Astoria museum's library preserves maritime gems

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - Jeff Smith fields calls in the Columbia River Maritime Museum library all the time _ from all over the globe. So he wasn't particularly surprised when the gentleman called from Thailand looking for some information.

What floored the library curator was when a second call came a week later from the East Coast seeking the very same information.

And no, the two did not know each other. But they did know if you're looking for resources on the Pacific Northwest's maritime history, there are few places better to find your answers.

Here, researchers will find Captain James Cook's Journals from his three voyages around the world, John Meares' journal of his voyage to the northwest in 1788 and 1789 and an original ship log from the fur trade era in the 1770s. That's along with thousands of other documents and 30,000 historic photos.

"It's definitely one of the finest research libraries on the West Coast," said David Pearson, museum deputy director. "Over the years, I've given tours and there seems to be a sense of awe. To a person they are always genuinely impressed by the scope of the collection."

While it's a grand 51 years old, the Ted M. Natt Research Library at the museum remains one of the best kept secrets on the Oregon Coast. Even visitors to the museum frequently have no clue the resource lies just around the corner.

"There are people living here in town who don't realize the library is there," said Smith, library curator. "It's not on the letterhead, not on the sign on the door. Unless you are looking for it, you are not going to know it is here. What it comes down to is if we put out the welcome mat and put out the neon sign, we are concerned we will be inundated with requests and we wouldn't be able to meet them."

But when those requests come, meet them they do.

Such as the two gentlemen separated by thousands of miles, but bonded by a singular question.

It was about four years ago when Hak Hakason found the library on the Internet and sent in his request. Hakason wanted to know if any Russian ships had crossed the Columbia River bar in the winter of 1941. If so, he was curious if they had encountered the Japanese Fleet en route to bomb Pearl Harbor.

As a matter of fact, as registered on page eight of the December 1941 Columbia River Bar Pilot ledger, there had been two such ships: the Uritskey and the Klara Zitkin. A week later, when Martin Bollinger, author of "Stalin's Slave Ships," called with the same query, Smith was ready _ albeit a bit nonplussed.

"I thought this is really bizarre," recalled Smith. "I've got two people separated by 12,000 miles, asking the same question."

He asked if the two knew each other, then made the introductions.

"With all that information compiled it gave them an accurate record of the vessels' location on its route from Kamchatka Peninsula to the Columbia River," Smith said. "Knowing the speed, their course, they could chart it across the ocean and know each was or wasn't anywhere near where the Japanese convoy was. It was a fascinating bit of detective work."

Albeit not necessarily conclusive. The two men came up with different answers and "agreed to disagree," Smith said.

In addition to the Columbia River Bar Pilot logs dating back to 1918, the library also houses original copies of Lloyd's Register of London _ the official record of commercial ships _ dating to 1889 and replicas as far back as 1764. There's the set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica from the crew room on the USS Oregon, a periodical collection that includes hundreds of issues of Motor Boating since 1913, and 3,189 photos from the Columbia River Packers Association, which eventually became Bumblebee.

"The company at the time hired a photographer to capture the day-to-day activities in the early 1940s," Pearson said. "He just captured the people. They trusted him. It documents an era. He photographed for about three or four years."

The photos were donated about 20 years ago, and the library just finished scanning and indexing them onto the computer where they can be searched by name, location, type of fish and other parameters.

The library is open only one day a week _ Tuesdays _ and visits are by appointment only. The rest of the time, the staff is dedicated to cataloging and indexing the vast collection that had gone un-cataloged until the 1990s.

"The material is here, the methods of finding it are not necessarily in place," Smith said. "We're working on making it more available. It's an ongoing process. In the last 10 years we've made great strides in making aspects of our collection accessible to researchers."

And while it may not be accessible to a large number of visitors, those who have accessed the collection count themselves as fortunate.

Anne Doremus traveled from Idaho to help Bollinger conduct research for his book and another project. She ranks it among the best.

"It's a luxury of another age, that beautiful library," said Doremus, now of Boston. "I called and made an appointment and let them know what I was after. When I arrived it was a virtual red carpet. Many of the resources were already pooled and that made my job that much easier.

"I also did research at the National Archives in San Bruno, Calif., and it was on par with that facility. It's a gem of a resource on the Oregon Coast. I hope it is there for many, many years to come."


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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