Fort Canby Life Saving Station is founded at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1877.

  • By Virginia Story
  • Posted 9/09/2006
  • Essay 7899
See Additional Media

In 1877, the U.S. Revenue Marine Cutter Service (forerunner of U.S. Coast Guard) founds the Fort Canby Life Saving Station to monitor and service the treacherous river bar where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean, a place known as the Pacific Graveyard for the numerous vessels that have foundered there. The Fort Canby Life Saving Station is the oldest search-and-rescue station in the U.S. Coast Guard's 13th District (the Pacific Northwest).

The mouth of the Columbia, where the Great River flows into the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. It is the graveyard of many ships caught in the perilous conditions of weather and surf that frequent the area. In 1877, in response to the need for search and rescue, the United States government established the Fort Canby Lifesaving Station at Cape Disappointment.

At first volunteers staffed the station. Volunteers, though, were none too eager to face the storms and hazardous conditions to effect a rescue. In 1882 Captain Al Harris swore in his first full-time crew of eight men. The crew lived in two poorly ventilated attic rooms that had such low ceilings that the men could not stand erect. This first crew didn't last long, but Harris soon hired a second and the service has been continuous ever since.

The rescue began with a lookout. The lookout watched the ocean through a spyglass and had a small cannon for signaling. When he saw signs of distress on a ship (ensign upside down, flag in the rigging, heavy smoke), he reported to the captain. The Captain rang an alarm bell and the crew ran to the boathouse. They launched the boat (a Jersey skiff or a McClellan surfboat until about 1912, a 36-foot lifeboat thereafter) and proceeded with the rescue.

Tourists enjoyed watching the crew practice its life-saving drills. The tourists watched the surfboat going through maneuvers, a lifeline being fired with a brass cannon, and a breeches buoy rigged atop the replica of a ship's mast.

In 1915 two predecessor agencies, the Life Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Marine Cutter Service, merged to form the United States Coast Guard. The present Cape Disappointment site was built in 1967 and is currently the site for Station Cape Disappointment and the National Motor Lifeboat School. It is the largest Coast Guard search-and-rescue station on the Northwest Coast, with (in 2006) 50 crewmembers. Commonly known as Station Cape "D," the crew responds to 300 to 400 calls for assistance every year. Summer recreational boaters crossing the Columbia River bar in search of salmon and other fish keep them especially busy between early June to mid-September.


Lucile McDonald, Coast Country: A History of Southwest Washington (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishes, 1966), p. 121-128; "Station Cape Disappointment," U.S. Coastguard/Airstation Astoria website accessed August 14, 2006 (; Lyn Topinka, "Cape Disappointment, Washington," The Columbia River: A Photographic Journey website accessed August 14, 2006, (; "Shipwrecks at the Mouth of the Columbia" Columbia River Maritime Museum website accessed September 9, 2006 (

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You