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Columbia River Maritime Museum offers history, connection to the Northwest

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Coast Guard rescue

An exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum features a rescue being performed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum brings thousands of visitors from all over the world to Astoria each year. It attracts people of all ages and interests with its exhibits about fishing, rescues in dramatic storms, tours of the Lightship Columbia and more.

Bruce Jones, deputy director of the museum, said he often hears visitors say they aren't normally museum people, but they loved the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

“They got to go on the Lightship, they got to see Coast Guard rescues, they got to see exciting videos from the Columbia River Bar Pilots and boats, and they just had a great time,” Jones said. “So whether you’re a museum person or not, whether you like maritime stuff or not, you will love the Columbia River Maritime Museum.”

Bruce Jones

Bruce Jones is the deputy director at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. 

Jeff Smith, the museum’s curator, said the museum's exhibits range from Coast Guard and rescue missions to the types of fishing boats that are used in the Columbia.

“Our other galleries feature early exploration,” Smith said. “People can learn about the origins of Oregon and how it came to be American territory rather than British.”

Guests can also learn about the impact that weather has on mariners at the “Science of Storms” exhibit, and they can learn about the challenges that mariners face trying to navigate in and out of the mouth of the river in the exhibit, “Crossing the Bar.”

The Barbey Maritime Center 

boat pond at night

The new boat pond outside the Barbey Maritime Center at the Columbia River Maritime Museum glows blue at night.

The museum also includes the Barbey Maritime Center, located inside a former railroad depot. As an event center, it hosts workshops about maritime crafts and trades, including the construction of small boats.

Sam Johnson, executive director, said the workshops teach participants about practices that are important to maintain.

“It is really a lot of fun to see people working with carving of Native American artifacts and building boats and things like that,” Johnson said.

Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson is the executive director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

There are also classes about basket weaving, kayak building, restoring old boats for the museum collections and more.

Pond 1

Bruce Holmes drives a model boat he built in the 1980s around the Barbey Maritime Center's new pond at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. 

In front of the Barbey Maritime Center sits a newly constructed model boat pond. Visitors are welcome to bring their own model sailboats to race across the water.

Education director Nate Sandel added that people can also rent model sailboats from the center or take a class to learn how to build their own model sailboats to use at the pond. He also teaches students grades two through eight the skills and science of sailing.

The Lightship Columbia

Another attraction is the the Lightship Columbia, a national historic landmark that was used as a type of lighthouse to let sailors know they were getting close to the mouth of the Columbia River. Museum guests can hop onboard the vessel to explore the lightship for themselves where they'll see where sailors would cook, eat, sleep and work.

Lightship Columbia

The Lightship Columbia docked outside the Columbia River Maritime Museum. 

School groups can even reserve the lightship to spend the night and get a taste of what life was like on a floating lighthouse.

The pilot boat Peacock


The pilot boat Peacock outside the Columbia River Maritime Museum. 

A red and green boat, known as the pilot boat Peacock, is displayed outside the Barbey Maritime Center.

The Columbia River Bar is known to be one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world, as more than 2,000 ships have wrecked there since the 1800s. So the Peacock was meant to help boats navigate the bar in extreme weather conditions.

The boat was built in 1964 and was used to bring bar pilots across the Columbia River bar to and from commercial ships and ports thousands of times over 33 years.

Education and research

The museum offers a variety of ways to connect with students, including field trips for kindergarten through 12th grade, and two outreach programs. One outreach program will send a trained educator to a school to give a hands-on presentation.

maritime exhibit

A child explores an interactive exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Sandel will visit areas schools every week during the school and help students build 5-foot-long sailboats with G.P.S. monitors that the students launch into the Pacific Ocean.

The boats, built this year by students from Warrenton Grade School, Columbia City Elementary School and Wy’east Middle School, launched by the Columbia River Bar Pilots and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Steadfast, were released into the ocean at the museum’s Miniboat Summit in January. The GPS-equipped miniboats will be tracked by the museum as they journey to Japan over the coming months as part of a cultural exchange with the country. In late November, three schools in Japan launched their own fleet of miniboats destined for the U.S.


Warrenton Grade School's miniboat turns quickly with the push of the wind during a test run on the Columbia River.

In 2018, the museum educated more than 15,000 students in the Pacific Northwest between the outreach programs and field trips.

Those students were some of about 118,000 people who visited the museum in 2018, according to Jones.

Jones added guests can buy all sorts of maritime memorabilia, clothing and books at the museum's gift shop, or catch a movie in the 3-D theater. The theater shows two movies rotating throughout the day, so visitors can watch one or the other, or both.

“We have this amazing 44-foot Coast Guard lifeboat that actually used to do search and rescue missions on the Columbia River Bar,” Jones said.

“And now we have it mounted permanently in the museum at a 45-degree angle with a diorama of waves and victims being saved.”

Columbia River Maritime Museum

The Columbia River Maritime Museum features a variety of exhibits focusing on the history and environment of the Pacific Northwest.

The museum’s research library is also open to researchers and members of the public, offering its collection of books, photographs and historical records.

The museum has been teaching people about coastal life since an artist named Rolf Klep founded it in 1962. Originally located in the courthouse that now houses the Clatsop County Historical Society, the museum moved to the waterfront in 1985.

“It’s been quite successful and as they say, location, location, location,” Johnson said. “We have one of the premium locations of any maritime museum in the United States. It's a wonderful place.”

Columbia River Maritime Museum river history

The Columbia River Maritime Museum features an array of information on the history of the Columbia River.

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