To return to sea, ship had to ‘sail’ through the woods

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By Finn J.D. John
October 1, 2017

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in December 2009, which you’ll find here.

THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, before and after it became part of the Coast Guard, there have been more than enough uncomfortable and dangerous jobs to go around.

But it’s hard to imagine there was a worse occupational fate in the whole service than being sent as a crew member on the Columbia River Lightship.


THE FIRST LIGHTSHIP was posted five miles off the mouth of the Columbia River in 1892. Its purpose was simple: Help incoming ships figure out where they were in relation to the river — and, more importantly, to Peacock Spit, on the Washington side of the river.

This aerial view of Seaside shows the peninsula of sand and forest across which the lightship was transported, at the top center. The open ocean is on the left side; Baker Bay in the Columbia River is on the right. (Image: Postcard)

Before the ship was stationed there, it was horribly common for ships in bad weather to misjudge their position. Because the wind blew toward the land, nine times out of ten that misjudgment resulted in the ship being too close to land. The crew’s first inkling of trouble was usually the sound of breakers — by which time it was too late to do anything but brace for impact and, a few hours later, try not to drown.

The building of the Tillamook Rock Light — “Terrible Tilly” — on top of Tillamook Rock in 1881 helped a lot. But it was only one light. With another one, ship captains could take readings on both and calculate their distance from shore. Or, if worse came to worst, they could simply steer toward the light, knowing they were in no danger of piling up on the rocky shore.

So a lightship was commissioned. It would have to be one of the stoutest, strongest ships ever built. It would be parked five miles out in the Pacific Ocean, in the spot in Oregon where the wildest weather happens. It would literally have to be capable of riding out a hurricane at anchor in the open sea.

This ship, titled Columbia Lightship No. 50, cost $80,000 to build — $2.2 million in 2016 dollars. It was built by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, a heavy steel-framed, oak-planked, copper-sheathed vessel. It was tough — but it was tiny: 112 feet long, 27 and a half feet wide, drawing 12 feet, and displacing 250 tons.

That doesn’t sound like such a tiny ship, and docked in a marina it would certainly look big enough. But in the water, surrounded by the sea, it would have felt like a Zodiac boat.

Because it would never have to move, No. 50 had no engine; just a small boiler for making steam, keeping the crew warm, and honking the foghorn when visibility was bad. It did have a suit of sails that could be deployed in a pinch, though.

The ship was brought around by tugboats and positioned. Three colossal anchors were weighed overboard to pin her to the seafloor: a main anchor weighing two and a half tons, and a pair of backup anchors of 2,500 and 1,800 pounds respectively.

Then the light was lit, and its eight-man crew settled into their new home — aboard a tiny ship that would always be at sea, never in port, the whole time they were on board. Chances are it took some of them a few weeks to get the knack of eating, sleeping, and using the “head” in a violently pitching and rolling sea.


THE RESPONSE FROM the maritime community was one of delighted relief. E.W. Wright, in Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, wrote that the presence of the lightship practically ended “that long list of disasters to vessels caught in the northerly current and swept to destruction on the weather beach.”

But then came the day when the crew of the lightship surely thought their own death was at hand. In the howling hurricane winds and raging seas of Nov. 28, 1899, as walls of green water thundered down on the little ship, the colossal steel anchor cable snapped. The smaller backup anchors quickly gave way too, and the ship was floating free, rolling sickeningly in the trough of a huge and angry sea, being borne relentlessly landward.

The crew sprang into action. Rigging the storm sails as best they could, they managed to get enough canvas up to get the ship under way, and tacked out toward the sea, away from destruction.

But the best they could do was hold disaster at bay. Tugboats raced to the scene, and great hempen tow hawsers were put on the laboring lightship; but the seas were too rough. Time and again a wave would pick the lightship up, slacken the line, and slam the ship back against it. Foot-thick hemp lines snapped like knitting yarn. They just could not get a tow to stay on the ship.

Finally the crew, too exhausted to continue, picked the best beach they could find (luckily, the last tug to attempt a tow had managed to bring them far enough offshore to miss the shoals of Peacock Spit). So the lightship crashed at last onto the beach just north of the river mouth.

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In the spring of 1901, Allen & Roberts crews work to get the Columbia Lightship No. 50 off the beach and on its way through some nearby woods to the Columbia River. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

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.

The lightship Columbia No. 604 docked for maintenance in Astoria in 1973. (Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Association)

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.

(Sources: Stokes, Ted. “Escape By Land: Lightship No. 50,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, v.69 n.4; Gibbs, James Jr. Sentinels of the North Pacific. Portland: Binford, 1955; back issues of The Astorian, 1899-1900)




Background photo is a hand-tinted postcard view of Yaquina Head Lighthouse, from a linen-stock postcard printed in around 1920.
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