander Wilkes, US Navy (ca. 1860) sums it up nicely: “Mere description can give but little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia; all who have seen it have spoken of the wilderness of the ocean and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearsome sites that can possibly meet the eye of a sailor.”

The exhibits on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum seem to reflect Commander Wilkes’ awe inspired words. A feast for the eyes, the museum ushers you into a world of towering waves and charging vessels. Among my favorite experiences at the museum is standing under the 44-ft Coast Guard rescue boat as it surges up a makeshift giant wave. The story of the Columbia River has countless stories and the museum takes you on a tour of various chapters: Native tribal water craft, whaling at the mouth of the Columbia, shark fishing during World War II, even an exhibit on seasickness (I learned that the word nausea comes from the Greek word for ship: go figure!).

One new exhibit “Crossing the Bar: Perilous Passage” features video of insanely rough water passages shot by U.S. Coast Guard and Columbia River Bar Pilots during epic winter storms.  Also, the Maritime Museum has recently opened their new 3D digital theater which is featuring Sharks 3D by Jean-Michael Cousteau. It’s an eye-popping, high-def approach to experiencing the ocean’s depths in some pretty amazing detail.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum honors the rich nautical traditions of Oregon’s North Coast and portrays a slice of history that’s not exactly familiar to everyone who visits the area. First-time visitors should prepare themselves for real treat: it’s the closest the average person can get to crossing the Columbia River Bar without actually getting wet.

Editors Note: The Columbia Maritime Museum is open daily from 9:30am – 5:00pm. Call (503) 325-2323 for further info.

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