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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Lightship had to go cross-country to reach ocean again

Torn loose from its anchors in a storm, the Columbia River Lightship stranded high and dry on the beach near Seaside. Salvage companies labored mightily to refloat it, to no avail — until a house-moving contractor had an innovative idea.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2017 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.

A postcard image of the mouth of the Columbia, an aerial view looking north past Seaside
The pastoral and tranquil beauty of this postcard image belies the
fearsome reputation of the mouth of the Columbia River; this area
receives the wildest weather in the state. The spot where the lightship
ran aground is about three-quarters of the way up the beach toward
the mouth of the river. For a larger image, click here.

You’ve probably heard about the Columbia River bar. The river puts an enormous volume of fresh water out to sea, and when the tide is coming in, the seawater coming in fights with the river water going out in some spectacular ways — especially when there’s a storm.

And there’s often a storm. Some of the ugliest weather in the state happens right offshore there at Tillamook Head, where there are plenty of big ship-eating rocks.

Watery graveyard

After 1881, a lighthouse was stationed on the largest of these — “Terrible Tilly.” Its beacon lit up the sea with the burning of 170 gallons of kerosene every month — all of it lugged up the steps to the light in cans by the lighthouse staff.

Still, the ships kept sinking, so in 1892 the Coast Guard actually parked a “lightship,” a 123-foot floating lighthouse — an unusually stoutly built ship with no engine, equipped with three enormous anchors — in the entrance to the river. This was Lightship Columbia No. 50.

A bad assignment for the seasick

This helped a lot, although Coast Guard people dreaded being assigned to it. Certainly it was a bad deployment for anyone troubled by seasickness. A  123-foot ship sounds big and probably looks pretty vast in harbor, but anchored five miles west of the mouth of one of the world’s biggest rivers, on the edge of the world’s biggest ocean, it probably felt like a Chris-Craft.

Shipwrecked, kind of

One day in 1899, an unusually powerful storm snapped all three anchor cables and No. 50 was on its way. The crew scrambled to set sails — under the worst imaginable conditions — and managed to keep the ship offshore while a tow was arranged.

But the sea was too rough to do it. After several attempts, with the crew exhausted, No. 50 was intentionally beached near McKenzie Head, just south of the mouth of the river. Every member of the crew was rescued.

But what about the ship?

Most ships washed up on the Oregon Coast at this time were pounded to pieces by the surf. But the No. 50 had been built specifically to be pounded, and was showing no signs of breaking up.

How to get it off the beach?

When the weather improved, the Coast Guard started trying to tow it back out to sea. But the ocean had deposited beach sand around it, and it was going nowhere.

Fourteen months later, the Coast Guard gave up, declared it a salvage job and put it out for bids.

Enter the housemover

The winning bidder turned out to be a house-moving outfit out of Portland — Allan and Roberts Co. This intrepid contractor had an elegant and counter-intuitive plan. Instead of a frontal attack on the pounding surf, trying to shove the ship out to sea again, crews set it into a cradle on a specially built railway and — using a block and tackle — hauled it due east, away from the sea. Straight up the shore and into a forest, through which a path had been cleared.

The ship was making for the Columbia River. A formation in its banks named Baker’s Bay was just 700 yards from the beach where it was stranded. There, the ship could be peacefully pushed out into the water — without fighting the pounding surf. Then, all repairs made, it could wait tranquilly there, protected from the fury of the open sea, until the time was right to tow it back out into place once again.

Launched in the river

Which is exactly what happened. It cost $17,500 to do, and another $12,135 for repairs. The lightship was back on duty by the end of the 1901 summer season.

No. 50 served just eight more years before being replaced by a newer ship, and was sold at auction for $1,667.99 in 1915.

(Sources: Claftin, Jim. Column in Lighthouse Digest, Dec. 2004, www.lighthousedepot.com; Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus, 2006)