Walt Sets Sail: Disneyland’s Sailing Ship Columbia

Posted on Wed, 03/06/2024 - 14:41

An oft-repeated story from the 1950s involved Walt Disney and Disneyland executive Dick Nunis. One day at the park, the pair stood along the Rivers of America with a view of the water traffic. The large steamer Mark Twain paddled its way around the bend as smaller craft zig-zagged about including canoes, keel boats, and the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island. Nunis expected Walt to make a comment about how busy the river was, perhaps even a little too busy. Instead, the boss remarked how what they needed was another large vessel! That new vessel would be the Sailing Ship Columbia, which debuted at the park in June of 1958. 

The same year that the Columbia replica was unveiled at Disneyland, the Boston Globe ran a short column discussing the vessel’s history (the original voyages were a Boston venture, after all). “[The Columbia River] and the present site of Astoria [Oregon] were discovered by Boston merchants,” wrote journalist Ted Ashby. “The river was named for one of their ships.” Those merchants “had a plan to take trading goods to the Pacific Northwest, swap for furs, sell the furs in China, load there with tea and return to Boston.”

Admiral Fowler would further explain that the Columbia Rediviva (as was her full name, the Latin for “revived”) “was the first American sailing ship to go around the world. She made a trip around [Cape] Horn and up the coast and incidentally discovered the Columbia River. It then set sail for China with a load and completed the voyage around the world. That was exactly what Walt had in mind.”

The voyages of the Columbia and its sister ship the Lady Washington between 1787 and 1792 were “the nation’s first great mercantile adventure,” as historian John Scofield would phrase it. The Pacific Ocean was unknown territory for American sailors, and the venture “established a world-girdling trade that brought a heady scent of prosperity to depression-wracked New England, provided a badly needed source of pride for the freshly independent colonies, and changed the Pacific from a Spanish lake to a happy hunting ground for Yankee mariners and their merchant backers.” (It should also be noted that the Columbia’s venture to the Pacific coast of North America included sometimes violent conflict with Native Americans in the region.)

When the Columbia first left Boston in 1787, the new federal Constitution had yet to be formally ratified by the young nation. And when it returned from its second major voyage in 1792, George Washington had become the first president of the United States. The Columbia became famous as “the first vessel to carry the Stars and Stripes around the world.” (Interestingly, this phrase, which is still used on the Disneyland attraction today, appears in a 1941 publication of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was likely the Disney team’s source.) The discovery of the Columbia River in particular gave an important objective for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s overland expedition some 15 years later as the famous expedition followed the river west to the Pacific.

“[…] we designed and built the Columbia, and she is an exact replica of the original ship in all respects,” Admiral Fowler said. Rebuilt in full-scale, the vessel was different from most of its Disneyland counterparts, including the steamer Mark Twain, which were scaled down. The three-masted windjammer, as a result, towered over the west side of the park, nearly as tall as Sleeping Beauty Castle. Supervised in part by architect and sailor Raymond E. Wallace, the Columbia was constructed at Todd Shipyards near Los Angeles. Flat-bottomed, the ship followed the same underwater track as the Mark Twain, propelled by a quiet engine belowdecks (one of the masts was used as an exhaust funnel). At the time, the press claimed it was the first vessel of its kind built in over a century.

“[…] there wasn't anything [Walt] didn't know,” Admiral Fowler recounted. “His knowledge was the most amazing thing of any man I have ever known. I'll tell you one thing. You never tried to bluff Walt, whether it was a scientific subject or an engineering subject. If you didn't know…at least I told him I didn't know because his knowledge on some of the industries or naval architecture (when I was designing and building the Columbia, for example) was amazing. When I was stepping the mast, I was about to tell Walt that in the old days they would put a coin under the mast for good luck to the ship. And I'd already procured a silver dollar, and Walt said, ‘Have you got the coin to put under the mast?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Why yes, Walt, I have.’ He said, ‘Fine. We want this to be a lucky ship.’ I hadn't told him. He knew.”

For its dedication, Disneyland welcomed U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Alfred Richmond, who according to historian Jim Korkis, “presented a Bible to the Columbia's acting skipper (Fowler was attired in an authentic dress), in accordance with  maritime tradition. And the Admiral's wife, Gretchen Richmond, christened the Columbia with a bottle of champagne as Walt looked on proudly.”

The Columbia was the last major addition to the vessels circling the Rivers of America (a belowdecks walkthrough of the ship was also incorporated in 1964). It wasn’t, however, the last replica of an eighteenth-century sailing ship with a Disney connection. In 1989, a group in Aberdeen, Washington created a full-scale, sea-worthy replica of the Columbia’s sister ship, the Lady Washington. Mostly catering to tourists, the Washington has also appeared in movies, including Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

2023 marked the 65th anniversary of the Columbia. Still circling the Rivers of America today, the ship is a reminder of Walt’s original vision for Disneyland as not only an entertainment-filled theme park, but also a living history museum that encouraged guests to be curious about the past and engage with it directly. “It is here that we experience the story of our country’s past,” Walt’s original dedication of Frontierland explained. With its eighteenth-century lineage, the Columbia is the oldest element of that rich legacy to explore in the original magic kingdom. 

Lucas Seastrom

–Lucas Seastrom

Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, filmmaker, and contracting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum.




Image sources (listed in order of appearance):

  • Aronsen, Bjørn; Sailing Ship Columbia attraction poster, 1958; Collections of Walt Disney Imagineering and the Walt Disney Family Foundation, gift of Ron and Diane Miller; © Disney
  • Sailing Ship Columbia postcard; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation; © Disney