Invited to tour its Coast Guard facility, I went to Astoria, Oregon, two days ago and found it virtually unchanged. One of the downsides of travel is going to a much-loved destination and finding places like the Urban Cafe gone forever. Both Astoria and Urban continue to thrive.
Often called “Little San Francisco” because of its natural bay side setting, Astoria once meant deserted canneries, vacancy signs, out-of-business businesses, and untended houses. But the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition a few years ago resulted in a $90 million investment that sparked a Renaissance.
The Corps of Discovery wintered at Fort Clatsop, a mere five miles from present day Astoria. The Fort Clatsop National Memorial and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center across the Astoria-Megler, Astoria’s “Bridge to the World,” are 2 major reasons to come here.
At 4.2 miles, the A-M is the longest three-span truss bridge in the world and an engineering beauty that withstands 150 mile per hour winds and a nine-miles-per-hour river. At its highest, it soars 200 feet above the Columbia.
Astoria’s riverfront has now had two major rebirths. A 1922 fire destroyed most of its disreputable downtown where wooden streets were built out over the bay. The Post Office and Courthouse survived because they were on solid ground.
Astoria’s working class roots meant ethnic and class conflict. Anti-Chinese organizations sprang up, Klan members tormented Catholics and outsiders, and early Socialists, Bolsheviks, and Communists found voice. Rowdy bars gave Astoria the sobriquet “wettest town in the west.” A sin or salvation tussle went on for years before blue-collar fishing, cannery, and timber jobs waned and Astoria practically went out-of-business.
The great Columbia River Maritime Museum was part of its revival. One of my favorite displays here, Graveyard of the Pacific, shows the location of lost vessels. Another, Crossing the Bar, explains why so many ships founder. At its mouth, the 1,243-mile-long Columbia collides with often fog shrouded ocean swells atop underwater sand bars that constantly change. Specially trained bar pilots must guide ships through the resulting 17 mile danger zone even though 5 to 6 million cubic yards of deposit are removed each year. These brave pilots defy gravity by literally jumping from ship to ship with swells surge below them.
There are fifty-five properties on the National Register in Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. It was founded in 1811, a mere five years after Lewis and Clark vacated, when John Jacob Astor’s fur company arrived and established a fort.
Old Astoria is best represented by Flavel House, the Hotel Elliott, and the Liberty Theater. Flavel House was built by Astoria’s first millionaire, Captain George Flavel, who was one of the first Bar Pilots. The recently renovated Hotel Elliott, a 32 room boutique beauty with “wonderful beds”, is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation and in the middle of Astoria’s historic district. The almost ninety-year-old Liberty Theater has been transformed into a performing arts center and vibrant community resource.
Most visitors come for Fort Clatsop, the area’s premier attraction, but they often overlook an equally interesting and accessible historic landmark, Fort Stevens, the only enclosed Civil War earthen fort on the West Coast. It was manned by troops beginning in 1864.
During WWII, a Japanese submarine lobbed nine high velocity shells onto the Oregon Coast. They fell near Fort Stevens on June 21, 1942, the first attack on a primary military objective in the continental United States. Unlike 9-11, there were no casualties and no damage. This is just one of the fascinating bits of information learned at the Fort Stevens Military Museum that displays memorabilia from the Civil War to WWII.
Another notable landmark is the concrete Astoria Column, site of the first cable television broadcast in the United States. Railroad tycoons and descendants of John Jacob Astor contributed to the project that resulted in its construction. A monolith inspired by Trajan’s Column in Rome, its 164 steps wind up to an impossibly beautiful view of ocean, bay, mountain, and town. The Column is decorated with a frieze that shows Northwest historical scenes.
Astoria is one of the truly great time-warp town’s of the American Northwest.