We turned the corner last Friday, winter solstice marking the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. The days will dawdle along for weeks before we notice a lot more light. It’s time for indoor attractions and we’re fortunate to have some good ones in the form of first-class local museums.

    It’s been famously observed that the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, repository for generations’ worth of neat stuff. Visiting it in person is much more exciting and fulfilling than any attic, and so it is with our own museums. It’s extraordinary seeing, touching, learning more about key objects from our past and about the people who created and used them.

    In its quiet way Pacific County hosts amazing museums and harbors astounding history and culture. The Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco is easily among the most fascinating and well-run community historical institutions in the Pacific Northwest. Founded by esteemed county matriarch Noreen Robinson and now ably carried on by Betsy Millard and her fine staff, CPHM is an exceptional asset by any standard. Housed in a comparatively vast building that was once a telephone company headquarters, this museum has plenty of rooms to explore — plus an amazingly restored passenger car from the Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Co., one of the nation’s most beloved ghost railways.

    The World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame in Long Beach is yet another surprising gem, the sort of colorful and eccentric resource that’s hard to imagine existing in such a relatively small town. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment State Park both celebrates the explorers’ grand vista of the North Pacific and the decades of shipwrecks and lifesaving that followed on these cliffs, spits and shoals. What a place to sit and watch the waves!

    The Pacific County Museum in South Bend and the Appelo Archive Center in Naselle both have some great artifacts and treasure troves of photographs. The Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond is another remarkable and worthwhile destination for a fieldtrip.

    Famous as it is, across the river in Oregon the Columbia River Maritime Museum deserves to be even better known. The museum’s collection of all things nautical truly rises to a Smithsonian-like level of interest and professionalism. For our distinctly maritime communities, this museum is a lively, child-friendly time machine conveying us back to the decks trod upon by our grandparents. On days like many we’ve recently experienced with heavy rain hurled at windows with fire-hose force, the museum’s super U.S. Coast Guard exhibit provides the closest look most of us will ever desire of storm conditions on Clatsop Spit. Shiver with fear and admiration.

    Within walking distance if it’s not too stormy, the Clatsop County Heritage Museum is the centerpiece of what surely must be one of the West Coast’s most active and content-rich historical societies. In combination with the Flavel House Museum and the Uppertown Firefighter’s Museum, the heritage museum is a marvelous look at the mind-boggling depth and breadth of life here at the intersection of the Great River of the West and the Pacific Ocean. There are stories enough within these museum walls to make a thousand novels. Even Astorians themselves little realize the extent to which this place virtually explodes with legends. The heritage museum is one of elements that will coalesce to make Astoria one of America’s most famous towns as this century moves forward.

    There are many other small but noteworthy museums scattered up and down our counties, from Cannon Beach to Cathlamet. Spend a stormy day exploring the past, a heritage that very much shapes and enlivens our lives today.

    CONTACT NOTES: Hours, fees and addresses for all the museums mentioned here are available on the Internet. Call 503-325-2323 for the maritime museum, 503-338-4849 for Clatsop museums, 642-3446 for the Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum, 642-4020 for the kite museum and 642-3029 for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

    

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