U.S. Coast Guard opens National Motor Lifeboat School at Ilwaco in 1980.

  • By William S. Hanable
  • Posted 12/12/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5626
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In 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard opens its National Motor Lifeboat School at Ilwaco. This builds on a history of wreck and rescue at the mouth of the Columbia River, often dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific.

Early Wreck and Early Rescue

Antecedents of United States Coast Guard rescue operations at the mouth of the Columbia River date from 1841. When the U.S. Navy’s Exploring Expedition departed the river in October, it left behind a launch from one of its ships, the wrecked USS Peacock. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), commanding officer of the expedition, hoped that local residents would use the small boat to save the crews of ships that foundered offshore.

The fate of the Peacock’s launch is unknown. In 1865, however, local resident Joe Munson began a volunteer rescue program that lasted until 1882. He started with a metal lifeboat salvaged from the March 1865 wreck of the sailing bark Industry. Astoria citizens raised money to equip the boat. The U.S. Army provided free moorage for the boat below its Cape Disappointment artillery emplacements, installed in 1863 during the Civil War. The likely moorage was a cove on the southwest side of Baker’s Bay, an inlet sheltered by the upriver side of the cape. Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821), visiting the area in 1792, had named the bay for James Baker, captain of the Jenny, a British fur-trading vessel he found anchored there.

At the Graveyard of the Pacific

More government support for the Baker’s Bay rescue efforts came in 1877. Using a Congressional appropriation made for the purpose in 1874, the recently established U.S. Life-Saving Service built and equipped a facility there that the volunteers could use. This was one of the first life-saving stations authorized for the Pacific Coast.

As the Life-Saving Service grew, it could better equip the Baker’s Bay station. In 1882, the station’s first full-time, paid Life-Saving Service crew took its oath of office. Frequent shipwrecks where the Columbia River meets the sea -- the area called "The Graveyard of the Pacific," assured continuing official interest in the facility. In 1907, it became one of 17 stations nationwide to receive the service’s first motor-powered lifeboats. When the service replaced these 34-foot craft with improved 36-foot boats in 1909, Cape Disappointment Life-Saving Station was the first to receive one of them. An early United States Coast Pilot advised mariners that the station was "Furnished with lifeboats, mortars, and all other equipment for affording assistance in cases of shipwreck" (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey).

The Cape Disappointment station continued in operation after the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service merged in 1915 to form the United States Coast Guard. In the 1960s, the Coast Guard’s Thirteenth District, which includes Oregon and Washington, began to replace its long-service 36-foot motor lifeboats with new steel-hulled 44-footers. With the transition came a decreasing level of expertise in the lifeboat crews. To remedy the situation, the district began to use the waters off Cape Disappointment to train crews. National recognition came quickly. In 1980, the United States Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School began training Coast Guardsmen from all over the country.

A Lifeboat School

"With the river current colliding with strong tides at the mouth of the river often causing 10 to 20-foot breaking waves and wind/sea state extremes such as Beaufort Force 10 [storm-level 10-minute averaged winds of 24 to 28 mph] across the wide river mouth ... the location proved ideal for the lifeboat school" ("U.S. Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School"). Originally equipped with five 44-foot Motor Lifeboats, in the late 1990s the school help to develop and test a new 47-foot boat and by 2003 operated a fleet of five of the longer craft.

As the school developed, the co-located Coast Guard’s Station Cape Disappointment rescue operation continued. In the twenty-first century, it has two missions. The first is for search and rescue within 50 nautical miles of the Columbia River entrance. The second is to provide a maritime law enforcement presence near the approaches to the Columbia River.

To carry out its mission, Station Cape Disappointment has 50 crewmembers assigned and operates one 52-foot and two 47-foot motor lifeboats. It also has a 23-foot utility boat. The boats respond to between 300 and 400 calls for assistance every year, serving both commercial and recreational vessels, continuing the work begun in 1865.


Robert F. Bennett, Sand Pounders: An Interpretation of the History of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, based on its Annual Reports for the Years 1870 through 1914, ed. by P.J. Capelotti (Washington, D.C.: United States Coast Guard, Historian’s Office, 1998); The Coast Defense Study Group, "Fort Canby," The Coast Defense Study Group Website accessed December 10, 2003 (www.cdsg.org); Sam McKinney, Reach of Tide, Ring of History: A Columbia River Voyage (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1985); U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, United States Coast Pilot: California, Oregon, and Washington (Washington, D.C.: United States GPO, 1903); U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, "Chronology of Early Lifesaving," U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association Website accessed December 2, 2003 (www.uslife-savingservice.org); United States Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Group/Air Station Astoria, "Station Cape Disappointment," Coast Guard Website accessed December 10, 2003 (www.uscg.mil/d13/dpa/background/units/ group_astoria.htm); United States Coast Guard, Headquarters, "National Motor Lifeboat School," Coast Guard Website accessed December 2, 2003 (www.uscg.mil/hq/g-/nmlbs/background.htm); Wilkes, Charles, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, Vols. 1-5 Microfiche 20926-29 (Chicago: Library of American Civilization, [1845] 1970).

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