A National Historic Landmark
In early U.S. history, lightships helped provide safe navigation along the country’s coasts and Great Lakes. Serving as floating lighthouses, the lightships would anchor over treacherous reefs, or mark narrow approaches to channel, river or harbor entrances.
Lightships not only provided a beacon where a traditional lighthouse could not stand, but they could also be stationed offshore, where a beam from a coastal lighthouse would not reach.
The first U.S. lightship provided aid to mariners entering Chesapeake Bay, and was stationed off Willoughby Spit, Virginia in 1820. The last serving lightship, Nantucket WLV-613, was retired in 1983.
The first lightship to shine a beam on the West Coast was the Columbia, and was stationed at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1892. There were a total of five lightships named Columbia that would eventually serve at this location. The fifth, Columbia WLV-604, is the last lightship to serve on the West Coast, and is now docked at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
The Columbia WLV-604 was built at Rice Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine. It was commissioned December 19, 1950, and was stationed 5.3 statute miles from the mouth of the Columbia River beginning in April 1951.
While in service, the Lightship Columbia demanded seventeen crewmembers, with ten men on duty at all times. The crew spent their off-duty time fishing, reading, playing cards, resting and eating.
The Columbia WLV-604 was decommissioned in 1979, and arrived at the Columbia River Maritime Museum on December 9, 1980. She is the first vessel in Oregon to be placed on the National Register.
A self-guided tour of the Lightship Columbia is included in the price of admission to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. It shares the same hours of operation as the Museum, but will close for safety reasons during extreme high or low tides. Inside, you’ll see the officers’ quarters, mess deck, radio room, galley and crew berthing. The wheelhouse can be viewed from the deck.
The Lightship Columbia tour is not recommended for individuals with mobility challenges due to steep access ladders and elevated thresholds.