There are dozens of things to see and do on the Lewis and Clark Trail Highway in southwest Washington (see here and here for just a few examples), but surely one of the most unique lies just outside a tiny berg called Knappton on the bank of the Columbia River. If you head west from Knappton Cove you might spot a rusty barge parked in a shallow bay called Hungry Harbor. There is something else very interesting about this harbor that caused me to stop and snap a few pictures, thinking I’d look it up on the internet when I got home. What I learned was yet another stunning bit of our history that found its final resting place along the Columbia.
The rusty barge is interesting enough, tied up to the shoreline and in all likelihood unusable. It makes for a great photo opportunity with the Columbia River in the background. But look around closely and you’ll see the hull of another wrecked ship half buried in the muck just a few hundred yards away. You can’t really get to it without violating the “KEEP OUT” and “NO TRESSPASSING” signs spray painted on particleboard, so getting a quality photo is difficult. But what you’re looking at is actually what remains of what was, in its time, the world’s largest hydrofoil: the USS Plainview…also known as the ship that flies.
Built by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle in 1964, the Plainview was named for the cities of Plainview, New York, and Plainview, Texas. She was also the United States Navy’s first hydrofoil research ship Remember when you could watch the hydrofoils cruising up and down Puget Sound and the Columbia River? Yeah, neither do I. The theory was sound: surface area and friction reduces a boat’s speed in the water, so eliminating those would make a faster boat. But for some reason the technology never really took off (so to speak).
According to Wikipedia, Plainview carried out long range experimental programs to evaluate the design principles of hydrofoils and to develop and evaluate tactics and doctrine for hydrofoils, particularly in anti-submarine warfare, and helped to determine the feasibility of hydrofoil operations in high seas. By 1978, she had evidently served her purpose and was decommissioned by the U.S. Navy and sold for scrap to a Tacoma company. After they’d stripped her of everything useable, she “ended up” abandoned in Hungry Harbor on the Columbia (I put that in quotes because former U.S. Navy warships aren’t just accidentally forgotten. Somebody made the decision to scuttle her there).
You can read more of the story on Wikipedia’s page or on a number of other pages dedicated to keeping the memory of the hydrofoil era alive. Perhaps the most intriguing thing I found while researching the ship is this YouTube video of the Plainview in full operation. The amazing footage shows the (then brand new) Space Needle in the background as the Plainview motors out into Elliott Bay and takes off, flying low and heavy over the water like a majestic pelican. Then, you see pictures of the Plainview being scavenged using the very same rusty barge we saw earlier.
As the son of two Navy veterans (and an Army veteran myself), I’d like to salute the Plainview for her service to America, and hope that someday – like the Kalakala – she can be laid to rest the right way.