The mouth of the Columbia River isn’t known as the “graveyard of the Pacific” for nothing—it’s said to hold the remains of over 2,000 ships who’ve failed in navigating its notoriously treacherous bar. Once thought to be the fabled “Northwest Passage,” the mighty Columbia River has been a crucial access way for centuries. Beginning as a trade route for indigenous people throughout the region then for early American explorers like John Jacob Astor and Lewis and Clark, the area slowly became settled by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries and the importance of the Columbia continued to grow.
And, one of the best ways to learn about its history is at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This is an exceptional museum even if you aren’t particularly interested in maritime history, boating, or fishing. The expansive history that the museum presents will give you a great sense of the scope of this powerful river and the surrounding area.
First opened 50 years ago in 1963, the museum was originally located in the Old Astoria City Hall building, but moved to its current location on the waterfront in 1982. A major remodel occurred in 2001-02 and the beautiful new building now stands out with its huge windows stretching up to the roof, incorporating the breathtaking natural landscape into its architecture. For half a century it’s been on a mission to educate and honor the Pacific Northwest’s rich history of seafaring and military activity.
The museum strikes a great balance of interesting exhibits for adults and hands-on activities for kids. Part of the museum’s 2001 expansion included adding new interactive exhibits as well as audio and video guides throughout the space which make it easier to learn without stopping to read large blocks of text.
Kids can play in a real ship’s control deck, learn what it’s like to pilot a tugboat, or take part in a Coast Guard rescue aboard a 44-foot U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat—you can almost feel what it’s like out there on the waves! Another new exhibit is all about shipwrecks: what causes them, how we respond to them, and how scientists are using cutting-edge technology to find new shipwrecks and study them.
Two other great exhibits are “Crossing the Bar: A Perilous Passage” that teaches you all about the Columbia River bar, one of the most dangerous in the world with waves that reach heights of over 40 feet! Or, immerse yourself in the “Science of Storms” to learn about weather patterns, how meteorologists use technology to predict the weather, and you can even give a real weather forecast on TV in front of a green screen!
They also have a 3D theater that shows short films on topics like sea lions and aircraft carriers (note these are an additional $5.00). Outside the museum you can climb aboard the Lightship Columbia which was essentially a floating lighthouse that guided ships through the hazardous Columbia bar. Tour the ship and pretend you’re a sailor eating in the mess hall and check out all the rooms aboard including the radio and engine room. The Lightship Columbia has even been named a National Historical Landmark due to its importance in American maritime history.
The museum is very large, mostly to accommodate the numerous boats they have inside, but you can get through it in under two hours which makes it an easy stop to include while visiting the coast. Also, the Columbia River Maritime Museum is fully accredited by the American Alliance of Museums—the first in Oregon to do so! This means the museum’s care and preservation of their collection meets the highest standards in the industry and stands out among its peers.
Adult tickets will run you $16.00, but kids from 6 to 17 are only $5.00 and anyone under 5 is admitted for free. Don’t leave without checking out the museum’s store for one-of-a-kind keepsakes and locally-made artisan goods. Plus, all proceeds from the gift shop go directly toward funding educational programming. The museum is slightly removed from downtown Astoria, but there’s a trolley stop right in front of it so you can hop on the trolley for $1 and take a relaxed and picturesque ride up the waterfront.
Hours: Every day 9:30 am to 5:00 pm
Address: 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon