“A lightship,” the book “Observing Our Peninsula’s Past” says, “is a floating lighthouse, a vessel anchored at sea to mark exceptional navigation hazards, and it is meant to be noticed. Its hull is fire-engine red, powerful lamps gleam from its fore and/or aft masts, it broadcasts on a radio frequency all its own, and its foghorn can be heard miles out at sea.”
Lightships “were essential partners with lighthouses as aids to navigation along the coast …,” historian James Delgado tells us. “In addition to the rugged Columbia River Bar, the next most dangerous, heavily navigated site requiring a lightship was the San Francisco bar.” The five Pacific coast lightships had a “profound impact on the nationally-significant Pacific Coast trade …,” Delgado wrote in his nomination of Lightship No. 83 to the Register of Historic Places.
By the 1890s there had been so many shipwrecks in and around Columbia River Bar that authorities were petitioned for a lightship to be anchored just offshore. That vessel, Lightship No. 50, arrived on station in April of 1892.
She was described by Salem’s Statesman Journal as a stationary ship showing “… two fixed white reflector lights, each thirty feet above sea level, visible in clear weather from the deck of a vessel fifteen feet above the sea, ten and a half nautical miles.” Further, it “has two masts, is schooner rigged, with no bowsprit. [It] is painted red with ‘Columbia River‘ in large black letters on each side, and ‘No. 50‘ in black figures on each quarter. At each lantern masthead there is a circular cage-work day mark, painted red. A black smokestack and the fog signal are between the masts. The proposed geographical position of the light-vessel — latitude, north 46:1315; longitude, west 124:13:15, [where she would be moored in water 180 feet deep].”
Wooden-hulled (over a steel frame), stoutly-built, and not mechanically powered (except for a boiler to produce steam for the foghorn), No. 50 was able only to navigate by the few schooner sails she had aboard. She was anchored with a 5,000-pound mushroom anchor and 150 fathoms of heavy 2-inch chain.
In the first few months of her life afloat, this first Pacific Coast lightship was moved several times to find just the right spot to anchor, out of but close to the traffic lane; close enough to warn incoming vessels, far enough away to avoid being run down.
Life on a lightship was suggested by an excerpt printed in Abigail Scott Duniway’s 1874 newspaper The New Northwest: “The light-ships are still worse off [than lighthouses], anchored as they are in stormy waters, and forever rolling, plunging, leaping in perpetual unrest, clipped of their wings …” In other words, they were stuck in place, making no progress, all the while being bounced around by roiling seas while the foghorn deafeningly blasted.
Soon after LV-50’s arrival on station, with winter’s weather continuing to express its treacherous self, the Eugene Guard reported hearing, “… from the crew of the new lightship Columbia No. 50 … that the surge of the sea is so strong that the lightship rolls like a marble, causing the men to be constantly sick and in abject terror for fear that she part her cables and go to pieces on the rocks.”
That hard duty was echoed by several items over the next two years from The Morning Astorian:
• 1893: “Louis Berg, who was brought up from the lightship yesterday, has been adjudged insane, and will be taken to the asylum at Salem,” and
• 1894: “It is expected that the lightship will be brought in to the buoy station in a few days for a thorough overhauling. The vessel has withstood some pretty hard storms during the two years’ anchorage … The members of the crew are looking forward with pleasure to their vacation on shore.”
Considering that this station presented strenuous duty, in 1895 the lighthouse service ordered a second Pacific Coast lightship to be built. It would be a spare to serve as a relief: “This vessel is intended to be stationed on the coast of [northern] Washington [near Umatilla reef], and will be known as Umatilla lightship No. 67,” reported The Morning Astorian. This vessel would be equipped with steam engines and a propeller.
Other vessels would follow Columbia River Lightship No. 50 to substitute for her while she was off station, in for repairs, or to serve as her replacement after she was condemned in 1915:
LV No. 67 — 1897–1898, 1905–1906
LV No. 76 — 1905-1942
LV No. 83 — 1951-1960
LV No. 88 — 1909-1939, 1959-1960
LV No. 92 — 1909-1951
LV No. 93 — 1939-1951
WAL-604 — 1951-1979: This last one is the vessel we know today, the one moored at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. (Lightship No. 74, known as the Portland, refers to a vessel at Portland, Maine.)
Beginning with the winter of 1897, readers of the Astorian began to hear news of whichever ship was serving the Columbia River lightship station. “During the tremendous gale Wednesday morning [Lightship No. 67] … [had] the big steel cable on her mushroom anchor snapped in two, and … was adrift in the storm headed for the beach. … [I]n less than twenty minutes [the captain] had the big engines running and the propeller working. He managed to get about and put to sea. … No. 67 got as far as Gray’s Harbor and turned back to the Columbia river when the gale abated … The captain … reported that the recent gale or hurricane was one of the most severe he had ever seen in these waters.”
“Astoria, Or., Dec. 14,  — The Columbia river lightship, for the second time in three weeks, was towed into the harbor this evening … She had a very narrow escape from wrecking on North beach last night … The lightship was then 10 miles north of her station and four miles off the cape. She was under steam and slowly making her way to the harbor. The Manzanita passed her a hawser and took her in tow. … The lightship [had] lost 135 fathoms of chain and mushroom anchor.” Hood River Glacier.
Lightship No. 50 was restored to her station off the mouth of the Columbia and No. 67 was moved north to be stationed at Umatilla Reef, off the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Aground in a hard gale
“On Nov. 28, 1899, the 1901 Annual Report of the Light-house Board reports, “… a 74-miles gale was blowing off the mouth of the Columbia River, raising a tremendous sea, with frightful breakers on the bar. Late in the afternoon … the heavy 2-inch chain of the light-vessel snapped about 45 fathoms from the hawse pipe, and the light-vessel was left at the mercy of wind and sea.
“[S]ail was set, and she stood offshore for about 25 miles until the next morning, when the storm somewhat abated. Changing her course, she … headed for the mouth of the Columbia River, although the breakers were running dangerously high on the bar.
“The tug Wallula steamed out and got a hawser to the light-vessel, but it parted. The light-house tender Manzanita had in the meantime steamed out, and she got another hawser to the light-vessel. This line also parted, and in doing so it fouled the Manzanita’s propeller, thus making perilous the position of both the tender and the light-vessel.
“While the Manzanita was freeing herself from this broken line, the tug Escort took another hawser to the light-vessel and had succeeded in towing her nearly over the bar, when this third hawser parted and the light-vessel was adrift for the fourth time, and she was now in the breakers off McKenzie Head, in extreme peril, with night coming on. In order to save the crew and, if possible, the vessel, … it was decided to beach the vessel.
“To the north of McKenzie Head was a rock-bound coast lashed high by the angry seas. A short distance below [were] the forbidding rocks of … southern … Cape Disappointment. Between these two promontories lies a sand beach. … She was headed for the friendly beach and struck it at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 29. By the proper use of the sails, the vessel was swung around so as to put her head seaward, where the vessel’s high forecastle deck prevented the waves from rolling over her.
“The ship now being in a position of comparative safety, the men were brought on shore in the breeches buoy by the crew from the Cape Disappointment life-saving station. Assisted by a detachment of soldiers from Battery M, Third United States Artillery, who were assisted with teams, and by citizens living [nearby,] ... [t]he exhausted sailors … were immediately cared for at the army post hospital. Much credit is due to all participating in the rescue. …
“In due time a contract was made, but the contractor failed in his attempt to get the ship off the beach. New contracts were made, one after another with other parties, and several unsuccessful attempts were made to launch her seaward … . The difficulties experienced caused a series of disappointments attended by losses of hawsers, anchors, and other gear.
“Finally the method was changed and a contract was made for hauling the vessel over the land to Bakers Bay and launching her in these inside waters and for delivering her at the Tongue Point, Oregon … .
“Heavy seas, [bad weather,] the suction of the sand, [quicksand,] high tides, and other natural obstructions delayed the work and made it quite difficult. On April 9, 1901, the light-house inspector telegraphed to the Light-House Board ‘Light-vessel in cradle and started across land for Bakers Bay.’…
“On April 23 the light-house inspector reported that the vessel was at Bakers Bay, ready for the repairs which must be made that she might be seaworthy before she was again launched.
An innovative salvage
“These are the facts in brief: This vessel was stranded on November 29, 1899, and she lay where she struck … for 16 months, being continually pounded by the surf. Meantime several unsuccessful attempts were made to haul her off the beach into the ocean. In the spring of 1901, when she was lying broadside to the shore, partly filled with sand, another firm [Allen & Roberts, house-movers of Portland] cleaned her out, hove her bow around to the shore, jacked her up onto a temporary railway built for the purpose, and hauled her across the land, through the woods, some 700 yards, to Bakers Bay, where, after being sufficiently repaired so that she would float, she was launched and was towed to Portland, Oreg., for thorough repair. …”
This innovative salvage project fired editorial imaginations: Scientific American wrote it up in 1901; “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” also featured it in a cartoon.
