Columbia River Maritime Museum

Traveling along the Oregon coast on a recent weekend getaway, we made it to the northwest corner of the state, in Astoria, and took the family to the Columbia River Maritime Museum for an afternoon. Wow, were we in for an experience! We were blown away (no pun intended… you have been to the Oregon coast, right?!) by the huge variety of collections and hands-on exhibits featured there.

The mouth of the Columbia River, where it meets with the Pacific Ocean, is one of the world’s most tumultuous seas, and has been the site of literally thousands of shipwrecks in the last few centuries. In fact, it was chosen as the site of the U. S. Coast Guard’s Advanced Rescue Swimmer School and Advanced Helicopter Rescue School due to the opportunity afforded by the 40+ foot waves of such dangerous waters. (That being said, it was a quiet and beautiful summer day when we came through!)

The Columbia River Maritime Museum is the home of the Coast Guard’s retired Lifeboat 44300, the first in a long line of surf rescue vessels developed for use on the treacherous Columbia River Bar, and it’s on full display in an impressive open-air diorama:

Coast Guard Ship

Many other full-size boats are also shown as representatives of the types of watercraft typically see on the Columbia River, which you can get up close and personal with. As well, there’s an example control room built with navigation and piloting equipment that visitors can experiment with themselves:


Next, we visited their display showing artifacts recovered from the 1846 shipwreck of the USS Shark, a Navy vessel that ran aground on the Columbia Bar. After years of restoration work, they are showing its two 19th-century cannons and other ship components and personal effects of its crew.

USS Shark cannons

Many additional smaller exhibits displayed different aspects of how ships were built and used today and in earlier centuries. One showed many interesting details of the whaling industry and practices (which are actually still in use today by Japan, Norway, and Iceland). Another featured a full-size wheel from a ship’s helm, connected to its steering mechanism, which is fully operational:

Ship's Helm

Possibly the most impressive feature of the museum was its display of the bridge from the Navy destroyer USS Knapp, which served in WWII and Korea. The bridge was extracted from the ship itself, and transported to Astoria where the museum was constructed around it.

USS Knapp destroyer bridge

This was accompanied by many other Navy artifacts from the ship, including its anti-aircraft guns, other weaponry, and even a full-size torpedo. Everything was exposed for visitors to handle and maneuver, which made it feel a lot more lifelike and real!

Even spending several hours at the museum, we still did not manage to make it to their theater to see 3D films about the Galapagos islands or the lives and dangers of sea turtles.

Paying admission to the Columbia River Maritime Museum also grants access to board the lightship Columbia, moored at the adjacent dock, and explore its deck and interior. This Columbia was the 5th of its kind (all sharing the same name), built for the purpose of serving as a floating lighthouse 5 miles offshore to shine a beacon warning sailors of the river entrance. We got to explore the crew’s living quarters and get a glimpse of the lifestyle of sailors stationed on a lightship, which served for almost 30 years before it was decommissioned and brought to the museum in 1980.

Despite what felt like a lengthy visit to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, our four kids (ages 8 and under) found enough to capture their attention the whole time, without any “I’m bored!” complaints. We’ll probably return after 5 or 10 years when they’ll have an even deeper appreciation for everything on display.