Nine Places to Explore Maritime History on the Oregon Coast
By Erin J. Bernard
Published: 10/15/2015  Updated: 08/17/2019

In cities and towns all along the Oregon Coast, nautical museums are packed to the gunwales with maritime artifacts, historical journals and an architectural character all their own.

Plumb the depths of Oregon's storied maritime past at these coastal museums, where a rich regional heritage is on grand display. You'll encounter interactive exhibits, curated photographs and documents and artifacts of bygone nautical eras, all housed within a collection of historic buildings that are themselves monuments to yesteryear. These nine historical repositories are the perfect ports of entry for exploring the nautical history that is the enduring pride of Oregon's port towns.

Columbia River Maritime Museum
Hunkered at the edge of its namesake waterway, this nationally accredited gem is designated Oregon's official state maritime museum. In addition to 30,000 objects, it holds a venerable 10,000-volume research library and 20,000 historical photographs showcasing the region's celebrated maritime past. Step right aboard the Lightship Columbia, a floating lighthouse, or admire U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat and the famous Pilot Boat Peacock as you relive Astoria's glory days as a bustling commercial center. To gaze upon a cautionary tale of nautical adventure gone awry, plan a visit to the Peter Iredale Shipwreck, just 10 miles away, in Fort Stevens State Park. Coordinates: 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria (503) 325-2323

Garibaldi Museum
Within the walls of this re-purposed home, you'll find a unique homage to 18th century nautical history, brought to vivid life through the lens of a single man's adventures. Captain Robert Gray was a merchant-explorer who discovered the Columbia River in the course of trading voyages around the Pacific Coast. Relive his story as you admire models of the Lady Washington and Columbia Rediviva, the sturdy vessels he used to explore the region. Then, step outside and look up: you'll set sights on nearby Captain Robert Gray Mountain, framed by a fine view of the Tillamook Bay, a hub of commercial maritime activity to this day — Gray would be pleased! Coordinates: 112 Garibaldi Avenue, Garibaldi (503) 322-8411

Pacific Maritime & Heritage Center
Housed within a restored historic Bayfront building, this museum puts Oregon's Central Coast maritime history on full (and fully interactive) display. Rotating art and history exhibits pay homage to the region's colorful past, while a hands-on history area teaches kids about knot tying, ship navigation and modern fishing techniques. The experience is enhanced by the museum's stunning views of Newport's storied waterfront, where the wharf continues to bustle with commerce. Coordinates: 333 SE Bay Blvd, Newport Historic Bayfront (541) 265-7509

Yaquina Head Interpretive Center
This scenic stop-off chronicles the history of the humans connected to this famous headland and its beloved beacon, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Examine the wheelhouse of a historic ship, or gaze upon a full-sized replica of the lighthouse lantern as you ponder how maritime movers and shakers have influenced Yaquina Head over passing time. It's a grand tale, full of intrigue and adventure. Coordinates: Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, 750 NW Lighthouse Drive, Newport (541) 574-3100

Yaquina Bay Lighthouse Museum
History doesn't get any more hands-on than this! This museum, housed within a lighthouse keeper's quarters, pays loving tribute to its namesake sentinel. (The quarters are said to be the oldest standing structure in Newport.) Learn how lighthouse services along the Oregon coast have kept seafarers safe for generations and admire the 161-foot high beacon, which still shines brightly to this day, thanks to the patronage of a band of local lighthouse lovers. Coordinates: Yaquina Bay State Park, 740 SE Government Street, Newport (541) 265-5679

Charleston Marine Life Center
This brand new museum, located on the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology's campus at Charleston's harbor, focuses on marine life, but nautical enthusiasts will also find plenty to admire. The center offers a wealth of information about the vessels, people, gear and animals of the area's fishing industry while paying respectful tribute to a longer history: curators worked directly with local Native American tribes to develop artifacts displaying how marine resources were used before commercial maritime activity arrived. Coordinates: 63466 Boat Basin Rd, Charleston (541) 888-2581

Coos History Museum
Another new addition to Coos Bay, this waterfront museum proudly preserves the identity and heritage of Oregon's South Coast, 15 stories at a time. Step into the museum's maritime collection and prepare to be surprised: the exhibit hall offers an ever-rotating set of displays recounting the adventures of the pioneering people who plied the region's waterways over passing time. Comb through artifacts, photos and documents to learn the stories of the Coos River men and Coos Bay bar pilots who made this town a maritime seat. Coordinates: 1210 N. Front Street, Coos Bay (541) 756-6320

Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum
The naval buffs among your traveling crew will take a special interest in this maritime museum, housed within an active U.S. Coast Guard Station and located just 100 yards away from Oregon's first lighthouse. (Bring good shoes: you can still climb to the top of it!) Sift through hundreds of preserved reports, diaries, photos and artifacts as you revisit the history of the lighthouse and its environs, learn about the building's previous incarnation as a lifesaving station and admire historical displays of early Coast Guard memorabilia. Coordinates: 1020 Lighthouse Road, Winchester Bay (541) 271-4631

Port Orford Lifeboat Station & Museum
Located in a former U.S. Coast Guard barracks in Port Orford Heads State Park, this museum pays tribute to the Coast Guard surfmen who lived and worked here from the 1930s-1960s, ever at the ready to come to the rescue of ships in distress. Outside sits a restored 36-foot self-righting motor lifeboat used for many of these daring rescues. Inside, you can read about Japanese submarine attacks off the south Oregon coast and then have an authentic G.I. "dog tag" made on a vintage machine. Coordinates: 92331 Coast Guard Hill Road, Port Orford (541) 332-0521
Nine Places to Explore Maritime History on the Oregon Coast