However, on Oct. 23, 1900, while salvors were working on the above problem, LV-67, which was standing in for LV-50 at the Columbia’s mouth, went adrift, and was brought up in Neah Bay. “She was furnished with new moorings and was replaced on her station on Nov. 6, 1900. On Dec. 15, 1900, she again went adrift from her station and again brought up in Neah Bay. … She was … replaced on her [temporary] station on Jan. 8, 1901. On January 10, 1901, she again went adrift from her station and brought up at Port Angeles … [she was] replaced on her station January 18, 1901.”
Then, “Astoria, Or., Oct. 6,  — (Special.) — Columbia River lightship No. 50, the vessel that made the famous overland trip across McKenzie Head a few years ago, is again in trouble. This time she lies hard aground on the sand beach of the river a short distance inside Cape Disappointment light … About 4:30 this morning, when the wind was blowing at a rate of fully 80 miles an hour, the lightship parted her mooring chain and went adrift. As the gale was from the southwest, Captain Harriman … set sail and headed her for the mouth of the river, intending to drive her inside over the breaking bar.
“Just as the lightship was crossing the bar, her rudder was carried away. Drifting practically helpless, the vessel was driven toward Peacock Spit … into what appeared to be certain destruction. As she struck the spit the seas washed clear over her, but a big breaker carried her across the sands … and finally, about 8 o’clock this morning, landed her head on, on the sand beach midway between Cape Disappointment light and the east battery at Fort Canby.
“Captain Stuart and the Cape Disappointment lifesaving crew went to her assistance as quickly as possible, but, owing to the heavy seas running, they were unable to reach the vessel with their boats. After two attempts a line was shot on board and the members of the lightship’s crew were brought safely ashore in breeches buoys.
“The vessel stands upright and is resting easily. At low water she is high and dry, but at high tide the seas pound her heavily. It is thought she can be floated readily by kedging her into Baker’s Bay if work is commenced on her immediately, before she makes a bed in the sand. … The Point Adams lifesaving crew also went out and stood by the lightship until everyone was safely ashore.” Morning Oregonian.
Ten days later, “Astoria, Or., Oct. 16. — (Special.) — Lightship No. 50, which had been stranded for several days on the beach inside Peacock Spit, was floated at high tide today and is now tied up at the wharf at Fort Canby. … The lightship is making considerable water aft, but her pumps are able to keep her clear. … Orders were issued yesterday for Lightship No. 67 to take the station of No. 50 off the Columbia River. Lightship No. 67, known as the ‘hoodoo’ vessel, has formerly been stationed off Umatilla Reef, on the Straits, but since her recent accident has been tied up in Seattle for repairs.” The Sunday Oregonian.
Again, in May 1907, according to Willard Flint’s 1989 Coast Guard publication about lightships, No. 50 broke adrift, was towed in by a tug, resupplied and returned to station.
And, finally, “Astoria, Or., Jan. 6, . — (Special) — Repairs have already begun on Columbia River Lightship No. 50, which was damaged a few days ago in a collision with the British ship Port Patrick. Pending the completion of the repairs to the lightship, her position off the mouth of the river will be marked with a gas-buoy.” The Morning Oregonian.
In 1909 No. 50 was withdrawn from service and laid up in Astoria “pending further disposition,” and in 1915 she was surveyed, condemned, and sold at public auction. Flint’s information shows her as being used as a freighter, laid up in Alaska in 1925, and later registered as the San Cosmo and the Margaret until 1935. She then disappears from the record.
From No. 50’s record of service, the light-ship board (and later, the U.S. Coast Guard), were reminded never to underestimate the water power of the Columbia/Pacific confluence, to make their light-vessels stouter but not so heavy (i.e., of metal rather than wood) so as to ease battering, to strengthen the mooring chain and fastenings, and to design the hawsepipe (the hole through which the anchor chain runs out to the anchor) to exit the hull in the middle of the stem rather than up near the deck. They also came to design vessels with more comfortable crews’ quarters.
Columbia River Lightship No. 50 did her duty as best she was able.
Pax vobiscum, old workhorse. Peace be with you.