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S.S. Legacy Sailing Through History on the Rivers


By Ryan Downs, heritage leader, S.S. Legacy

Greetings from the S.S. Legacy! After searching for gold in Alaska, the month of September finds the S.S. Legacy crew plying the waters of the Great River of the West--the Columbia River. After leaving Portland on a beautiful sunny day, we traveled all the way up to Lewiston, to a place where Oregon, Idaho and Washington meet. It was a bit warm, but the speed of the jet boats we took through Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in America (take that, Grand Canyon!), provided enough air to cool off.

Friday, we awoke tied up in beautiful, historic Astoria, Oregon. Astoria is a favorite town of mine, not just for its beauty, the calming mist and cloud cover (quite a difference from the scenic, desert- like Palouse country we had been in the day before!), and the smell of the sea; it is the stories that weave their way through the buildings and streets like a fog that surrounds us. The electric streetcar that you can ride for a dollar all the way downtown; the historic plaques that greet you every few steps, the Victorian sea captain mansions perched on the hill, as if looking for a ship to come over the river bar at the mouth of the Columbia. This city watches like a sentinel the comings and goings of cargo ships, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and Chinook Native canoes.


Lightships like this one have made it safer for mariners to enter the river from sea; this one is part of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a tour included in our itinerary

This city has seen a lot--Clatsop Natives fishing the banks, the white sails of Captain Robert Gray’s ship, Columbia Rediviva, John Jacob Astor’s employees building a log fort, and the countless shipwrecks on the sandy bar at the entrance that has earned the name the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Sailors since Gray and Vancouver’s visits in the 1790s have known the bar to be a sailor’s nightmare. One million cubic feet of water pour out of the Columbia River entrance per second, draining an area larger than the nation of France. Weather can turn ugly in minutes, fog can obscure hazards, and the depth changes constantly due to shifting sand on the bottom.

Astoria museum

It’s no joke; bar of the Columbia has historically been a dangerous place

In Astoria, guests found Kenne Williams and Arika Gloud, two of our heritage guides, portraying two disgruntled Columbia River bar pilots, protesting for safer conditions. They passed around a petition, held up signs about unsafe working conditions, and tried to go on strike. I gently reminded these “pilots” that since the early 1900s efforts had been made to make the bar safer; jetties on the north and south side of the river, built in the nineteen-teens, Coast Guard rescue ships, lightships and navigational markers, and dredging of the channel, making a guaranteed depth of 48 feet. After some head scratching, they agreed that maybe the bar wasn’t as bad as it used to be…and they should get back to work.

Heritage guides

Arika Gloud and Kenne Williams, heritage guides, as Columbia River Bar Pilots on strike

It has been an exciting thing to see history come alive here on the rivers, and to see entertainment and education occur in the same breath. Cities like Astoria, vistas like Wallula gap, and museums like the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center have come together to form a story about the Columbia and Snake Rivers; a story about a highway of trade.

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