In the annals of lightship history, not many lightships can lay claim to the fame of being hauled overland, unless of course you’re talking about the interesting life of Columbia River Lightship LV 50.
Basically, lightships were floating lighthouses and stationed in an area where it was either too expensive to build a lighthouse or impossible to build a lighthouse. Lightship duty was dangerous, because once on station at its assigned location, a lightship was not allowed to leave its position, regardless of the weather or sea conditions. Crewmen of lightships considered it the most dangerous duty in the Lighthouse Service, and as did those who followed in the U.S. Coast Guard.
This dangerous duty was fully realized by the crew of the Columbia River Lightship LV 50 on the night of November 28, 1899. Weather reporting, especially as we know it today, was almost nonexistent in those days. Sure there were signs that sailors could use to possibly predict a storm, but the crewman of the lightship had almost no way to fight the nearly 75-mph gale force wind that ripped the anchor chain from the vessel and tossed and pulled the ship about as if it were a fishing bobber in hurricane. The Columbia River Lightship LV 50 did not have any kind of engine for propulsion, but it was rigged for sails in the event of an emergency like this.
The Columbia River Lightship LV 50 was no small vessel. It was a massive 120-foot long steel framed vessel with Puget Sound pine and sheathed on its exterior with heavy white oak. The vessel had two masts that were used as a day-mark during the day and housed three oil lamps as its aid to navigation at night. Plus there was the heavy additional weight of the two coal-fueled boilers that were used to produce steam for its 12-inch fog horn.
The lightship was massive and innovative for its time. Constructed in 1892 by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco, California as the first lightship on the Pacific Coast, it had been launched with much fanfare before it would be anchored roughly five miles west of the mouth of the Columbia River.
But the lightship crew, under the command of Captain Joseph H. Harriman, was unable to handle the wind and the waves that stormy night. They rigged the ship’s sails, and for a while they were able to hold the ship in position to prevent her from sinking, crashing, or grounding. But it was all no avail. The tug boats Wallula and Escort, as well as the Lighthouse Tender Manzanita, came to assist the lightship. When several attempts were made to tow the vessel, which all proved unsuccessful, the lightship became stranded on McKenzie Beach, about five miles east of Washington State’s Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.
Crews from the Point Adams Lifesaving Station, the Cape Disappointment Life Saving Station, and soldiers from nearby Fort Canby came to assist in getting the lightship crew rescued from the ship. The crew was rescued by stringing a breeches buoy from the lightship to land. Only one crewman, Anton Enberg, was injured. But he was not injured during the rescue. He suffered a couple of broken ribs when the lightship had been tossed about during the storm.
For the next 16 months the LV 50 sat stranded. Numerous attempts were made to refloat the large vessel, but they all failed.
Finally the Lighthouse Service decided to hire the house-moving firm of Allen & Roberts Co. of Portland, Oregon to move the lightship across land to Bakers Bay on the Columbia River and then relaunch the vessel. The bay was calmer there, and they wouldn’t have to fight with the breakers’ wave action as they did at its current stranded location. Andrew Allen and J.H. Roberts, who owned the house-moving company, must have been quite excited by the possibilities of the project. They also knew a successful move such as this would gain their firm an immense amount of publicity.
A cradle was built to hold the lightship, which was then hauled up on roadway made of railroad ties, and then successfully hauled up a hill and through a small forest to Bakers Bay where the lightship was relaunched. The moving crew of 40 men took ten weeks to complete the move. The Lighthouse Service paid the house moving company of Roberts and Allen the sum of $17,500 for the success of the project. At the time, it was stated that this was the longest ship move by land in Pacific Coast history.
The Columbia River Lightship LV 50 saw active duty for another eight years until it was retired from duty in 1909. It had served for only 17 years. On April 17, 1915 it was sold at a public auction for the sum of $1,667.99 to be used as a freighter in Alaska.
Editor’s Note: Nautical antiques dealer Jim Claflin has the original rare album of 35 original 6” x 7½” photographs by photographer J.F. Ford that chronicles the move in unprecedented detail. The album was put together by Allen & Roberts and presented to Captain Joseph H. Harriman of Columbia River Lightship LV 50 on July 18, 1901. The cover inscribed “Presented to Captain Jos. H. Harriman, Capt. of U.S. Light Ship No. 50 July 18, 1901.” This exceptional original item is being sold for $2,995. If you are interested contact: Kenrick A. Claflin & Son, 1227 Pleasant Street Worcester, MA. 01602 or call Jim Claflin at (508) 792-6627.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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