Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum

June 15, 2016 (Updated August 4, 2016)

My kids love adventure stories — shipwrecks, buried treasure, nautical mysteries, tales of survival against all odds.

That’s exactly what we found at the nationally renowned Columbia River Maritime Museum, one of the highlights of our recent trip to Astoria.

We headed up there — myself, my husband and two boys, 10 and 7 — to beat the heat on a particularly scorching hot weekend in June.

Capped by its gorgeous wave-form rooftop, the expansive museum — first opened in 1963, then moved to the waterfront and renovated in 2002 — was a short walk from our hotel, along the beautiful downtown riverfront.

With the heat we first happily took refuge in the Museum’s cool theater, catching a showing of the 20-minute “Penguins 3D” movie (showing all summer, along with a Pirates movie).

We emerged from the film eager to soak up everything we could about the mighty Columbia River — which makes for a stunning living backdrop just outside the museum’s windows.

We learned that mariners refer to the Columbia River bar as the Graveyard of the Pacific, with 2,000 vessels — including 200 large ships — having sunk here since 1792. A whopping 700 people have lost their lives to the sea here; dozens are honored with inscriptions at the Maritime Memorial wall, a couple of miles down the waterfront beneath the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

That perspective set the stage for the exhibits, which rolled seamlessly into one another. We were captivated by the sight and story of the Japanese fishing boat that drifted across the Pacific Ocean during the 2011 tsunami in Japan — and was found, two years later, 5,000 miles from home at Cape Disappointment, Washington.

Miraculously, authorities were able to trace it to its owner — whose daughter perished in the tsunami, yet gave permission to display the boat as a living relic here at the Maritime Museum.

“How did it survive that whole way with a hole in the bottom?” my 10 year-old asked. Good question. We pondered that one for a while.

As hands-on learners, my boys kept busy with the interactive exhibits: nautical knot-tying, flashing tugboat signals, climbing into a real-life rescue boat, and taking the helm of a walk-in towboat.

They also gravitated toward the short videos that detailed many of the displays, including the restored cannon from the 1846 shipwreck of the USS Shark at the mouth of the Columbia River. Not long ago, a 13-year-old girl found the ship’s carronade — a shorter-style cannon — encased in hard sand on the beach at Arch Cape. After a six-year restoration, it’s been housed here since 2014. Modern-day archaeology at its finest.

In a section on World War II, we saw a display of Japanese flags with handwritten good-luck messages to their soldiers. We learned that American soldiers had kept these flags as battlefield souvenirs, but many relatives who’ve stumbled onto them have reunited the flags with their Japanese families through the help of the Obon Society, a nonprofit headquartered in Astoria.

The boys were also entranced by the stories of mariners shark fishing, whaling, gillnetting, and the job of the brave souls who train to be rough-water rescuers at the U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment, rescuing 600 people each year.

After a self-guided tour of the lightship Columbia, moored outside, we headed back to the hotel on foot, along the waterfront.

Deep in thought while he walked, my 7-year-old asked a question: “Why is there so much stuff about the war here?”

Before I could answer, my 10-year-old launched into a full-blown explanation: “Astoria is at the mouth of the Columbia River, so when the enemies attacked, they had to defend it with their ships.” And so he went on, for another 10 minutes or so.

I’m so proud. We’ll have to come back again soon.

About The
Author

Jen Anderson
Jen Anderson writes and edits Travel Oregon's e-newsletters, annual Visitor Guide and other editorial content. She loves finding the latest places to eat, drink and play around the state with her husband and two young boys. Brewpubs, beaches and bike trails top the list.

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