History of the USS Blueback in Portland, OR

A submarine rests half out of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

The USS Blueback half-submerged in the Willamette River. | Photo by Robert Gaskin

There’s a submarine floating half-submerged in the Willamette River. Just let that sink in. It’s not anything to be worried about; in fact, you can venture inside of it and find out just how cramped life was for its former crew of 85 sailors.

The 219-ft-long vessel is named the USS Blueback (SS-581) and is the only surviving Barbel-class submarine in the world. She was commissioned in 1959 and served in the US Navy until 1990 when she was decommissioned and later donated to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Southeast Portland.

⚙️ Inner workings

Inside the USS Blueback’s teardrop-shaped steel hull is a combination of World War II-era diesel-electric motor technology, making her the last non-nuclear powered submarine to join the Navy.

In her heyday, the warship could cruise up to 19,000 miles on 112,000 gallons of fuel, down to depths of about 700 ft. — all while sporting a single propeller. The vessel’s shape (which was innovative at the time) made it nearly as nimble in the water as airplanes of a similar size above the surface.

⚡ Fast facts

  • She’s a movie star: The USS Blueback appeared in the 1990 film “The Hunt for Red October,” and in an episode of “Hawaii Five-O.”
  • 5,340 miles. That’s how far the USS Blueback once traveled from Yokosuka, Japan, to San Diego — the longest submerged voyage by a diesel-electric submarine.
  • The USS Blueback is one of 500+ Portland places listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • May 15, 1994 was when the submarine first opened to the public at OMSI.

📍 Visit the USS Blueback

Want to peer through a submarine periscope, touch a torpedo + stare at the many inner controls that remind us of an Imperial Star Destroyer? You can take a 45-minute tour of the submarine from 10:10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. every day, or learn about the vessel’s more technical workings on a submarine veteran-led tour held on the second and fourth Sundays of each month.

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