Monday, February 22, 2021

The Columbia River Maritime Museum

Learn About the Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest in Astoria, Oregon.

Astoria, Oregon, is located near the mouth of the Columbia River that creates the border between the states of Washington and Oregon. Astoria, the oldest city in Oregon, is an interesting and fun place to visit. Anyone who is on a Lewis and Clark pilgrimage is going to stay there of course. But there is a rich history about this town that goes way beyond the Corps of Discovery.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop that they built just four miles to the southwest of modern-day Astoria. In 1811 fur trappers of the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor, established Fort Astoria where the city is today. Astoria is a deep-water port whose location on the Pacific coast made it a thriving resource town since then. Along with the fur industry, there is the timber industry and fish canneries for processing locally caught salmon. As you can imagine, not only the shipping of these commodities but the fishing industry as well creates a strong maritime history in Astoria. Oh, yes, and do not forget the Columbia bar.

Those of you not familiar with the area might be asking what the Columbia bar is exactly. Well, as the Columbia flows over 1200 miles all the way from Canada to the Pacific, it picks up sediment, as most rivers tend to do. As the waters of the Columbia hit the Pacific Ocean, it slows. When it does it drops the sediment creating what they call a “bar.” The Columbia Bar is an area about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long where the river enters the ocean. Because the bar creates shallows, the waters there tend to be rough and prone to a lot of unusual waves and currents. Plus, the sediment in the bar is always shifting around. That’s why large container ships need a river pilot to guide them into port. Moreover, combine the dangers of the bar with the naturally crappy weather of the Pacific Northwest and you’ve got some challenges. There are so many shipwrecks historically around this area (over 2,000 since 1792) that it has earned the nickname of the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

This is where the Columbia River Maritime Museum comes in. This is a must-see when you visit Astoria. Most of the exhibits are indoors so don’t worry about the weather (oh, yeah, it rains a lot in Astoria). We made our trip pre-covid, but despite the pandemic, the museum is open with protocols. You will see exhibits on each of the industries that are a part of the history of this area. Particularly interesting to me is the information about the bar. Such a historically dangerous spot that had to be conquered (still true today) in order to exploit the resources of this region and on an individual level, earn a living. You’ll learn what a “bar pilot” does, and that there are only about 16 of these specialists working out of Astoria today. There is also a fine exhibit honoring the work of the United States Coast Guard in and around the Columbia River Bar.

When we visited Astoria, we stayed at the River Walk Inn, one of several hotels that provide a view of the marina from your room (nice!). From the hotel, you are able to catch a trolley that runs the length of the city with a stop at the Maritime Museum. The entry fee is a little pricey at $16 for adults, but that’s probably because I think all museums should be free. Regardless, the museum is worth it. Add it to your itinerary along with your pilgrimage to Fort Clatsop

For more information, visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum website.




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