1899: the Old Columbia Lightship Sails Over Dry Land

Forty years after a lighthouse was built on Cape Disappointment,  the first light ship on the Pacific Coast arrived to take up its station off the mouth of the Columbia River. With no means of propulsion except sails, it was not a grand arrival for  Light Vessel No. 50: it was towed north by the steam-tug Fearless and dropped its 5,000 lb mushroom anchor a few miles west of the whistle buoy marking the Columbia River entrance.

Light Vessel No. 50 was 112-feet long and slow. Its steam boiler had to be run round-the-clock to keep up the pressure just to raise the light frame to the masthead every night, and in case there was a need cabin heat, to work the anchor windlass, or for the fog signal. It was it was heavily built in San Francisco with a steel frame and double-thick wooden planking. In low visibility, it was not uncommon for ships to sail right up to the fog horn and collide with the lightship!

 In 1894, it was moved three miles southeast to be nearer the river entrance. On November 28, 1899, gale force SW winds broke the heavy anchor chains and drove the ship towards the bar as the crew struggled to hoist sail. Two tugs were in the area and realized the ship was adrift. They tried tried to pass a tow line, but their efforts failed. When the lightship  tender Manzanita arrived on the scene, a rocket line was shot across to the lightship, but it caught in the tender’s propellers and had to be cut.

Now there was no hope. No. 50 was driven over the Peacock Spit and miraculously onto the small stretch of beach between McKenzie Head and Cape Disappointment. (Before the north jetty was built,) The crew climbed down at low tide, none the worse for their experience. The lightship sat high up on the beach unharmed for 16 months. Thanks to the construction of four-inch pine planking bolted to heavy frames and sheathed with 1 ½” oak, the hull appeared to be unharmed, so the Lightship Service was reluctant to order a new ship built and settled for the merchant ship Coronado as a temporary replacement. 

Through the summer, several salvage crews tried their best to haul No. 50 back to sea, but without success. They laboriously tried to dig the sand away from the keel, they brought the biggest tugs out to haul on the ship at high tide,  but it was all to no avail. What followed was a saga unique not just in the northwest but in world shipping history! Early in 1900, it was decided that  the only way to save the ship  was to move it inland and across the narrow isthmus at the SW tip of Washington and into Baker’s Bay—a distance of about “3/8 of a mile (660 yards).”

Two Portland house movers, Andrew Allen and H. H. Roberts agreed to take on the job, for a reward of $17,500–about 1/3 the value of the ship! They jacked the ship level, built heavy frames around the bilges to hold it level, and set up parallel lines of railroad ties in the sand to support log rollers. Then they rigged up multiple blocks and tackles to create a huge mechanical advantage and led the running line round a windlass turned by a pair of draft horses harnessed to a very long handle. This was enough of a reduction in gearing to enable “two horsepower” to inch the ship slowly up the beach.

Through the spring, a small army of laborers toiled all day, felling trees to create a path, picking up the ties behind the ship and moving them ahead, and re-rigging the lines. At night, the work continued with a steam generator set up on the ship’s foredeck throwing a ghostly light on the scene. The distance traveled per day ranged from a few inches when the ropes broke to a best day’s run of 205 feet,

It was such a spectacle that the ferries ran excursions from Astoria on Sundays at $1 per head. Families picnicked on the hillside below the gun emplacements of Fort Canby and watched the ship “sail” slowly through the woods. When it reached the sheltered shore of the bay, the sternpost was quickly repaired and a replacement rudder fitted. On June 2, 1901, the tide floated No. 50 and it was towed to Astoria, then to Portland for drydocking.

It was repaired and returned to service for another nine years, but not without more excitement. In 1907, it blew ashore again and the entire crew quit, demanding a ship with a propulsion engine. The next Columbia lasted from 1908 to 1950. It was also built in the northeast and was delivered to the northwest via the Strait of Magellan, before the Panama Canal was opened. The 131’ long traditional design had elaborate woodwork below decks, and towering masts with ratlines that gave it the feel of a sailing ship. The two steam boilers developed 425 HP and moved the ship at a maximum 8 knots. They were not converted from coal to oil until 1939, so the ship could stay on station until its coal store was empty.

The old Number 50 still has plenty of life left even though it was surveyed and condemned as unfit for further service in 1915.  It was sold at a public auction for $1,668 to a Mexican firm. The new owners installed an engine and converted into a coastal steamer. Later, it was sold to a fish packer and worked in Alaskan waters until 1935.

The lightship service finally emerged in the 1950s with a modern, functional design.  The final design, built in Maine in 1951, was able to withstand the worst winter storms, but was abruptly overtaken by the electronics revolution. Only twenty years later, it was swept away by the electronics revolution The change had begun when a 1957 study estimated the annual cost of a lightship station at $1.32 million and determined that each station required 1 1/3 vessels to allow for maintenance. Seeking to cut costs, the Coast Guard began to replace shallow-water east coast lightships with offshore light structures similar to oil platforms, and deepwater sites with the new Large Navigation Buoy or LNB.

The Coast Guard has signed the death warrant for the Columbia River lightship,” wrote the Oregonian’s boating journalist Larry Barber at the end of 1979. Two congressmen had asked for “a reprieve,” he noted, after hearings in which fisherman and seafarers had voiced their objections. But progress marched on. The gallant history of lightships on the Columbia River lasted just 87 years. The device that replaced it— the LNB 40’ in diameter—only lasted a decade before it too was downsized and became a museum piece.

 Today, the Columbias entrance is marked by a much smaller buoy anchored six miles southwest of the river entrance. It’s visible for 14 miles, compared to the 24-mile range of the ship’s light. A second buoy, operated by NOAA transmits wave and weather information to a shore station. Because they are only a fraction of the weight of a lightship, these buoys are actually far easier to anchor than the ships.

The Last Active Lightship on the West Coast,  No. 604, built in Maine in 1951. It was 128 feet long, displaced 617 tons when loaded with 47,000 gallons of fuel to run the heavy Atlas Imperial 8 cylinder, direct-reversing engine that produced 550 HP at 750rpm. It carried two 15,000candle power lights, and two diaphones. Later, 24 locomotive headlights mounted in groups of six on each face of a four-sided revolving housing were added.

It also carried 13,000 gallons of freshwater and 12 tons of food to feed the 18 crew during their 2-4 week stint. The main anchor was a 7,000 lbs mushroom type (far less effective than modern plow-type designs) with 1,300 feet of 2” chain. Even the most experienced seamen got sick occasionally when 30’ waves rolled under the ship during winter storms, and sleep was almost impossible. The ship snatched and jerked against the chain, exerting a strain that would destroy a normal hull. Then the skipper might use the engine to keep his vessel headed into the wind.

Equally tiring was the bleat of the modern fog horn, audible for five miles.  It was so loud (140 decibels) that anyone venturing on deck without ear protectors risked deafness.  It sent shock waves and vibrations through the ship, keeping the men awake when it was sounding, and when it stopped–the silence was deafening!

During its service, the lightship was blown off station during the Columbus Day Storm 1962, and sideswiped by an unknown vessel and withdrawn for repair of the damage in 1963. In 1976, it began its retirement at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, where you can see it today. Around the US, some 16 survivors of the 179 lightships that once served shipping have been preserved.

CAPTION: The First Columbia River Lightship was stranded on the beach north of Cape Disappointment  in 1899. It was towed overland and re-launched in Baker Bay in 1901. Columbia River Maritime Museum Photo 251-4814

About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Nautical History, NW boats and boaters and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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