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The rescue that ensued was not an uneventful one, but it was all in a day’s work for the lifesaving service. The captain and crew were taken off the ship with a breeches buoy, which is like a pair of pants connected to a zipline tied to shore. Captain Joseph Harriman went downstairs to change into dry clothes before climbing into the breeches buoy; unfortunately, a wave hit the ship and moved it, dipping the line down and re-soaking the skipper. A member of the crew had broken ribs from a collision with the ship’s wheel. Other than that, everyone was fine.
But now the lightship was on the beach.
The Lifesaving Service immediately started looking for someone to get it off the beach for them. There was no shortage of offers. And one of those offers in particular was pretty crazy. Astoria contractor Leander Lebeck pointed out that the beach where the ship had landed was essentially a peninsula, with the ocean (and the lightship) on one side and the calm, deep, protected waters of Baker Bay on the other side, just half a mile away. Why not build a roadbed, hoist the ship onto a dolly and just truck it over the spit, he asked?
The Lifesaving Service chuckled indulgently and awarded the salvage contract to Captain Robert Macintosh, a traditional Portland salvage contractor.
So Macintosh and his crews got busy lightening the ship and sinking pilings offshore and kedging and rafting and doing all those things that salvage contractors do to try to get ships off the beach — all this in the teeth of the constant wind blowing against them, and the wind-blown breakers crashing around.
Six months of this sort of thing ensued. Macintosh could not catch a break. Cables broke. A storm whipped up with perfect timing just at spring tide in April. Finally, in June, the government canceled Macintosh’s contract and requested another round of bidding.
Leander Lebeck tried again, and this time he was joined by two other contractors proposing the “truck it to Baker Bay” plan. The government was still not having it. The job was passed to another traditional contractor, Wolff & Zwicker of Portland. The new salvors had better luck than the previous ones — they actually got the ship off the beach and floating free for a few hours — but for some reason neglected to have a tugboat standing by to take it in tow, so it was washed back ashore.
Finally, in January 1901, with the winter ocean once again raging, the government opened bids again — and this time, they were only accepting the overland plan.
It seems kind of unfair that the guy who came up with the winning plan — Lebeck — didn’t get to execute it. He was outbid by a Portland company. And to make matters more awkward, the Portland company wasn’t even a salvage outfit. It was Allen & Roberts — a house-moving company. The lightship would be the biggest “house” they’d ever moved. But, they were promising to do it in 35 days.
To make their deadline, Allen & Roberts put a dynamo on the ship (probably coupled to the steam plant) so that they could run 24 hours a day under electric lights.
Heavy seas delayed the start by several weeks, but the crews were able to get going in mid-March. Within a couple weeks they had run cables under the big vessel, jacked it up several feet above the beach, and started building a cradle under it. Another week and a half, and it was halfway across the peninsula, at the crest of the little hill, slowly rolling past trees and bushes.
By this time, the doubters were all converted. Throngs of people gathered every day to photograph the scene — a big ship rolling through the woods.
Finally, on June 2, 1901, the lightship plunged once again into the water and floated free in the deep, protected waters of Baker Bay.
There were, of course, some repairs that needed to be made before the lightship could go out to sea again. But by the time the stormy season was back that fall, the old lightship was back at her post, saving sailors’ lives. Columbia No. 50 would remain at that post until 1909, when she was replaced with a bigger and newer (and, one hopes, more comfortable) model, the Columbia Lightship No. 88.
The old No. 50 was sold at auction in 1915 for $1,667.99 — about $40,000 in 2016 dollars, a real bargain. She was sold to a Mexican company, which converted her to steam power and pressed her into service as a freighter; subsequently, converted again to diesel, she served as a cannery ship for the Red Salmon Canning Company. It wasn’t until 1935 that the aging vessel was decommissioned for good.
Today, lightships in general are a thing of the past. The last Columbia River lightship was the WLV-604, which was replaced with an automated buoy in 1979. Today the WLV-604 is an exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.