In 1962, native Astorian Rolf Klep had a vision of a museum that would not only tell the story of Astoria’s rich seafaring heritage but also of the Columbia River’s maritime history. Fifty years later, the museum is going stronger than ever, and those who remember the early days say that was the museum’s goal from the outset.

Half a century after it opened, hundreds celebrated the museum’s role in educating and entertaining hundreds of thousands of visitors at a free open house, held 50 years and a day after the museum was originally incorporated.

Roughly 700 guests filtered through the museum Saturday during its 50th anniversary bash. Local and statewide dignitaries were on hand at the museum, which has grown from a fledgling repository of knickknacks to the state’s official maritime museum with around 100,000 visitors a year.

Astoria City Councilor Peter Roscoe was a teenager when his dad, retired U.S. Navy officer David Roscoe, teamed with Klep, a collector of maritime artifacts, to help put the original iteration of the museum together. As work on the museum progressed – money identified and logistics finalized – talk of it went straight over Peter Roscoe’s head, he said.

But then, as a teenager, he first walked into the museum, and he saw an old ship-to-shore radio. It left an indelible impression on him, and he still remembers it – how it looked and made him feel. There was a tangible quality to the history it represented.

“It’s like love,” Roscoe said. “You look at someone and you’re in love. You look at someone else, and you’re not.”

That radio made him fall in love with maritime history.

The museum was always intended to be a world-class facility, Roscoe said. In the 1960s, Astoria was still dependent on river-based industries. The museum developed as tourism expanded. And today, the museum is one of the defining characteristics of the city.

“It’s had a big impact,” Roscoe said. “Imagine Astoria without the museum – how uninteresting it would be.”

Dignitaries on hand Saturday included state Sen. Betsy Johnson, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt and U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Bruce Jones, commander of Sector Columbia River. They spoke of the economic and educational benefits of the museum and the Columbia River, which every year carries around 42 million tons of goods worth $32 billion.

“This Maritime Museum serves an important role in educating all of its visitors about a rich and exciting history and a critical part of our state and our country,” Bonamici said. “As education dollars are being cut, it’s even more important for this type of learning environment to be available, not only to children, but to everyone in our community.”

Building the museum didn’t happen overnight. But Klep’s vision for building the museum remains a template for future growth, Wyatt said. That vision called for spending money prudently. Klep’s philosophy, Wyatt said, was a simple one: raise a dollar, spend a dollar.

Museum shows off

The daylong event was a way for the museum to show off its latest exhibit, “Envisioning the World, First Printed Maps 1472–1700.” Running through September, the exhibit features rarely seen map prints dating as far back as the 15th century.

The earliest maps in the collection precede Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. They show an understanding of the world that’s still in flux, said Jeff Smith, curator. Most of the maps, Smith said, are reproductions of even earlier maps, though they’re also several hundred years old.

The earliest maps are in black and white and were printed during the formative days of the Gutenberg Press, when movable type from the printing press was separately transplanted onto the woodcut-pressed map images.

Later maps are in color and use copperplate printing. The maps show the evolution in printing quality and also in the understanding of the world, as continents shift and morph into their actual shapes and the maps begin to look more modern.

By the 1700s, the entire world is delineated in the maps, Smith said, in colorful, artistic representations. Using eye-popping colors, and telling stories around the maps’ margins, they remain nearly as vivid today as when they were first printed.

“In many cases, these were just pages in an atlas or book, just lying around,” Smith said. “They never saw the light of day. And paper is an incredibly durable substance.”

The exhibit garnered a large audience over the weekend as a result of the anniversary and some sunny weather.

Saturday’s anniversary happened to coincide with one of the nicest days of the year so far for the North Coast. The weather brought hundreds of visitors to the area, many of whom were happily surprised to learn that their trips fell on the same day as the anniversary.

Portland resident Tony Hui stumbled across the museum’s anniversary by accident. He was taking some friends, recent Chinese immigrants, to the Oregon Coast for the first time when he entered to museum’s doors and discovered everything was free. Roaming the museum’s new exhibit, he remarked that it was “fantastic.”

“We’ve learned a lot, actually,” he said. “You could spend a whole day here.”

It was also the first time to the museum for Ron Slivkoff, a Vancouver, Wash., resident. A longtime visitor to Astoria, he’d only seen the museum from the outside because he never wanted to spend the money to go inside. After hearing that the museum was going to have a free day, he decided to make the trek to check it out.

Peering at a topographical map showing the entire expanse of the Columbia River, Slivkoff remarked on how much bigger the museum was than what he expected.

“Of course, I did spend 20 bucks getting here,” he said. The money, he added, was worth it for a day of activities.

Making the jump

No celebration of the museum would be complete without a demonstration of the technical skills of the U.S. Coast Guard, which regularly partners with the museum. In the early afternoon, as the daylong event wound down, the Coast Guard performed a search and rescue demonstration in the Columbia River off of the 17th Street pier.

Two guardsmen representing a couple of distressed, capsized boaters floundered in the water, as a helicopter approached from the east, swung back around and then hovered overhead.

Rippling the water from hovering about 20 feet above the river, the helicopter came to a stop directly over the thrashing of the capsized boaters.

A jumper with a basket plunged from the helicopter into the river to grab the stranded guardsmen. But one of the rescued guardsmen, once pulled from the river, fell back into the water and had to swim through the treacherous river to reach a line leading down from the helicopter, so he could be hoisted back up.

From the pier, Tina Verhulst watched as her husband, Senior Chief Petty Officer Brett Verhulst, was plucked from the river. Seated with son Tyler, Verhulst waved excitedly at her husband as he was pulled back onto the helicopter.

“What better gift can you have than to see your husband get thrown out of a helicopter?” Verhulst said, chuckling.

She said the demonstration was only her husband’s second time performing the training exercise and the first in front of an audience.

From her vantage point, he did an excellent job acting as the dummy, especially given his own misgivings about falling into the river and staying there for several minutes. “For one thing,” she said, “he’s afraid of heights.”

Building toward the future

The Columbia River Maritime Museum has a bright future moving forward, said Roger Qualman, chairman of the museum’s board.

Starting this summer, the museum will begin renovation work on its latest development, transforming the Astoria train depot into the home of legacy river businesses. There, the museum will manufacture copper nails for wooden boats, becoming the only manufacturer in North America to do so. It will also be home to classroom space for education and demonstrations for boat builders

“The idea of bringing in a boat builders school is very exciting,” Qualman said.

Without the community’s support, the museum wouldn’t be where it is today, said Deputy Executive Director David Pearson.

So far, the museum has raised a little more than half of the necessary $2.5 million for the three-phased train depot project. Receiving money for the project will be nearly the last step in a four-year process to make it a reality.

Once that’s done, Pearson said, “we’ll go from there.”

       

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